The earliest explorers of the Columbia River envisioned it as a river of commerce, originally for purposes of the fur trade. It was fur merchant Robert Gray who discovered the Columbia in 1792, and commercial ships were plying the Columbia regularly by the 1820s to supply trading posts on the lower river.

The Columbia carries large amounts of silt as the result of its high volume and periodic nature of its flow — high in the spring and early summer, lower in the fall and winter — and this always has made navigation challenging. The first channel improvement project in the Columbia River Basin took place shortly after the Civil War, in 1866, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cleared snags from the Willamette River. It was the Army’s first civil works project in the Pacific Northwest. 1866 also was the year the first load of wheat from the Palouse country of southeastern Washington was transported by boat down the Snake and Columbia rivers to Portland. Dredging in the estuary began in 1873.

Columbia River commercial navigation could be said to date to 1877, when Congress approved a channel from the Portland/Vancouver area to the mouth of the river. The same year, plans were completed for the Cascades Canal past the Cascades rapids 45 miles east of Portland. The proposal was for the Army Corps to build a canal 7,200 feet long and 50 feet wide with two locks, each eight feet deep at low water by 70 feet wide and 300 feet long. Complicated land condemnation proceedings delayed the beginning of construction until November 1878. The canal was not completed until November 1896, as lack of funds, labor problems, engineering and construction difficulties and other unforeseen setbacks slowed the work.

The Cascade Locks and Canal allowed for the first time safe and continuous navigation through the treacherous falls of the Cascades. Previously, Steamboats usually only ran the Cascades during low water. At other times of the year the rapids were too dangerous. Still unfinished when opened, the Canal cost $3.7 million to that point, more than double the original estimate. On November 5, 1896, steamboats carried several hundred excursionists through the locks to view the work. The steamer Sarah Dixon fired cannon salutes at appropriate intervals.

The canal immediately benefited river commerce. Between 1898 and 1920, the value of freight through the canal exceeded the construction cost in most years. The locks and canal were used until 1938, when they were covered by the water rising behind Bonneville Dam, completed that year. The dam included a lock for river traffic.

Sternwheelers were able to operate from Astoria and Portland going upriver as far as Celilo Falls, where goods had to be portaged, until a canal similar to the one built at Cascade Locks was completed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the canal and locks around river obstructions between The Dalles and Celilo in 1915, opening river navigation between the ocean and Lewiston, Idaho, a distance of 465 miles. The Celilo Canal took nearly 12 years to construct. It was 65 feet wide, eight miles long and eight feet deep and had periodic turnouts to allow boats to pass each other (today it is under the water behind The Dalles Dam).

The opening of the Celilo canal was cause for celebration at Lewiston, Idaho, where citizens had advocated the canal as a means of linking the city to the ocean for the export of locally grown products, primarily grain. Sixty years later they would celebrate again when the last of four federal dams would be completed and the lower Snake would be open to deep-water barges.

May 15, 1915, was hailed by Celilo Canal proponents as “Lewiston’s Greatest Day” in honor of the completion of the canal; a celebration attracted 25,000 people to commemorate the “Open Road to the Sea.” One hundred guns saluted the sunrise and did so again at the sunset that day. There were many celebratory speeches, including one by Joseph N. Teal, an open-river booster, who noted: “The Inland Empire will be an empire in fact as well as in name — an empire of industry, of commerce, of manufacture and agriculture; and the valleys of the Columbia and Snake will have become one vast garden, full of happy homes and contented and industrious people.” Three years later, in 1918, the entrance channel of the Columbia River was dredged to a depth of 40 feet in order to allow larger vessels to enter the estuary.

Meanwhile, above the mouth of the Snake River, where the Columbia gradually narrows and becomes shallower and more hazardous to navigate, river navigation interests were at work as early as the 1860s. Steamboats constructed above Celilo Falls, notably at the mouth of Oregon’s Deschutes River, carried miners up the Snake and Clearwater rivers during the gold strikes of the 1860s. The landing at Wallula, near the mouths of the Snake and Walla Walla rivers, became an important transfer point in this era, as miners and settlers left the river boats and traveled into the interior by horse and stagecoach.

