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FreightWaves Classics: Cascade Locks and Canal helped navigation and commerce on Columbia River

Background

The Bonneville Landslide was a massive ground movement that occurred around 1200 AD. It  was so big that it briefly blocked the Columbia River. The river’s water volume pushed through the blockage, but the uneroded portions of the landslide created a four-mile stretch of rapids in the river that are known as the Cascades of the Columbia. 

The Oregon Territory was established in 1848. It encompassed all of the current states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana and what is now British Columbia. The area became more settled as people moved into the area on both sides of the Columbia River, which today serves as the boundary between the states of Washington and Oregon. The Columbia is a major river and has been used for transportation and commerce by the Native Americans in the area and the settlers who came after them. However, those using the river had to portage around the Cascade Rapids, which are located about 45 miles east of the city of Portland. 

The Oregon Territory, which encompassed parts of what are now five states and the Province of British Columbia. (Image: Bill of Rights Institute)
The Oregon Territory, which encompassed parts of what are now five states and the Province of British Columbia. (Image: Bill of Rights Institute)

Steamboats began traveling on the Columbia River in 1858. However, as they went upriver, they had to stop before they reached the rapids and transfer passengers and freight to railroads to complete the remainder of each journey. What became a transportation monopoly was owned by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (OSN). OSN controlled the portages at the Cascades and between the towns of The Dalles and Celilo Falls, as well as all steamboats on the river.

Oregon became a state in early 1859; Washington became a state in late 1889. The populations of both states had grown and continued to grow. It became more important to have efficient and uninterrupted transportation on the Columbia River. Portland was becoming a key city in the area and transportation was needed for the agricultural products being grown and the mineral deposits being mined along the river and in its basin.  

Construction of the Cascade Locks and Canal in 1895.
(Photo: Oregonhistoryproject.org)
Construction of the Cascade Locks and Canal in 1895.
(Photo: oregonhistoryproject.org)

In 1876 Congress authorized a project to build a canal and locks at the Cascade Rapids. Congress sought to support “open-river” navigation on the Columbia River between Portland and the agricultural lands of eastern Oregon and Washington. In 1878 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to work on the project; however, difficult working conditions, engineering plans that changed over time, and sporadic Congressional appropriations delayed the project. The canal and locks did not open until November 1896. In fact, the project opened 125 years ago today – November 5, 1896. 

When it was completed, the canal was 90 feet wide and 3,000 feet long. Its two locks were 314 feet long and 521 feet long. The locks lifted watercraft 42 feet and cost $3.8 million to construct.

A boon for commerce

When the locks and canal were completed there was a great deal of enthusiasm across the northwestern U.S., as well as outside the region. “One of the Most Stupendous Works in the World,” proclaimed the headline of a San Francisco Examiner article about the project.

Roughly 3,000 people were present for the Cascade Locks and Canal dedication. Elected officials included: Oregon Governor William Lord; Washington Governor John McGraw; U.S. Senators John H. Mitchell and George W. McBride of Oregon; and Portland Mayor Sylvester Pennoyer.

The front page of the Morning Oregonian. 
(Image: oregonhistoryproject.org)
The front page of the Morning Oregonian.
(Image: oregonhistoryproject.org)

The San Francisco Examiner article about the event stated, “The locks at the Cascades of the Columbia were thrown open to commerce this afternoon by appropriate ceremonies, participated in by prominent men of Oregon and Washington. At 2:30 the regular river steamers were put through the locks amid the cheers of the assembled crowds, everything working smoothly in every particular.” The wooden sternwheel steamboat Sarah Dixon led the  steamboat procession.

The scenic beauty of the Columbia River Gorge has attracted admirers for decades. During Portland’s Lewis and Clark Exposition in the summer of 1905, steamboats passed through the locks 1,417 times, carrying more than 133,000 passengers.

The Bridge of the Gods, which spans the Columbia River and connects the states of Washington and Oregon. 
(Photo: portofcascadelocks.org)
The Bridge of the Gods, which spans the Columbia River and connects the states of Washington and Oregon.
(Photo: portofcascadelocks.org)

During much of the 20th century, the town of Cascade Locks did well because of its location adjacent to the Columbia River Highway and the Cascade Locks and Canal. The steel cantilever Bridge of the Gods crosses the Columbia River at Cascade Locks, connecting Oregon and Washington. 

As planned, the Cascade Locks and Canal facilitated water traffic and commerce. The project also was the first of several key improvements to Columbia River navigation. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks to the crowd at the dedication of Bonneville Dam on September 25, 1937. 
(Photo: The Oregonian/oregonlive.com)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks to the crowd at the dedication of Bonneville Dam on September 25, 1937.
(Photo: The Oregonian/oregonlive.com)

The Bonneville Dam and Lock

During President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office, the Public Works Administration began work on the Bonneville Dam in 1934. Working in non-stop eight-hour shifts, 3,000 laborers who had been unemployed because of the Great Depression were paid 50 cents per hour to work on the dam and to raise local roads for its reservoir.

A new lock and a powerhouse were built on the Oregon side of Bradford Island, and a spillway was constructed on the Washington side. Cofferdams were built to block half of the river and to clear a construction site where the foundation could be reached. These projects were finished in 1937.

The Cascade Locks and Canal remained in operation until being rendered obsolete due to the opening of the Bonneville Dam.

The Bonneville Dam on April 2, 1938. (Photo: oregonencyclopedia.org)
The Bonneville Dam on April 2, 1938. (Photo: oregonencyclopedia.org)

The new Bonneville Reservoir (also known as Lake Bonneville) that formed behind the dam submerged the Cascades of the Columbia and the old lock structure. The first navigation lock at Bonneville was opened in 1938; at the time it was the highest single-lift lock in the world, with a vertical lift of 60 feet. The dam began to produce hydroelectricity in 1937, and commercial electricity began to be transferred from the dam in 1938.

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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