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History of Gorge Tourism

The History of Tourism in the Columbia River Gorge
by Stuart, Historian,

A number of early travelers celebrated the scenic beauties of the Columbia River Gorge. Daniel Lee, Methodist missionary at The Dalles commencing in 1838, referred to the swirling Columbia at the Cascades as an “irregular sheet of snow-white water, beautiful, grand, sublime.” Charles Wilkes in 1841 likened the cliffs in the Gorge to “turreted castles.” By the 1870s a number of the region’s residents had discovered the Gorge as a recreation site. It offered scenery, hiking trails, superb fishing, the opportunity for hunting, campsites and, ultimately, hot springs and mineral waters. Steamboat travel in the 1850s and the construction of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company line through the Gorge in 1882 opened the area for recreational travel.

Frances Fuller Victor, historian and travel writer, spoke glowingly of the region in 1892 in Atlantis Arisen:

“We arrive now at what the tourist must ever regard as the most interesting portion of the river—the gorge of the Columbia. Mere wonder, curiosity, and admiration combine to arouse the sentiments of awe and delight in the beholder. Entering by the lower end of the gorge, we commence the passage, of fifty miles or more, directly through the solid mountain range of the Cascades. The snow-peaks, which looked so lofty at the distance of eighty miles, as we approach them gradually, sink into the mountain mass, until we lose sight of them entirely. The river narrows and the scenery grows more and more wild and magnificent.”

Victor delighted in the “fantastic forms of rock,” waterfalls, “visions of storms”, “the wonderful luxuriance of vegetation on every side”, the “grandeur of the towering mountains”, and the fare of trout and strawberries served by the O.R. & N. Company to passengers. She found the abandoned blockhouses at the Middle and Upper Cascades as reminders of the Indian war of 1855-56 and their history as almost legendary.

Between 1880 and 1910 a number of property owners developed resorts in Skamania County to cater to travelers on the river, or, after 1908, those taking the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad. Thomas Moffett and his family opened the Cascade Mineral Springs and the bottling plant near Moffett’s Landing at North Bonneville about 1881. Over the next 20 years the Moffett’s erected two hotels. Subsequent owners continued the development and added a swimming pool in the 1950s. In the vicinity of Wind River emerged another resort area which contributed to the development of Carson, Washington. Government Mineral Springs, Shiperd’s Springs, St. Martin’s Hot Springs, and Collins Hot Springs catered to both health-seekers and tourists.

The developers of the Columbia River Highway envisioned extensive tourist use of the Gorge. The scenic vistas and recreation opportunities coincided with their commitment to the “Good Roads Movement.” Samuel Lancaster, the designer of the highway, understood its potentials and observed: “Until now these beautiful things had been partially hidden, and as far as the general public is concerned they might almost as well have been on the dark continent.”

The Columbia River Highway opened the Gorge for automobile travelers and recreation seekers in 1922. The Forest Service responded to the needs of tourists and in 1915 opened the Eagle Creek Campground, the first on Department of Agriculture lands in the United States. Other public facilities included the Vista House which opened in 1918 and the Multnomah Falls Lodge which opened in 1925, the latter erected by the City of Portland. In 1920-21, Simon Benson, Henry Thiele, and other investors erected the Columbia Gorge Hotel on the cliffs west of Hood River. The facility contained 55 rooms, each with private bath, and was advertised as a “strictly tourist hotel.”

Citizens of the State of Oregon perceived the special qualities of the Columbia Gorge. Several purchased and deeded scenic lands to the state, City of Portland, and the Forest Service. Simon Benson, Camon Royal, Guy W. Talbot, George Shepperd, and Mark Mayer were among those who made such gifts and set aside unique vistas, waterfalls, hiking areas, and botanical reserves. The public interest led the Oregon legislature in 1925 to establish a system of state parks and waysides. By 1985, 21 parks and waysides on the Oregon side of the Columbia River were developed or held in their natural state by the State Parks Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Advocacy groups in the 1970s and the 1980s sought not only the protection of the unique values of the Columbia Gorge but heightened public interest in its recreational potentials. The Columbia Gorge Coalition, Friends of the Gorge, Thousand Friends of Oregon, Nature Conservancy, Mazamas, and other organizations lifted up the interests of preservation and stricter management. These groups increased awareness and, at some points, tourist use of the area. The project of the Port of Cascade Locks to construct the Columbia Sightseer and the efforts of Chambers of Commerce in other communities in the Gorge further promoted tourism.


Beckham, Stephen Dow, Rick Minor, Kathryn Anne Toepel, and Jo Reese. Prehistory and History of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon and Washington. Eugene, OR. Heritage Research Associates, Inc. 1988.