As farms were established in the Big Bend country of central Washington, town promoters lobbied for railroad connections and riverboat service. A steamboat, the “City of Ellensburg,” successfully ascended Priest Rapids in 1888 and continued upriver to the mouth of the Okanogan River, proving that it could be done. By 1904 the area was well-settled and the Okanogan Steamboat Company was offering daily service between Wenatchee and Brewster. Business organizations continued to think big. In October 1910 the Open Rivers Committee of the Wenatchee Commercial Club proposed that river navigation and transportation should be extended in the upper Columbia River as far as the international border. Canadians endorsed the proposal and said navigation should be extended north across the border. The Nelson Daily News of Nelson, B.C., commented that year that Puget Sound was the nearest outlet to the ocean for the Columbia River Basin but that “…nature has thoughtlessly erected an almost impassable barrier to that outlet, namely the Cascade Mountains.” But the Columbia offered an alternative, “a natural and economical way to avoid that obstruction . . . a natural drainage of an empire to tide water.” It was time to do something about that, the newspaper commented, embracing the position of the Wenatchee organization: “The Columbia River is of international importance, and an organization embracing this country and British Columbia should be effected at once for the prosecution of such work.”

Over time, as the population of the interior Columbia River Basin grew, riverboats operated as far upriver as Death Rapids just north of the present-day city of Revelstoke, B.C., 1,000 miles inland from the ocean. By taking a succession of boats it was possible to travel or ship products from the upper Columbia to Vancouver, Portland and Astoria. The primary navigation aids in the upper river, unlike the dredged channel in the lower river, were steel rings secured in rocks so that the boat operators could tie up and line their vessels through the most dangerous rapids. Teams of horses were employed at places to help pull the boats through.

Fish impacts

Over time, competition with railroads diminished the importance of navigation in the upper river but a long battle was waged over navigation on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers. Open-river advocates wanted dams and deeper water in order to facilitate the passage of larger vessels and barges year-round. The Snake was too shallow for even the shallow-draft steamboats during parts of the year.

Dams could provide the necessary deep water by impounding reservoirs, but dams would not be built solely for navigation. Thus the development of hydropower, irrigation and navigation are tied together in the lower Snake. But the idea to build more dams was not universally supported. Opposition came primarily from advocates for the prodigious salmon and steelhead runs. These fishery interests feared the dams, particularly dams on the lower Snake River, would destroy the runs over time. With Bonneville Dam, equipped with a navigation lock, in place and with the Celilo Canal providing safe passage around the falls, the next challenge for navigation proponents was to improve the lower Snake. Dam advocates and fish advocates battled through the 1940s.

In March 1945, Congress authorized construction of “such dams as are necessary” on the lower Snake River to provide for barging and also the optimum amount of hydropower. The Corps studied the issue for two years, including consultations with fish and wildlife agencies. No one was enthusiastic about the dams, but agreed that fewer would be better for fish. In April 1947, the Corps announced it would proceed with four dams. The Corps decided that four dams would be best, even though some engineers had pushed for as many as ten.

Meanwhile, many fishery officials believed even four dams would bring an end to the salmon and steelhead runs in the Snake River. In 1947, the Interior Department proposed a 10-year suspension of dam-building on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers in order to study the potential impacts on salmon and steelhead. The Department reasoned that the Bonneville Power Administration could acquire electricity from other sources, such as dams built by other entities on other rivers where there would be fewer impacts on fish. Still, the Department did not say no to dams — the salmon and steelhead runs would have to be sacrificed if there was no other way to produce the needed electricity, the Department believed.

The Corps of Engineers opposed the 10-year moratorium, as did development interests who supported the dams as a means of providing inland navigation. The Corps believed its success in passing juvenile and adult fish at Bonneville Dam proved that fish also could be passed safely at Snake River dams.

In June 1947, the Columbia Basin Interagency Committee conducted a public hearing on the proposed moratorium in Walla Walla. The hearing attracted some 200 people, and the testimony was about evenly split between those who opposed the moratorium and those who supported it. Subsequently, the Committee interviewed experts on fisheries, electricity and irrigation and discovered there was plenty of opinion about the dams but much less fact. In September, the Committee expressed its opposition to the moratorium and ultimately it failed.

Now it was up to fish advocates to stop the dams. In 1948, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department, reported: “Adequate facilities can be provided for the upstream passage of fish . . . The potential loss of downstream-migrating fingerlings presents a more serious problem . . . The lower Snake River dams collectively present the greatest threat to the maintenance of the Columbia River salmon population of any project heretofore constructed or authorized.”

But the dams had determined political supporters, including Herbert G. West of the Inland Empire Waterways Association. In 1952, West told Robert Hicks, executive secretary of the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union, which represented commercial fishers: “It is high time that the people who are dependent on the fishing industry for their livelihood should stop their blind, unreasoning attacks on progress and development.”

