If the mighty Columbia could talk


"My reason for putting shore and smoking with the Natives is to make friends with them, against my return, for in descending the current of a large River, we might pass on without much attention to them, but in returning against the current, our progress will be slow and close along the shore, and consequently very much in their power."

- Columbia River explorer David Thompson, July 1811


Few rivers in the West, if not the world, have been impacted by change the way the Columbia River has in its middle and upper sections.

The construction of hydroelectric dams during the Great Depression and continuing through the early 1960s has much to do with that, altering the great river's natural flow and wiping out a way of life for Native Americans and others. But even before then - millions of years before then - the river followed a different path.River Run Free

Indeed, much is buried under its waters today - both literally and figuratively.

Science and research have left us some answers.

Repeated lava flows, which spread across Eastern Washington and Idaho between 6 and 16 million years ago, altered the course of the ancient Columbia, forcing it north and further west. At one time, the river's mouth was near present-day Coos Bay, Ore.

The next big event - actually a series of events - came in the form of cataclysmic floods that burst loose from ice dams in what is now Montana. It is believed there were 40 or more floods during the late Ice Age (13,000 to 15,000 years ago). They carved the Columbia's gorges and canyons, and in many places exposed basalt left behind by the lava flows.

The river people

It is believed indigenous people have been living in the Columbia's vast watershed for more than 15,000 years. However, their reliance on fish, in particular salmon, for their core subsistence didn't start until about 3,500 years ago.

In recent centuries, Native Americans collected fish from several major sites on the river in Eastern Washington. Two of the most prominent were located at Kettle Falls (just south of the Canadian border) and Priest Rapids (south of Vantage).

"Some river places were rarely ever seen due to their remote locations," wrote Wenatchee historian and author Bill Layman in the spring 2003 issue of Columbia Magazine. "Even before construction of the 14 dams along the main stem of the Columbia, many of its particular places remained unvisited and unknown."

In 1805, famed American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, paddling dugout canoes, reached the Columbia near the Tri-Cities after navigating the Snake River. They investigated a few miles upriver before heading down to the Pacific Ocean.

Six years later, Canadian explorer David Thompson and his party left a huge mark, traveling the 1,243-mile length of the Columbia from Canada to the Pacific Ocean in canoes made of cedar, becoming the first European-American to do so in the process. Maps that Thompson created from his 1811 trip were in use for a century afterwards. Even today, historians consider his maps accurate.

What followed in subsequent decades - gaining speed as the rest of the 19th century unfolded - was an influx of white settlers. This led to conflicts with Native Americans, most notably the Yakima Indian War of 1855. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant created the Colville Indian Reservation carved out of lands in North Central Washington along the Columbia. He ordered people from 11 tribes - including the Colville, the Nespelem, the San Poil, Lakes or Sinixt, Palus, Wenatchi, Chelan, Entiat, Methow, southern Okanogan, and the Moses Columbia - to begin residing there. Among those sent to the reservation to live in exile was the legendary Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph.

In 1882, the government established Fort Spokane, the last U.S. Army outpost in the Northwest, at the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane rivers. The government's aim was to keep Native Americans confined to the reservation and to keep them from moving to fertile lands to the southeast.

Construction of the damsConstruction

Other forms of development - railroads for one - led to towns springing up along the Columbia River's banks in Eastern Washington. Wenatchee, for instance, came into being in 1892.

The arrival of steamboats to ferry people up and down the Columbia further advanced economic development in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But the difficulty in navigating a waterway containing several dangerous rapids eventually led to calls for dams.

Rock Island Dam - located just downriver from Wenatchee - was the first of the 14 dams on the main stem Columbia to be built (1929-33). The same year Rock Island was completed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill enabling the construction of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams as public works projects. By the time it was finished in 1942, Grand Coulee would rank as one of the largest dam projects in the world. And behind it would stretch 130-mile-long Lake Roosevelt.

Grand Coulee, and the dam-building frenzy and river dredging that followed, permanently altered the river's natural flow and covered up Native American fishing sites, many of which had as much religious significance as they did a food source. Also lost with the creation of Lake Roosevelt were 11 towns, three state highways, 14 bridges, power lines and cemeteries.

Similar losses were repeated each time a new dam went up.

On the other hand, the industrial and commercial benefits - including electricity, the irrigation of 600,000 acres, and flood control - were enormous. The power generated from the Columbia's dams, in fact, helped the United States win World War II and spur post-war development.

Today, 80 years since the first dam came into being on the mighty Columbia, the impacts are still being felt, although in the role of the status quo. Electricity generated at the dams continues to be zipped to communities around the West. More than 50 crops are grown annually in the Columbia Basin, one of the most productive farming regions in the country. Waterfront parks carpet shorelines. Conservation efforts have led to better fish runs and wildlife habitat. The cities of Wenatchee, Richland, Kennewick and Pasco keep growing.

But given all the alterations the river has endured over the millenniums, one also can rightly conclude that change is not over. How could it not be?

A 1,000 years from now? One can only wonder.


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