History & Culture

A wide river flows between hills and bluffs.

The Columbia River Gorge has drawn people for more than 13,000 years. The Indian People flourished along the Columbia River – making their clothing from cedar bark and animal skins; building homes where they comfortably survived cold winters; thriving on abundant runs of salmon and steelhead, as well as sturgeon, smelt, and eel speared and pulled form this tremendous river’s rapids and pools. A vital source of livelihood thousands of years ago, as it is today, their strategically located Columbia River homeland became the center for northwest trade among tribal nations. Trade goods found near Wakemap Mound included pipestone from Minnesota, turquoise from the southwest, dentalium from Vancouver Island, and copper from the far north. For thousands of years, the Columbia River Gorge has been the pathway connecting the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the continent.

French Canadian “voyageurs” ventured into the Columbia Gorge area in search of beaver following the 1804-1806 expedition of Lewis and Clark. These, and the subsequent expeditions of botanist David Douglas, ornithologist John Townsend, and others into this plentiful land of fish, fur, and timber beside the “great river of the west” stirred the nation’s interest. Then, during an 1824-36 evangelical movement, Jason Lee headed for Oregon as a missionary, followed in 1836 by the Whitmans, and the Spauldings. The immigration encouraged by the missionaries’ letters and reports caught fire in the 1840s; fanned by economic depressions and outbreaks of disease in the east, and concern over British domination of the northwest.

By 1849, 11,500 emigrants had endured the hardships of the Oregon Trail and reached The Dalles at the eastern end of the Gorge. With the coming of these white settlers, the indigenous people – ravaged by successive epidemic diseases from the mid-1700’s through the 1850’s – were displaced, for the most part, from their traditional lands; forever changing life in the Gorge. 

Because the steep-cliffed Columbia River Gorge proved impassible, The Dalles became the western terminus for Oregon Trail wagon travel. From here, the early emigrants braved the dangerous Columbia River – some losing the battle with the treacherous rapids of this wild (pre-dam) waterway. Making the situation even more difficult, boat owners charged steep transit prices and often times long waits preceded theses expensive – and risky – services.

In 1846, Samuel Barlow opened a toll road up-and-over the southern flank of Mount Hood, giving emigrants a choice – the expensive, risky run down the river, or the cheaper, but still treacherous, overland route across the backbone of the Cascade Mountain Range.

Steamboats, railroads, and highways replaced canoes and rafts, as the Columbia River Gorge remained a major transportation route through the Cascade Mountain Range. Improved transportation systems encouraged economic development.  Lumber mills, woolen mills, flour mills, fruit canneries, fish wheels, and fish canneries dotted the landscape. Today, the river still carries grain, livestock, lumber, fruit, and vegetables grown and processed in the Columbia Basin; and remains the pulsing artery between the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the continent.