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History of Cascade Locks

The History of Cascade Locks
by Stuart of

At the heart of the Gorge is one of the oldest towns along the Columbia River. Cascade Locks is a very historic town which originated in 1853 when white settlers came to live alongside the Indian families who were already living there. Lewis and Clark described the area as “the great rapids of the Columbia.” They had arrived at the location in 1805. In their journal they wrote, “This great chute of falls is about ½ a mile with the water of this great river compressed within the space of 150 paces…great number of both large and small rocks, water passing with great velocity forming and boiling in a horrible manner, with a fall of about 20 feet” (October 30 – November 1, 1805). These rapids were very dangerous and were the reason that Indians stopped and lived here at this point along the river as it became an important fishery for them.

There is an Indian legend which tells of the "Great Spirit" building a bridge made of stone which spanned the width of the Columbia River. The Great Spirit offered this bridge as a gift to the people. Scientists, however, say that about 1000 years ago a ground movement called the Bonneville Landslide caused the sides of two mountains on the Washington side to cave off and fall into the Columbia River, effectively blocking it. The natural dam was 270 feet high (the Bonneville Dam is 80 feet high) and caused a great inland sea. Natural erosion eventually washed out the dam and the inland sea rushed out. This erosion of the natural dam gave rise to a natural land bridge across the Columbia River which the Indians called the “Bridge of the Gods” which they based their legend on.

The rapids were so vicious that even experienced Indian canoers would carry their belongings around this part of the river. Some early settlers to Oregon lost their lives as they attempted to use rafts to “run the rapids.” Lewis and Clark’s Discovery Corps portaged around the rapids instead of risking life and limb.

The rapids were referred to by Captain John Freemont as the “great cascades” in 1843. Later, the area became known as “the mountains at the cascades” and later as the Cascade Mountains. This is how the entire mountain range got it's name.

At the time that Lewis and Clark passed through the area, Indians were living along the river and fished for salmon. It is estimated that Indians had lived and traded in this area along the Columbia River for 11,000 years. The river was the only means of transportation used and the rapids forced people to stop in this area.

It wasn’t until the 1850’s and 1860’s that a rail was built to assist travelers to portage around the rapids. The rail was part of a transportation monopoly owned by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. This company controlled all steamboats along the river as well as the portages at the Cascades and between The Dalles and Celilo Falls. In 1864, the first steam locomotive called the little Oregon Pony was brought in and is on display at the city’s historical museum at Marine Park. The little Oregon Pony was the first steam engine operated west of the Mississippi River.

In order to provide “open-river” navigation on the Columbia River between Portland and eastern Oregon and Washington, Congress authorized a project to build a canal and locks at the rapids in 1878. The town grew as a result of this decision. In 1880, the community had about 100 permanent residents and 350 transient construction workers.

The Corps of Engineers began work on the project in 1880 but with difficult working conditions, erratic funding, and changing engineering plans, the project was not completed until 1896. It was during this year that the canal and locks were opened and sternwheeler river boats could safely travel back and forth between the Pacific Ocean and The Dalles. The canal measured 90 feet in width and 3,000 feet in length. There were two locks with one being 521 feet long and the other 314 feet long. The total cost of the project was $3.8 million. Although the rapids are gone, the locks are still preserved at Marine Park and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The town got its name from these locks. Prior to this, the community was known as “Whiskey Flats” as it was known for its taverns which catered to sailors and travelers on the sternwheeler boats.

In 1926, the Bridge of the Gods as it exists today was built and in 1938 the Bonneville Dam was built which drowned out the original navigation locks. The influx of workers to the community during this period created the impetus to incorporate the town in 1935.

As time passed, roads and more modern forms of transportation displaced the sternwheelers and although those romantic days are past, visitors can still enjoy a taste of the era by taking a ride on a replica of the famous “Bailey Gatzert” sternwheeler. It is known as the Sternwheeler “Columbia Gorge.” Many streets in Cascade Locks are also named after sternwheeler boats that used to stop at The Locks.

"For the Tourist"

Restaurants in Cascade Locks - List of all the tasty eats you can find including river view dining!

Lodging - List of all the best places to stay while your in town!

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler - The crown jewel of the area is a "must do" activity while you're in town! There are no words to describe the breath taking views of the Cascade Mountains from the River. The boat also serves up some really good food on their dinner cruises!

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