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

Fund

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

The Oregon Territory was created in 1848. It included all of the present-day states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana and present-day British Columbia. The area became more populated as people settled in the area on both sides of the Columbia River, which today serves as the border between the states of Washington and Oregon. The Columbia is a major river and was used for transportation and trade by the Native Americans of the region and the settlers who followed them. However, those using the river had to portage around the Cascade Rapids, located about 45 miles east of the city of Portland.

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

Steamboats began traveling the Columbia River in 1858. However, as they traveled up the river, they had to stop before reaching the rapids and transfer passengers and freight to the railroads to complete the rest of each trip. What became a transportation monopoly was owned by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (OSN). The OSN controlled the portages at the Cascades and between the towns of Les 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 region and transportation was needed for agricultural produce grown and mineral deposits mined along the river and in its basin.

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

In 1876, Congress authorized a project to build a canal and locks at Cascade Rapids. Congress has sought to support “open-air” navigation on the Columbia River between Portland and the farmlands of eastern Oregon and Washington. In 1878 the US Army Corps of Engineers began work on the project; however, harsh working conditions, engineering plans that changed over time, and sporadic appropriations from Congress 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 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 the craft 42 feet and cost $3.8 million to build.

A boon for trade

When the locks and the canal were completed, there was a lot of excitement in the Northwestern United States, as well as outside the region. “One of the most prodigious works in the world”, proclaims the title of a San Francisco Examiner article about the project.

About 3,000 people were present for the inauguration of the locks and the Cascade Canal. Those elected included: Oregon Governor William Lord; Washington Governor John McGraw; US 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 on the event said: ‘The locks of the Cascades of the Columbia were opened to commerce this afternoon by appropriate ceremonies, attended by eminent men from Oregon and Washington. At 2:30 a.m. the regular river steamers were put through the locks amid the cheers of the gathered crowds, everything was working fine to the last detail. The Wooden Sternwheel Steamer Sarah Dixon led the procession of steamboats.

The scenic beauty of the Columbia River Gorge has drawn admirers for decades. During Portland’s Lewis and Clark Exposition in the summer of 1905, steamboats passed through the locks 1,417 times, carrying over 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)

For much of the 20th century, the town of Cascade Locks did well due to 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 expected, the locks and the Cascade Canal facilitated waterway traffic and commerce. The project was also the first of several key improvements to navigation on the Columbia River.

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

Bonneville Dam and Lock

During President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, the Public Works Administration began work on the Bonneville Dam in 1934. Working uninterrupted eight-hour shifts, 3,000 laborers who had been unemployed due to the Great Depression was being paid 50 cents an hour for work on the dam and raising local roads for its reservoir.

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

The locks and the Cascade Canal remained in operation until they were rendered obsolete due to the opening of the Bonneville Dam.

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

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

Comments are closed.