Submerged history

By Dick Mason, The Observer July 09, 2010 01:25 pm
The almost lake-like waters of today’s Columbia River Gorge are a lifeline for barge operators and a source of heavenly opportunity for wind surfers, recreational boaters and others.

For history lovers, however, the slow-moving, expansive waters are like a dark curtain dropped decades ago by the building of the Bonneville and The Dalles dams.

The dams transformed the Columbia River Gorge into a virtual lake, which covers all remnants of the famed Celilo Falls, Cascade Rapids, an ancient forest and more.

All will never be seen again. But their legacies are being revived by a new book, “Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957,’’ by John Laursen and the late Terry Toedtemeier.

The book features a cache of recently discovered photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, pictures shared by Laursen with audiences during slide show presentations this week in La Grande and Union.

Laursen showed a portion of the book’s 134 images — pictures shot by three dozen photographers including the renowned Carleton Watkins, Benjamin Gifford, Fred Kister, Lily White, Sarah Ladd, Alfred Monner and Ray Atkeson. Almost all of the photos in the volumes are ones previously available only in archives.

“Our mission was to bring these photos out of the archives and make them available to the public. Eighty-five to 90 percent are photos you would never see if you didn’t see the book,’’ said Laursen, the owner/operator of Press-22, a Portland studio specializing in the design and production of books.

The collection, as the book’s title indicates, includes photos only taken through 1957, the year The Dalles Dam was completed, forever changing the waterscape of the Columbia River Gorge. The dam’s construction came two decades after Bonneville Dam was finished, a structure which submerged a feature of the gorge as wondrous as it was feared — Cascade Rapids.

The three-mile rapids, buried today by the impounded waters of Bonneville Dam, were among the most treacherous in North America, dropping 40 feet over the space of two miles. The rapids presented Oregon Trail travelers with one of their most horrific obstacles.

“People would come all the way from Missouri and then lose everything on the rapids,’’ Laursen said.

Early Oregon Trail travelers who wanted to reach the Willamette Valley with wagons were forced to go over the Cascade Rapids. Later travelers at this point could choose between Cascade Rapids or the new Barlow Road.

The rapids were where the Columbia passes through the Cascades. The site is the only place in the Cascade Range travelers can cross without making a major climb.

Laursen said the famed rapids were what the Cascade Range was named after.

The Cascade Rapids are largely forgotten today, but not Celilo Falls, once a historic tribal fishing area upriver from The Dalles. A series of cascades and waterfalls, Celilo Falls was the oldest continuously inhabited community in western North America before it was submerged by waters impounded by The Dalles Dam, Laursen said. American Indians had been fishing at the site for about 10,000 years until the dam was built.

“Newcomers came and said, ‘It is not quite good enough’ and started blowing stuff up,’’ Laursen said.

Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition well appreciated the significance of Celilo Falls. They said they had never seen so many Indians in one place at the same time. Laursen also said the party commented on the fish smell that permeated the air at this point, one where numerous fish were being dried.

The site was an excellent one for landing salmon. It was at a point where the Columbia narrowed dramatically.

“It was a forbidding place for fish to go through,’’ Laursen said.

Celilo Falls was just east of The Dalles, a site where the Columbia also narrowed dramatically. The channel not only narrowed but cut deep. It was 200 feet across and 200 feet deep.

“The Indians said this was where the Columbia was turned on its side,’’ Laursen said.

This configuration all changed when The Dalles Dam was completed, greatly widening the Columbia at this point.

During his presentations, Laursen also discussed a natural event that had a great influence on the confluence of the Columbia — the Bonneville landslide of about 1450. The landslide dammed the Columbia, drowning about 35 miles of forest upriver. Stumps of these trees became visible centuries later after the river worked its way through the landslide. The old forest was submerged again in the 1930s following construction of Bonneville Dam.

“Wild Beauty’’ often addresses what was lost by the construction of the Bonneville and The Dalles dams. But its authors were not writing to protest dam building. Laursen said he fully appreciates the value of hydropower.

“We could not have made the book without electricity. We didn’t make it as an anti-dam book,’’ Laursen said.

Still, he hopes the book gives readers reason to pause when considering future actions.

 “We want people to be thoughtful about the things they build and the consequences,’’ the author said.

The “Wild Beauty’’ book, published in 2008, won a Pacific Northwest Book Award in 2009 and was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award for nonfiction.

Tragically the honors came too late for co-author Terry Toedtemeier, who died of a heart attack in 2008 shortly after the book came out. Laursen said Toedtemeier’s work was crucial to the success of the book.

“He was a swell person.’’

None of the 134 photographs Toedtemeier and Laursen selected for the book were enhanced. Still, the photos look better than the prints and negatives they were made from due to computer work that removed coffee stains, writing and other elements.

“We wanted to show maximum respect for the photograph and the artist. We wanted to reproduce their work the way (the photographers) made it rather than provide images that had been degraded by 100 years. We were restoring them, not enhancing them,’’ Laursen said.

Laursen spoke at Cook Memorial Library Tuesday and at Carnegie Public Library in Union Wednesday. His presentations were sponsored by the Libraries of Eastern Oregon.

“Wild Beauty’’ was published by the nonprofit Northwest Photography Archive in collaboration with Oregon State University Press. More information on the book is available at

Laursen said he had driven through the Columbia River Gorge countless times before he began working on the book project. He is amazed at how much he sees now that he never noticed in the gorge before putting the collection together. He wants the book to have the same impact on readers.

“It (the photo collection) slows down the way we look at the gorge.’’