The Senior Highlights
newsletter of the Mid Columbia Community Action Council, Inc., The Dalles, OR.
Part 1 from the September 1990 issue
Part 2 from the October 1990 issue

By Winifred Flippin


(Editor's Note: This very interesting article, the result of considerable research, written by Winifred Flippin of Lyle, Washington, appeared in KLICKITAT HERITAGE, Volume 12, October, 1986. We greatly appreciate the permission of the Klickitat County Historical Society to reprint this story from the KLICKITAT HERITAGE, the society's annual publications. Part I follows, with Part II to follow in our ensuing issue).

     It was an ambitious era when the ingenuity of man marked the transition of the Columbia River from sail barges and clumsy, wooden sternwheelers. These two modes of transportation of freight and passengers very easily became obsolete because one depended upon the wind for power and the other, made of wood, could not withstand the battering of the rocks in the river. The rapids and falls were serious obstacles that hampered navigation. In spite of this, the Columbia River was the easiest access to the interior of the Pacific Northwest.
     Progress in navigation on the Columbia River was made by building portages around the falls. Over the years man was able to finance, construct and improve on these portage facilities.

The Indian World At Celilo

     At the Celilo Falls, Indian trails fanned out over the mountains to the horizons like scores of threads from the center of a spider's web. It was trades center the like of which no white man could imagine. Here to be traded or used as gambling stakes were dried huckleberries from the wooded slopes of Mt. Adams, rootfoods dug with sharp sticks, tule mats for home construction, and horses from the Nez Perce and Cayuse who roamed the areas east of the Cascades. It is estimated that as high as 5,000 Indians might have gathered at Celilo Falls at one time.
     This was the Indian world of Celilo, a world where NASAU, the salmon, was king. It was a wonderful world of plenty where the roar of the mighty Columbia was loud. There was feasting and games without end. For decades, from a precarious position on rocky cliffs, the Indians would reach out as far over the rushing waters as gravity would permit, to bring in their feast of fish. To secure the fish, a large bag-like net with an open mouth, approximately thirty inches across, was attached to a hoop of maple wood, or some other wood that could be heated over a campfire and bent to the desired form. A handle fifteen to twenty feet long was attached.
     The arrival of the first salmon in the spring was a matter of ceremonial ritual. The first one caught was laid on the rocks at the edge of the river. The head was always pointed upstream.

Indian Boy Saved In Fishnet

     No one knows how many of the Indian fishermen were swept over the falls as they fished day after day. In about 1956 a young Indian boy evidently had not tied a rope around his waist, as was customary protection from falling into the turbulent waters that swirled and boiled below the Indian platforms where salmon were dip-netted in the early spring and into the summer. The boy lost his footing and fell into the misty spray above the rushing waters of Celilo Falls. The roar of the falls drowned out any call for help. Luckily, however, on several platforms below the accident, Indian fisherman, oblivious to the mishap, were busy dipping for the precious salmon.
     Instead of getting a salmon, one fisherman dipped the young Indian lad into the net and with the assistance of other fishermen brought him up to the platform, safe and unharmed. The clutches of the falls had given up their prey in this one, glorious act of luck. Dip-netters continued to swing their nets, hour after hour, throughout the day and on into the night. NASAU, the salmon, became a way of life the Indian.
     The fisherman who scooped the boy into his net was Archie Bushman, a Umatilla Indian. The boy was Danny Sampson, an 8-year old Yakima Indian. Danny had stumbled into the swift water 78 feet upstream and was instantly swept over the 15 foot drop where he disappeared into the foaming rapids. Seconds later Danny, who had held his breath, was swept into the net and hauled out, soaked and scratched, but alive.

