by John Harrison

The story of the Columbia River is one of salmon and power.

Once one of the world’s great salmon rivers, it became one of the world’s great hydropower rivers. Once its power was in the force of its water, surging and eroding its way through mountain ranges to the sea. Its unique geography and annual spring freshet, bearing the snowmelt of many mountain ranges, created the necessary conditions for a spectacular proliferation of anadromous fish – salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, lamprey. Over time man harnessed the tremendous power of that water to spin turbines at hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its tributaries and build one of the world’s largest hydropower systems. The Columbia River power system today makes enough electricity, on average, for eight cities the size of Seattle; more in good water years. But hydropower came at a cost far beyond mere dollars — the elimination of thousands of miles of historic salmon habitat and the decimation of salmon runs already hit hard by overfishing and destruction of spawning habitat. Thus through time the Columbia changed from a great salmon river to a great hydropower river. Today, many people dream that the power river again will be a salmon river.

There are many ways to tell the history of the Columbia. In these entries, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council takes a different approach to the telling. The Council describes the salmon story and the power story through a collection of entries arranged in alphabetical order and supplemented by a timeline. Each entry says something about the river, a place along the river or a river-related issue. Cross-referencing is indicated by words hypertext. Collectively, the entries and timeline describe the changes that occurred over time and the modern struggle to recreate some of the salmon abundance while the river continues to produce about half of the Northwest’s electricity.

Through these entries the Council attempts to provide information about the history of the Columbia River without bias and in a manner that is easily accessible. The entries were written by John Harrison, the Council’s information officer. He was inspired, in part, by a brief entry in the diary of an obscure figure in Columbia River history. His name was Sanford Fleming, and he was the chief civil engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1880s — twice, in fact. In 1883, when he was invited out of retirement to help determine the railroad’s route across the seemingly impenetrable mountains between the Rockies and Vancouver, he paused one June evening in the railroad camp town of Golden to reflect on the coming of the iron rails to the sparsely populated Canadian West. Golden grew up at the spot where the Kicking Horse River, the railroad’s route down the west slope of the Rockies, joins the Columbia.

From a vantage point about 500 feet above the Columbia, Fleming took in the remarkable scene: the broad, north-flowing river, the snowy peaks of the Rockies to the east and the Selkirks to the west. He marveled at the immense stillness, the vibrant colors of the evening sky, the deep valley and forests split by the swift, dark water. In his mind, it all was immensely promising.

“Will the din of the loom and the whirl of the spindle yet be heard in this unbroken domain of nature?” he wrote in his diary. “It cannot be that this immense valley will remain the haunt of a few wild animals. Will the future bring some industrial development: a future which is now dawning upon us?  How soon will busy crowds of workmen take possession of these solitudes, and the steam whistle echo and re-echo where now all is silent?”

Take possession of the solitudes.

The phrase succinctly describes the history of the Columbia River from the time it was first inhabited by humans to the present day. Parts of the vast Columbia River Basin remain an unbroken domain of nature, but these are remote or small. Most of the basin has been intensely settled, drained, diked, irrigated, channelized, dammed, regulated, paved, graded, harvested, replanted or restocked, and harvested again. In a word, possessed. It has always been a river of hope and promise, a river to be exploited, a river, ultimately, of profit to someone, from its furs, its fish, its timber, its minerals, its water, its locks and dams, its hydroelectricity and even its culture and myth. It has a unique geography, both physical and spiritual.

The Columbia, the Great River of the West, existed in the minds of hopeful European explorers, geographers and cartographers long before it was actually discovered. Then, the first European explorers to arrive by sea missed it entirely, or dismissed its opening as inconsequential and unworthy of exploration. Its earliest American explorers, who arrived by sea in 1792 and by land a short time later, were impressed by its size and its immense salmon runs; its first Canadian explorers, who crossed the Rockies in 1806 not far from the place where Sanford Fleming later was impressed by the river’s immense solitude, found it flowing north, not south, and thought it was another river entirely. But over time, the Columbia’s solitudes were discovered, possessed and, for better and worse, exploited.

The story of the Columbia and its icon fish is remarkable. It is the signature story of the Northwest, a region where the economy and the environment are endlessly intertwined. It is the story of how the river formed, how the fish evolved, how the region was discovered and settled, developed, exploited, put to work. It is the story of a salmon river, a hydroelectric river, a transportation river, an irrigation river, a recreational river, an urban river, a river that marks some political boundaries and crosses others, a river that still runs wild in a few places, and a river of people who depend on it.

It is the story of the fourth-longest river in North America, a river that begins in Canada and drains portions of seven of the Northwestern United States, a river whose early explorers came from China, Canada, England, America, Spain and Russia, a river first settled thousands of years earlier by the ancestors of modern Indian tribes who themselves migrated here from far away.

It is the story of Nch I’Wana, the Big River, River of the West, the River Ourigan, Columbia’s River.