Columbia River Gorge History

The Columbia River Gorge Gorge is a 90 mile stretch of canyon that passes through the Cascade Mountains. Human species have been inhabiting the Columbia Gorge area for at least 12,000 years, based on the ancient artifacts found in the area.

There wasn’t really any recorded history of the region until the arrival of Lewis and Clark to the area. They were numerous indigenous tribes living there at the time, all speaking a variety of languages and numerous different cultures.

Though, these tribes were not aligned with one another, they lived rather peacefully alongside each other. They shared the resource of the Columbia River, where they bathed and drank. Much of their diet consisted of the Chinook salmon found in the river.

However, upon the arrival of the European explorers, all that changed. The Europeans introduced the first firearms and horses to the indigenous people, trading them for food, furs, and more. Violence sprung up all over the Gorge region between the colonizers and the indigenous tribes as well as among the indigenous tribes themselves.

Worse still, the Europeans brought with them a number of foreign diseases, such as smallpox,  that the Europeans were immune to, but the indigenous people were not. These diseases ended up wiping out the vast majority of the natives.

Between this and the brutal massacres that the Europeans conducted, they ultimately gained control of the Gorge region and made their homesteads there.

When Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia Gorge in the early 1800s, about half of the original indigenous population had died.

In their stead, European trappers and fur traders controlled the area and sold their goods to citizens of the newly independent United States of America. However, the fur trade started to wane in the 1840s and the economy suffered for it.

At this point, missionaries, military officers, and other immigrants began to enter the area. Missionaries founded the first Christian churches in the area and promoted peace among the natives and the immigrants. Then Fort Dalles was founded in 1850. The fort still exists today, and houses a museum of local history.

The Industrial Revolution brought steam ships and other new technology to the area, rapidly changing the makeup of the region and creating a more urban layout. Instead of fur, the area’s economy became dependent on the production of timber and wheat.

Then highways and streets were built between larger towns, enabling the towns to grow even more.

In the early 1930s, the Bonneville Dam was built, which allowed greater mobility for travel along the river, particularly for freights. between that and the Dalles Dam built in 1957, the area was able to have flood control and electricity.

The construction of the I-84 highway in the 1950s allowed for truck freight traffic and more development in the area.

In 1986, congress declared the the Columbia Gorge to be a National Scenic Area. The purpose of this was (and is) to protect to area’s natural beauty and to promote the local economy.
All of this history and more can be found in local museums in the Columbia Gorge area.