Early Portage Facilities

     The need for the portage facility around this section of the Columbia River, known as Celilo Falls, was imperative to speed the movement of men and supplies from the middle river to the upper river. An early suggestion that a portage road be constructed was turned down because of the bankrupt treasury. A portage road would have reduced the freight rates which are excessively high due to the monopoly.
     The first wagon road east from Fort Dalles, around the long narrows and Celilo Falls, to the navigable water above, followed the Columbia River to Three Mile Creek, up that creek to Five Mile House, then up a draw and across a divide, Up Ten Mile Hill, and down to the Columbia River below the mouth of the Deschutes River.
     Upon investigation, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company found a narrow cleft in the rock cliffs along the river bank which had perpendicular walls less than 58 feet apart and near enough to the river to permit loaded wagons to be lowered down with a rope. A twelve-mule team could be used to pull the empty wagons up again. This had not been an Indian trail. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company began landing lumber for the construction of three steamboats, the WEBFOOT and the NEZ PERCE in 1863 and the YAKIMA in 1864. (WEBFOOT dismantled 1871; NEZ PERCE dismantled 1874. YAKIMA wrecked 1876). This was the beginning effort to convey freight around the falls that, in the past, had stopped all boats from upstream navigation.
     Portage improvements came in the form of a railroad. It was built in 1862 and operated until 1882. The fourteen miles of track was operated by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. The railroad bed was on a more level course than the old, dusty, wagon road. This permitted the railroad to operate year-round, except during extremely adverse weather or when the river was frozen over. This was the earliest railroad venture in Wasco County.
     The east terminal of the portage railroad was at Celilo. A large wharf, 35 by 100 feet, was built on piling. The railroad tracks were on the south side of the dock and the steamers landed on the north side. Most of the cargo was going upriver to the miners of eastern Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
     The Oregon Steam Navigation Company sent its manager at The Dalles, Captain Lawrence Coe, to New York to procure iron rails and other materials for the portage railroad. In New York, Captain Coe purchased the bark W.A. BANKS, loaded her with materials and two locomotives and sent her around Cape Horn to Portland. The portage railroad became the first unit in the present Union Pacific Railroad system east of Portland.

Early-Day Description Of Celilo Area

     The fifteen miles of portage passed through awe-inspiring river scenery in a series of rapids, falls and swirling currents that cascaded through the narrow channels as the Columbia River raced to the Pacific Ocean. Starting in British Columbia, the Columbia River passed through Washington and Oregon and finally cut through the Cascade Mountain range before mingling its waters with the Pacific currents.
     In 1870 L.J.G. Runkle traveled to the west and wrote up AND DOWN THE COLUMBIA. The book was illustrated with wood engravings by U. Swain Gifford and was edited by Wm. Cullen Bryant. In this writing Celilo Falls were called Salmon Falls. The travelers marveled at the sight of the Indian fishing there. This was an attractive 1870 report, using rich and descriptive words of the adventurer - a style of writing that was popular and impressive in that day. Runkle wrote, "The Dalles was the second town in Oregon. The Idaho miners made it their base of supplies. The gold came down here for shipment and this 'babe in the woods' even dreamed of a mint."
     When this overly enthusiastic traveler came to Celilo Falls he wrote, "Here are the famous Salmon Falls up which the salmon go to the quiet reaches of the river to spawn, shooting the rapids with incredible agility. If you can keep your footing on the slippery ledges of rocks, you watch them, fascinated. Up they come through the fierce and sucking rapids, gleaming white against the black, wet stones that are tearing the water; first come a few together; then a multitude swirl along; then the whole river from one side is light with their innumerable host.
     "They swim swift and stately to the very foot, where you lose them in the the seething, white, swirlingpool. Something flashes in the air, elastic, strong, light. Something glides up the stream above the falls. The daring, determined, wonderful thing has made that leap, defied rock and torrent, and found the safe shelter in the quiet pool beyond."

Competition At The Portage

     Competition on the river was impossible as the company controlling the portage would not transport goods over its road for steamboats other than its own. In 1824 Dr. John McLoughlin, as chief factor of the Hudson Bay Company, had trouble with the Indians at Celilo Falls. Their control of the portage practically prohibited other Indians from traveling between Celilo and the lower cascades. They acted as traders, purchasing commodities from the Indians above and below Celilo Falls. This kept the trading wholly in their own hands. Until 1883 transportation companies had exercised substantially the same control as did the Indians in an earlier day. This slowed the use of the river for navigation and it also helped maintain high freight rates. It would be very difficult to count the full and total cost to commerce created by these controls of the portage.

Building Of The Dalles-Celilo Canal

     The improvement of this portion of the river had been under consideration for four decades. Actual construction was not commenced until October, 1905. Work progressed as rapidly as appropriations from the government would permit. The first work was done under contract and at a very favorable figure. Thereafter, beginning in July, 1919, the work was done by hired labor. At one time the largest number of men hired was 1,599. The estimated cost of the canal was $4,845,000 and was finished for $1000,000 less than the estimated cost.
     The canal was drilled out of solid rock for half of its length. The remainder was lined with concrete where it cut through the sand dunes and gravel. Eight steam shovels, 22 locomotives, 209 cars, five concrete mixers and 50 miles of construction track were used in building the canal. A force of 25 men was needed to operate the project and the locks therein. Eight passing basins were built within the waterway to allow boast to pass going in opposite directions. A speed of six miles per hour was enforced through the canal. A drop of 81 feet in the river was overcome with the construction of the waterway and locks.

Part II

(Editor's Note: This very interesting article, the result of considerable research, written by Winifred Flippin of Lyle, Washington, appeared in KLICKITAT HERITAGE, Volume 12; October, 1986. We greatly appreciate the permission of the Klickitat County Historical Society to reprint this story for the KLICKITAT HERITAGE, the society's annual publication. Part II follows, Part I having appeared in the preceding issue).

The Celebration Of The Opening Of The Celilo Canal

     The shackles of trade restraint were beginning to be burdensome when the hopes and dreams of over forty years of effort were realized by the building and opening up The Dalles-Celilo canal on May 5, 1915. At the celebration of the opening of the canal, representatives came from Spokane, Lewiston - Idaho's seaport, the Twin Cities of Pasco and Kennewick, and from throughout the Inland Empire. From The Dalles, Portland, Astoria by the sea, and from cities and farms in every section drained by the mighty Columbia River, this throng gathered to commemorate the event. The people of The Dalles (the 1920 senses gives the figure of 5,800 people residing in The Dalles. So five years earlier there would have been less than that number to share their homes with the influx of visitors) anticipated from the 7,000 to 10,000 visitors might arrive, and the Accommodation Committee asked the citizens to open their homes to possibly 2,000 people. In Pendleton, Oregon, alone, 3,800 tickets were sold and the Georgiana steamship transported a load of several hundred to the festival.
     The reception committee had to be increased to 25 persons to help handle the activities. A chartered steamship from White Salmon could not handle all who wanted to travel upriver so a special train on the North Bank railroad was hired to bring the overflow. The Reception Committee had a drum and fife corps met a train load of people from Pasco, Washington. The BAILEY GATZERT brought nearly two hundred people from Portland. A huge, three-gallon bottle of water, dipped from the Pacific Ocean and brought by Mayor Fred Johnson of Astoria, was poured into the waters of the canal as part of the celebration.
     The honor of first steamer to pass through the canal was given to the J.N. TEAL. At the first passing basin she met the INLAND EMPIRE. When those on board realized the honor and importance of the occasion there was much screaming, yelling, and steamboat-whistle blowing until the uproar echoed from one rocky butte to the other. Because a wild wind was blowing at the upper end of the canal, the J.N. TEAL was held until 4:00 the next morning. It was not a consoling thought to those on board as the ship entered the main river, for the falls where just a few feet downriver from them. As they headed into the main stream the excitement quieted to an almost total silence until the vessel had gained good headway in the river.
     At Columbus (Maryhill), thanks to the efforts of Sam Hill, a very good road led to the river over which the citizens of Goldendale traveled to participate in The Dalles-Celilo Canal opening celebrations. In other areas people came by rough and dusty roads to the waterfront. Autos and wagons lined up at the wharf when the celebration fleet arrived. Some of the people on board from Portland where whisked over the general grade to the top of the 1,500 foothills to see the Goldendale Valley -- almost as big as one of the smaller eastern states. The valley they looked out upon was rich in fields of wheat and alfalfa and dotted with homes. Beyond where the forested foothills of Mt. Adams.
     The Goldendale participants had a banner across the supper deck of the steamer Joseph Kellogg which read "GOLDENDALE OFF THE RIVER - BUT ON THE MAP." The sternwheelers Undine had evergreens tied on the rails of the boat which is an old Scandinavian custom to decorate ships on such special occasions.
     During the downriver trip the Joseph Kellogg was caught in the turbulent waters at Hell's Gate, near the mouth of the Deschutes River, on the north side of Miller Island. The river there was extremely deep and water boiled in the narrow channel and put such pressure on the hull of the steamship that it tipped the steamer at such an angle that the piano in the recreation room rolled across the deck but did not penetrate the wall. The hull was weakened and as soon as possible the passengers were taken off and went by Portage Railroad back to The Dalles.
     As the J.N. Teal proceeded up river from Columbus people watched and cheered from the river banks. Just beyond Wallula the boat turned into the Snake River and headed for Lewiston, Idaho. The boat's arrival at Lewiston was marked with volley after volley from a cannon; whistles blue and everyone cheered until near exhaustion. It was a memorial excursion marking the opening of the river to free navigation from Astoria to Lewiston, Idaho.

