There's no good record of precisely which peoples first came to live in the Columbia River Gorge. Most archaeological evidence along the river dates no further than the end of the latest Ice Age, but the ice age concluded with dramatic floods that would have swept away any earlier traces. Tantalizing glimpses of early habitation — an ancient hearth, for instance — were discovered during construction of The Dalles Dam, and farther upstream near the mouth of the John Day River, buried under gravel deposits laid down by those floods. The last glacial flood came through about 12,800 years ago, so the buried hearth proves people have been here at least that long. But just who they were, how they came to be here and what became of them is lost to prehistory.
Much better documented are the people who later witnessed the arrival of the Lewis & Clark expedition. These comprised many different cultures, speaking different languages (indeed, the native languages of North America are greater in number and more diverse than the languages of any other continent). Between Celilo Falls upriver to Priest Rapids, there was a collection of peoples, not a single tribe so much as myriad autonomous groups, speaking the Sahaptin language. Their descendants now live on the Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs reservations.
Downriver from Celilo were the Wasco-Wishrams, who spoke a Chinookan language. Each language had its subdivisions. Upper Chinook, for instance, is a series of separate languages and dialects ranging from the Oregon and Washington coasts to the middle Columbia River Gorge. There was a Cascades dialect separate from the Wasco-Wishrams, and subtle differences even between those two groupings.
All these peoples shared the river in common, primarily because of the tremendous natural resource it provided in the annual salmon runs. The salmon were — and are — more than a food source; they're a link between mankind and creator, symbol of an ancient lifestyle maintained always close to the earth.
The Era of Exploration
The Lewis & Clark expedition, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, firmly established a United States claim to the Pacific Northwest over its British rivals; the "Corps of Discovery" arrived at the Columbia Gorge in October 1805, overwintered at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, then retraced their steps the following spring. They encamped both years at the site of modern-day The Dalles.
Two other important explorations into the Northwest were conducted by David Thompson in 1807-11, and by David Stuart in 1812. George B. McClellan surveyed a potential railroad route in 1853.
By the 1840s, the fur trade was in serious decline, and the economic engine that drove the region's development turned to permanent settlement and land claims. Preceded by missionaries and military officers, a trickle of immigrants began to arrive in the early 1840s. This expanded dramatically in 1843, with 900 immigrants reaching the end of the overland Oregon Trail at The Dalles, followed by 1,100 in 1844 and 1,765 in 1845.
Early Days in White Salmon
White Salmon itself was first settled in 1852 by Erastus Joslyn and his wife. White Salmon was officially incorporated on June 3, 1907, and named after the White Salmon, a now-extinct species of salmon that lived in the Columbia and surrounding area.
White Salmon was part of the home of the Klickitat Tribe, now a part of the Yakama Confederated Nations. The Klickitat Tribe sold some land to the Joslyns. They were generally Native advocates for the time. The area was thrown open on October 31, 1858 for white settlement after the Klickitat and Yakama lost the fight for their homelands in the Yakama War. Within the same year, the region was very rapidly and heavily settled by white immigrants making land claims. The Klickitats were forced to relocate to the Yakama Reservation.
Opening the Columbia River Gorge
Industry would change, as the early fur trade was replaced by timber and wheat ranching. Salmon provided another industry, although this resource was soon depleted through overfishing and habitat loss. A similar fate overtook the timber industry, but not until the early 1990s. Highways came next, most notably the Columbia River Highway in the 1920s, with communities strung along them — towns such as Bingen, Lyle, Hood River, Stevenson, and Cascade Locks, plus many others which have long since disappeared from the map.
The rapids of the Cascades, which long hindered upriver navigation, were tamed first with completion of a lockage at Cascade Locks in 1896, and later in 1938 with completion of Bonneville Dam. The dam inundated the old rapids, and a new lock allowed ocean-going freighters to reach the upper Columbia River. A newer, bigger lock opened in 1993. Farther upstream, the Celilo lock and canal opened in 1915; from The Dalles, it led upstream around the Long Narrows rapids and Celilo Falls, replacing a portage railroad.
Celilo Falls themselves were inundated in 1957 with construction of The Dalles Dam — a victory at the time for economic progress, but one purchased at heavy cost in terms of culture and scenic beauty. The hydroelectric dams (Bonneville in 1937, The Dalles in 1957, and John Day in 1971) brought not only navigation and flood control but also a source of relatively cheap electricity, which fueled development of a new industry — aluminum smelting. Two plants were located in the Gorge: one at The Dalles and another south of Goldendale. Both are now closed.
Protection and Revitalization
Two key events came for the Columbia Gorge came in the latter half of the 20th century: development of Interstate 84 (originally known as Interstate 80-N), replacing Highway 30 in the late 1950s and allowing the large-scale movement of truck traffic; and the 1986 passage by Congress of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The act has two purposes: to protect the region's natural environment, and to encourage its local economies. Toward that end, Congress authorized a regional conference center - which would become Skamania Lodge at Stevenson, and a regional interpretive center, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum at The Dalles.
Worth a Visit
The region's long history and prehistory are displayed in museums throughout the Columbia Gorge, helping to document this amazing area from both natural and cultural perspectives. Here is a short list: