Lewis and Clark's Columbia River
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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"Celilo Falls"
Includes ... Celilo Falls ... "Great Falls" ... "Great Falls of the Columbia" ... Celilo, Oregon ... Celilo Village ... Celilo Park ... The Dalles - Celilo Locks ... The Dalles - Celilo Canal ... The Dalles - Celilo Locks ... Columbia River Basalt ... The Golden Age of Postcards ...
Image, 2005, Mount Hood, Oregon, from Haystack Butte Vicinity, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Mount Hood, Oregon, and the Celilo Falls area. Looking downstream at the area which once was Celilo Falls. View from Washington State Highway 14. Celilo Park, Oregon, is green tip on the left. Wishram, Washington, is road area on the right. Image taken May 24, 2005.


Celilo Falls ...
Celilo Falls were located just downstream of Wishram, Washington and Celilo, Oregon, and upstream of The Dalles, Oregon. The banks on either side of the falls were made of Columbia River Basalt, and the falls were created when the Columbia River cut into the basalt and created a constriction of the river with a 20-foot falls followed by a mile of narrow, channeled rapids with a drop of 8 feet in river elevation. Today, Celilo Falls is inundated by the waters of Lake Celilo, the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam.

"Celilo" ...
There are several suggested meanings for the origin of the name "Celilo". According to McArthur and McArthur in "Oregon Geographic Names" (2003):

"... Early journals of fur traders and travelers do not mention Celilo. Celilo was used in 1859, according to Mr. Elliott, who said there were several suggested meanings including "tumbling waters", "shifting sands", and the name of an Indian chief. Dr. Leo Frachtenberg of the Smithsonian Institution, in the Oregon Journal, December 31, 1917, said Celilo is a Yakama word meaning "cleft in the bank". ..."

According to T.C. Elliott in 1915 (Oregon Historical Quarterly, April 1915):

"... The name CELILO attaches to the rather low but romantic horseshoe shaped falls at the rock reef composing the upper end of this obstruction, below which the Indian was accustomed to stand with his spear to pierce the jumping salmon. Like all other river falls these were known the the fur traders as The Chutes and when the name CELILO was first used or whence it came is not known. The name does not appear in print before 1859, as far as yet discovered. The earlier journals and letters of fur traders and travelers do not mention it. ..."

Early Celilo Falls ...
For more than 10,000 years, native Americans have lived and fished and traded in the Celilo Falls area. The native peoples had approximately 480 fishing stations in and around Celilo Falls. Fishermen built wooden scaffolds out over the falls and used long-handled dipnets to catch salmon. The men secured themselves to their scaffolds with ropes that they tied around their waists in the event that they were pulled into the river. This changed in 1957 when the rising waters of Lake Celilo, the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, flooded the spectacular Celilo area and forever buried much of the ancient history of the Columbia Basin. The reservoir waters inundated Celilo Falls, Tenmile Rapids, Fivemile Rapids, and Celilo village, resulting in the relocation of the community and 36 families. (Information courtesy Center for Columbia River History website, 2008).

Lewis and Clark and "Great Falls of the Columbia" ...
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery reached the "Great Falls of the Columbia" on October 22, 1805.

"... The whole height of the falls is 37 feet 8 inches, in a distance of 1200 yards ..." [Gass, October 23, 1805]

"... The Latitude at this place which is called the grand falls of the Columbia River as taken by Capt. Lewis is 45░ 42' 57.3' North.    the hight of the particular falls in all is 37 feet eight Inches, and has a large rock Island in the midst of them and look Shocking    the water divided in several channels by the rocks. ..." [Ordway, October 23, 1805]

They began their portage around the falls on October 22, 1805, on the north side of the Columbia, setting up camp at the location of today's Wishram.

"... 6 miles below the upper mouth of Towarnehiooks River the comencement of the pitch of the Great falls, opposit on the Stard. Side is 17 Lodges of the nativs    we landed and walked down accompanied by an old man to view the falls, and the best rout for to make a portage which we Soon discovered was much nearest on the Stard. Side, and the distance 1200 yards one third of the way on a rock, about 200 yards over a loose Sand collected in a hollar blown by the winds from the bottoms below which was disagreeable to pass, as it was Steep and loose. ..." [Clark, October 22, 1805]

"... Took our Baggage & formed a Camp below the rapids in a cove on the Stard Side    the distance 1200 yards haveing passed ..." [Clark, October 22, 1805, first draft]

"... took every article except the Canoes across the portag where I had formed a camp on ellegable Situation for the protection of our Stores from Thieft, which we were more fearfull of, than their arrows. we despatched two men to examine the river on the opposit Side, and reported that the Canoes could be taken down a narrow Chanel on the opposit Side after a Short portage at the head of the falls, at which place the Indians take over their Canoes. ..." [Clark, October 22, 1805]

Captain Clark and a majority of the men took the canoes around the falls on October 23, on the south side.