The Long Narrows - Five Miles Above The Dalles

     Below Celilo falls was a geological wonder. Here the river had sliced a channel through the Columbia basalt which permitted the river to literally turn on edge. From a quiet stream, half a mile wide, the river was suddenly compressed into a chasm measuring less than two hundred feet wide, but hundreds of feet deep. The violence of the river current at this point was awe-inspiring.
     In his book, THE COLUMBIA RIVER, William D. Lyman gave the following description of this geological wonder: "In 1888 Captain Troup in command of the D.S. BAKER descended The Dalles long narrows. At that strange point in the river, the whole vast volume is compressed into a channel but one hundred and sixty feet side in low water, and much deeper than wide. Like a huge mill-race, the current continues nearly straight for two miles, when it is hurled with frightful force against a massive bluff. Deflected from the bluff, it turns at a sharp angle to be split asunder by a low reef of rock. When the BAKER was drawn into the clutch of the current at the head of the 'chute'; she swept down the channel, which was almost black, with streaks of foam, to the bluff, making two miles in four minutes. There, feeling tremendous refluent waves, she went careening over and over toward the sunken reef. The skilled captain had her perfectly in hand, and precisely at the right moment, rang the signal bell, 'ahead, full speed' and ahead she went, just barely scratching hen side on the rock. If the steamer had struck the tooth-like point of reef broadside, she would have been broken in two and carried in fragments on either side. Having passed this danger point, she glided into the beautiful, calm bay below and the feat was accomplished."

The Closure Of The Dalles-Celilo Canal

     The Celilo Falls area shows habitation of man for more than 11,000 years. Travelers from far away have viewed this wonder of nature that gave the Nasau, the salmon, to the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, gave food to the early pioneers during their trek west and was an early trading center, unsurpassed, along the Columbia River.
     On October 22 and 23, 1805, the Indians help Lewis and Clark portage around the falls, and gave them "philblurts" and berries to eat. On the beach were hundreds of baskets made of grass and rushes. They were lined with dried and stretched salmon skins, and were filled with pounded, dried salmon that was packed hard. Each basket weighed from 90 to 100 pounds.
     But all of this passed into history when the massive gates of the newly constructed The Dalles Dam were closed to hold back the freshet of the mighty Columbia River. Possibly the completion of The Dalles Dam changed more local history than any other dam on the Columbia River. After the closing of the spillway gates, it took just six hours to cover the Celilo Falls eight miles upstream. The backwater from the dam had covered the great Celilo Falls and they were lost from view forever.
     "The occupation of man in one area for such a long period of time is an epic unparalleled in New World archaeology history", declared an archeologist who worked in the area. Hundreds of people had traveled many miles to watch the backwaters from the dam cover Celilo Falls. It was an historic occasion. There were few displays of hilarity. An almost ominous quiet prevailed as the lake behind the dam increased. People seemed content to watch and wait for the inevitable to happen. There were no bursts of chatter from the crowds as they watched and waited. All seem to respect that this was hallowed ground and inner thoughts were exposed by sober stares and troubled faces. Here in an earlier day as many as 5,000 Indians would gather at the trading place to feast and participate in rituals and gamble. Now it was no more, and the Indian and white man would have only memories of that way of life.

