Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Oregon
A Short History of The Columbia River Gorge

Geologic History

The Columbia River carved a sea level gorge through the mile high Cascade Mountain Range. During the Ice Age, thousand foot high floods swept through the Gorge. Layers of basalt thousands of feet thick are exposed in the Gorge, evidence of volcanic eruptions that flowed all the way from Idaho to the Pacific. In about 1450 AD, a huge landslide blocked the river channel and formed the legendary Bridge of the Gods.

Native Americans

For at least 10,000 years Native Americans lived, fished, and traded along the river. When Europeans introduced smallpox and other lethal diseases, 90 percent of the Native population died. Those that survived had their lands taken and were forced onto reservations. Their best traditional fishing sites were destroyed by dambuilding. In the 1960s they began to win back fishing rights and expand their political influence. Today, the Warm Springs tribes are attempting to re-establish their presence in the Gorge through a controversial casino in Cascade Locks.

European Immigration

Lewis and Clark found their way to the Pacific through the Gorge and first described its wonders to Euro Americans, but the British were the first to govern the region. Pioneers on the Oregon Trail risked their lives and fortunes rafting its Cascades. Settlers farmed, logged, fished, and transported goods.


Steamboats provided the first practical and safe public transportation through the Gorge. Locks were built to navigate the rapids that had stymied the pioneers. The first attempt to build a road through the Gorge came in 1872, an effort that failed within sight of its destination.

In 1882 the first railroad was completed on the Oregon side. A second line on the north bank was completed in 1908.

Visionaries built one of the world’s most beautiful highways in 1913 to 1916, a road which became obsolete in a decade. Shortsighted freeway engineers of the 1950s and 60s destroyed some of the finest elements of that Scenic Highway.


European settlers first started logging in the Gorge to build their homes and to fuel steamboats, which were the primary means of transportation until the first railroad was completed in 1882. As the regional population grew, logging for lumber expanded. Flumes carried old growth logs from the high country to sawmills at river level until the mountains were stripped bare.


Before european settlers arrived, tens of millions of salmon migrated up the Columbia each year. Settlers used fish wheels, gill nets, and horse-drawn seines to harvest millions of fish annually. Canneries sprang up to package what probably seemed like an inexhaustable resource. Overfishing caused the runs to begin a long decline by the 1920s. Today, a few rotted pilings are the only momentos of the commercial fishing industry in the Gorge.

Salmon faced other challenges. Dambuilding blocked access to spawning grounds for some runs and disrupted migration patterns for others. Logging and road construction degraded habitat. Today, natural predators taking advantage of unnatural conditions in the river are exacting a further toll on the runs. Tomorrow's challenges for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River may come from invasive species and climate change.

Credit should be given to Native Americans, fisheries biologists, conservation groups, and sportfishing organizations who are all working to save and rebuild the Columbia River salmon runs.


Bonneville Dam, built during the Great Depression, flooded the rapids and the locks at Cascade Locks. The Dalles Dam, completed in the mid-fifties, flooded the Long Narrows at The Dalles, and the magnificent Celilo Falls. Cheap power from the dams enabled the construction of huge aluminum smelters, but a growing population and the costs of salmon mitigation drove up the cost of electricity. One by one, the smelter potlines shut down as power became more expensive.

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All materials on this site are copyright 1992-2016 by Doug Gorsline /
Columbia River Gorge; Historic Photo Postcards of the Columbia Gorge
The entrance to Celilo Canal takes shape
Looking west on E 2nd Street in The Dalles, Oregon
Two fishwheels and Beacon Rock on the Columbia River
The Dedication Ceremony of Vista House at Crown Point State Park
Dedication of Vista House at Crown Point State Park in the Columbia River Gorge.
Huge Generators at the Bonneville Dam Powerhouse
Chanticleer Inn overlooking Crown Point
Native Americans fish at Celilio Falls as crowds watch
The sunken forest across from Wind Mountain
The incredible Mitchell Point tunnel on the original Columbia River Highway
Looking east on Oak Street in Hood River in about 1950
The ruins of Fort Dalles at The Dalles circa 1910
An aerial view of Crown Point and Vista House circa 1930
Multnomah Falls Lodge, with Multnomah Falls in the background
The 'Oregon Pony', first locomotive in Oregon
Multnomah Lodge, a roadhouse at Mist Falls, 1916
Multnomah Lodge at Mist Falls, 1916
The 'Oregon Pony', first locomotive in Oregon
Multnomah Falls Lodge, with Multnomah Falls in the background