No understanding of the Pacific Northwest region would be complete without an appreciation of the incredible impact the Columbia River has had on local culture. In North America, the only river that discharges more water is the Mississippi; in the western hemisphere, no river exceeds the Columbia’s discharge into the Pacific Ocean. The drainage area for the Columbia extends as far east as the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide and Yellowstone National Park, as far north as central British Columbia, and as far south as northern Nevada.
Any formation this large will have an extensive human history attached to it. No place epitomizes this history more than historical Celilo Falls near The Dalles. Once the sixth-largest waterfall in the world by volume, Celilo Falls was once the longest continuously inhabited site in North America. For more than 15,000 years the settlements and trading posts surrounding the falls benefited from the massive quantities of salmon that charged up the river to spawn. In 1957 the falls were submerged after the downstream construction of The Dalles Dam, effectively ending the area’s rich history of inhabitation.
European settlement of the Columbia River began as early as 1679, when Spaniards who were most likely castaways began trading with the Clatsop natives. Throughout the 18th century numerous trading companies struggled to find a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1775, Bruno de Heceta (think Heceta Head) documented the first European sighting of the river. Later, the British fur trader Captain John Meares (think Cape Meares) was unable to find this mouth and named Cape Disappointment in his frustration. Little did he realize that the cape marks the northern point of the river’s mouth. In 1804 Lewis and Clark led the Corp of Discovery under Thomas Jefferson’s charge to search for the same passage that early fur traders had hoped to find. They reached the Pacific via the Columbia River in 1805 and eventually returned news to the president that no such passage exists. Five years later, John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company established the region’s first European settlement at Fort Astoria.
The fertile soil, mild climate, and massive timbers along the Columbia’s third largest tributary, the Willamette River, later attracted European and American settlers in droves. More than any other single event, this mass migration would change the fate of the natives who had lived in the Pacific Northwest, not to mention the regional ecosystem.
In 1934, two projects began that were each funded through the Public Works Administration and which became part of the New Deal. The construction of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams would forever change the nature of the massive and wild river. The smaller Bonneville Dam was completed first, and in 1937 it officially became the first dam on the Columbia River. Because of its relatively steep grade, averaging 2.16 feet per mile, and its high water volume, the Columbia has long been a site for dam construction. Today, more than 400 dams sit on the Columbia and its tributaries. These dams have been constructed for flood control, irrigation, and hydroelectric power production. Together, the dams produce more hydroelectric power than any other river system on the continent.
Cheaper electricity and the shifting economic needs of World War II brought about a new era of industrialism to the region. Aluminum manufacturing, which requires enormous amounts of electricity for fusion, found a new home; as recently as 2000, the Columbia River produced 40% of the nation’s aluminum, a trend that nourished such companies as Boeing in Seattle.* Today, the widely available hydroelectric power is harnessed for new technologies and data centers such as Google’s facility in The Dalles, Microsoft’s facility in Quincy, and Facebook’s facility in Prineville.
*Seattle’s growth has always outpaced that of Portland, and two reasons indirectly pertain to the river that has given its power to each city. First, though both Seattle and Portland are port towns, Portland’s commerce has always been affected by the Columbia River Bar, the shoals that develop at the mouth of the river. These formations, along with high winds and tricky river and ocean currents combine to create serious hazards for vessels small and large. Seattle, in contrast, enjoys the predictable comfort of Puget Sound. Second, though both Seattle and Portland benefited from Columbia River hydroelectricity, Oregon’s stagnant social policies hobbled any industrial growth right out of the gate. Incredibly, African Americans could not legally reside in Oregon until the 1927 repeal of pre-Civil War laws. Seattle’s more progressive (or profit minded) policies allowed not only for a black working class, but a larger total working class, making the city an obvious preference for the developing aluminum industry.