In the end, arguments for hydropower and economic development proved more persuasive than arguments about impacts on fish. Fish passage would be provided at the dams via ladders for adult salmon and steelhead. Water could be spilled over the dams during the juvenile fish migration period. And of course, the dams would provide inland navigation, which was critically important to business leaders in eastern Washington and Oregon.

Ice Harbor Dam, nine miles up the Snake from its confluence with the Columbia, was completed first, in 1962. It was followed by three others, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite, the last completed in 1975. That year, in June, Lewiston celebrated its status as a seaport for the second time. On the 25th, a day of celebration, U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, D-WA, who had worked long and hard for the dams, commented, “We can stand here in Lewiston — over 400 miles from Bonneville where it all began in 1933 — and we can tell the nay-sayers that we have succeeded where they said we would fail.”

The river highway

The inland federal navigation channel is maintained to Pasco on the Columbia and to Lewiston on the Snake, 465 miles from the ocean and about 700 feet above sea level. The four dams of the lower Columbia and four dams of the lower Snake all have navigation locks that have the highest lift of any locks in the United States. The 360-mile channel from Vancouver to Lewiston is maintained at a minimum depth of 14 feet for barges.

The deep-draft channel in the Lower Columbia River runs from Astoria to Vancouver, 105 miles from the ocean, and to the Portland Harbor 11.5 miles up the Willamette River. Congress authorized a 40-foot channel for the Columbia River in 1962; it was not completed until 1976.

In 1990, the Corps of Engineers reported the results of its study of potential navigation improvements and suggested the channel between the ocean and the Portland/Vancouver area could be deepened to accommodate larger ships. In 1994, Congress ordered a five-year study, and in 1999 Congress authorized the deepening of the Columbia River channel to 43 feet. There was immediate opposition from various interests. For example, smaller ports on the river argued the deeper channel would reduce their shipping traffic by encouraging more ships to call at the larger ports. But the strongest opposition came from a familiar source: environmental interests. Just as with the dam debates of the 1950s, fish and wildlife interests reasoned that the dredging would affect migrating salmon, both adult and juvenile fish, and that the thousands of tons of dredged spoils would have an environmental impact wherever they were dumped.

A challenge in federal court ensued, and the Corps was ordered to conduct an environmental impact study. This study noted potential impacts to fish, and in response the Corps proposed to acquire and improve resting and rearing habitat for salmon and steelhead in the lower Columbia and the estuary. That is something of an irony in that the disposal of sand dredged from the bottom of the river during routine channel maintenance created several islands in the estuary that, over time, became preferred nesting habitat for one of the world’s largest colonies of Caspian terns, a voracious predator of juvenile salmon and steelhead.

Thus at the same time the Corps proposed to increase the amount of resting and rearing habitat for juvenile fish in the lower river and estuary it also was attempting, with partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and university researchers, to relocate the Caspian Tern population to alternate nesting sites in the estuary and also elsewhere in Oregon and northern California -- away from the highest concentrations of juvenile salmon and steelhead in the estuary. The effort ultimately was successful. The estuary tern colony was relocated to an island downriver closer to the ocean, where the mix of fish in the river includes more forage fish and fewer salmon and steelhead. As well, the number of terns nesting on the island slowly declined to near, but not yet below, the recommended maximum in a federal environmental impact statement on reducing tern predation on ESA-listed juvenile salmon and steelhead in the estuary.

The channel deepening effort was ultimately successful. In November 2010, the 20-year channel deepening project was completed and the 110-mile navigation channel from the mouth of the Columbia River to the Portland/Vancouver area was deepened to 43 feet. The total cost of the project was $182.8 million, cost-shared between the federal government, the states of Oregon and Washington, and local sponsoring ports including Portland and St. Helens in Oregon, and Kalama, Longview, Vancouver, and Woodland in Washington. The Corps of Engineers managed the project, which encompassed construction of the deepened navigation channel as well as critical ecosystem restoration on the Columbia River.  

Today the Columbia and Snake rivers comprise a major transportation system, and the system is one of the top export gateways in the United States. Every year, the river system carries over 50 million tons of cargo to and from the Pacific Ocean, valued at $21 billion. Barging on the Columbia and Snake rivers is the safest, most fuel-efficient means of transporting cargoes in the Northwest. The Columbia River is the top wheat export gateway for the United States, and roughly 40 percent of that wheat makes its way to the large export terminals via barge from the inland Columbia/Snake. The river system is also tops on the west coast for forest products exports and minerals exports, second in the nation for soy exports, and a major gateway for auto imports and exports.

More about the Columbia/Snake navigation system: Pacific Northwest Waterways Association