Barge On The Rocks At Celilo

     In 1940 a barge drifted onto the rocks at Celilo Falls. The tug DEFIANCE was pushing a loaded petroleum barge and an empty wheat barge upstream through Celilo Canal. Before entering the narrow canal at Big Eddy the side-by-side barges were rearranged so that the wheat barge was placed in front of the petroleum barge. As the tug and barges pushed out of the east end of the canal to go upstream, the crew prepared to tie the barges side-by-side again for the remaining trip. As was customary, the wheat barge was freed and a line was tossed to the men on board the wheat barge. They missed the line because of the swift river current. The free barge swung wide and downstream out of control.
     The barge drifted onto the rocks at the falls and hung on the brink all night. Next morning at 7 a.m., it moved downstream. With the rising of the water from a spring freshet, the barge made its way to The Dalles.
     In desperation, the two men aboard the barge had removed their shoes and leaped into the water. The ironic touch to the situation was the feeling among the people on shore that the lives of the two men would have been saved had they not leaped and tried to swim to safety. Their shoes were found on the barge when it was taken in tow again downstream.

Last Passage Through The Dalles-Celilo Canal

     Closure of The Dalles-Celilo canal by the building up The Dalles Dam was made in March, 1957, forty-one years after the opening of the original canal. The INLAND CHIEF, an Inland Navigation tug and barge, made the last trip downstream through the canal carrying a load of wheat from Umatilla. Subsequent trips of the barges and tugs on the river went through the new locks built into The Dalles Dam. Until the new locks were opened, petroleum products were pumped from below The Dalles Dam to a point above the locks in the old canal system.
     With the water level in the pool behind The Dalles Dam standing at 155 feet above sea level, the remnants of the first, old, dusty, portage road wagon road were washed away. The portage railroad trestle and track beds were obliterated. The canal, blasted from solid rock, was in some places covered by many feet of water. Some of the passageway is presently barely visible at the upper end.
     Thus the world of Celilo Falls has changed - disappeared - forever. But with all changes, there are new horizons. On March 17, 1957, when The Dalles Dam and locks on the Columbia River were opened for navigation, another step was accomplished in making the river free - free for better navigational facilities, and free for improved distribution of petroleum products, wheat, sawdust, logs and containers shipped to river cities and foreign ports.

The Navigational Locks At The Dalles Dam

     In 1957 the first barge tow and tug to push upstream into the new locks at The Dalles Dam was a group of eight barges pushed by the 4,000-horsepowered tug, WINQUATT, of the Upper Columbia River Towing Company. Six of the barges were empty wheat barges and two were loaded with petroleum. As the flotilla came to rest in the locks, the tug BANNOCK, of the same company, crowded into the locks alongside the WINQUATT. (The BANNOCK and the WINQUATT both saw duty in Vietnam and both were lost in that war. They were damaged by rocket fire and sank with a loss of many civilian lives.) All ten vessels were raised 82½ feet to the upper level of the new pool behind the power house and dam. The next tow to enter the new locks was six empty barges pushed by the tug MARY GAIL of the Tidewater-Shaver Barge Lines. It entered from upstream and was locked down.
     The old canal permitted only one tug and one barge to move at a time. The new locks handles tows of up to ten vessels. The Dalles lock is 675 feet long and 86 feet wide. It has a normal lift of 87½ feet. Thus, the size of the barge movement is larger and the time required for locking through it is greatly reduced.
     As this is written it is anticipated that the locks at Bonneville Dam are to be enlarged. When the improvement is made it will be possible for a large barge tow to move all the way from the Pacific Ocean to Lewiston, Idaho, 480 miles inland, in much less time and without having to break up the barge tow into smaller units.


Bally, Joe Jr., "The Salmon Falls in the 1870's", Spokesman-Review, Dec. 2, 1951, page 11.

Barber, Lawrence, "Further Openings of the New Horizons for Pacific Tug and Barge Commerce", Pacific Work Boat, 1957.

Churchill, Sam, "The Day Celilo Died", Washington Farmer, May 4, 1961.

Hicks, Barbara, The Dalles Chronicle, November 30, 1985.

Lyman, Wm. D., The Columbia River.

McNeal, Wm. H., History of Wasco County, Oregon, June 1953.

Mills, Randall V., Stern Wheelers Up Columbia, 1947.

Runkle, L.J.G., Up and Down the Columbia, 1872.

Teal, Joseph N., "Address of Joseph N. Teal", May 5, 1915.

©  Jeffrey L. Elmer