"... a fine morning, I with the greater part of the men Crossed in the Canoes to opposit Side above the falls and hauled them across the portage of 457 yards which is on the Lard. Side and certainly the best side to pass the canoes    I then decended through a narrow chanel of about 150 yards wide forming a kind of half circle in it course of a mile to a pitch of 8 feet in which the chanel is divided by 2 large rocks    at this place we were obliged to let the Canoes down by Strong ropes of Elk Skin which we had for the purpose, one Canoe in passing this place got loose by the Cords breaking, and was cought by the Indians below. I accomplished this necessary business and landed Safe with all the Canoes at our Camp below the falls by 3 oClock P. M. ..." [Clark, October 23, 1805]

"... a clear pleasant morning. about 8 oClock Capt. Clark went with the most of the party and took all the canoes across the River and halled them about a quarter of a mile over the rocks past a perpinticular fall of 22 feet and put them in a verry rapid channel below. this portage has been used by the natives takeing their Small canoes round and close below the great falls is a large fishery in the Spring of the year ..." [Ordway, October 23, 1805]

Celilo Falls in 1836 ...
William Henry Gray in his writings about the history of Oregon (published in 1870) describes the portage around Celilo Falls in 1836:

"... we glided swiftly down the Columbia River, the scenery of which is not surpassed in grandeur by any river in the world. Fire, earth, and water have combined to make one grand display with melted lava, turning it out in all imaginable and unimaginable shapes and forms on a most gigantic scale. In other countries, these hills thrown up would be called mountains, but here we call them high rolling plains, interspersed with a few snow-capped peaks, some fifteen and some seventeen thousand feet high. The river is running through these plains, wandering around among the rocks with its gentle current of from four to eight knots per hour; at the rapids increasing its velocity and gyrations around and among the rocks in a manner interesting and exciting to the traveler, who at one moment finds his boat head on at full speed making for a big rock; anon he comes along, and by an extra exertion with his pole shoves off his boat to receive a full supply of water from the rolling swell, as the water ruses over the rock he has but just escaped being dashed to pieces against. As to danger in such places, it is all folly to think of any; so on we go to repeat the same performance over and over till we reach the falls, at what is now called Celilo, where we find about twenty-five feet perpendicular fall.

Our boats were discharged of all their contents, about one-fourth of a mile above the main fall, on the right bank of the river. Then the cargo was packed upon the Indians' backs to the landing below the falls, the Indian performing this part of the labor for from two to six inches of trail-rope tobacco. A few were paid from two to ten charges of powder and ball, or shot, depending upon the number of trips they made and the amount they carried. The boats were let down with lines as near the fall as was considered safe, hauled out of the water, turned bottom up, and as many Indians as could get under them, say some twenty-five to each boat, lifted them upon their shoulders and carried them to the water below. For this service they each received two dried leaves of tobacco, which would make about six common pipefuls. The Indian, however, with other dried leaves, would make his two leaves of tobacco last some time.

This portage over, and all on board, we again glided swiftly along ..."

Source:   Early Canadiana Online website, 2006, "William Henry Gray's A history of Oregon, 1792-1849, drawn from personal observation and authentic information, published in 1870.


The Dalles - Celilo Canal and Locks ...
The 8-mile-long The Dalles - Celilo Canal, located three miles north of The Dalles, was completed in 1915, creating a steamboat waterway around the Fivemile Rapids ("Long Narrows"), Tenmile Rapids ("Short Narrows"), and Celilo Falls. It provided a clear journey to Lewiston, Idaho.
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Celilo Park ...
Celilo Park, Oregon, on Lake Celilo, is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and has facilities for picnicking, fishing, swimming and boat launching. The park, which includes the upper end of the historic The Dalles - Celilo Canal and the former Indian fishing grounds at Celilo Falls, is accessible from Interstate 84 Exit 97 about 12 miles east of The Dalles.
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Image, 2005, Celilo Park and Celilo, Oregon, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Celilo Park and Celilo, Oregon, as seen from Washington State Highway 14. Image taken May 24, 2005.

Today's Celilo Park looks over the area which once was Celilo Falls. Celilo Park was also the upper end of the The Dalles-Celilo Canal.


"The Golden Age of Postcards" ...

The early 1900s was the "Golden Age of Postcards", with the "Penny Postcard" being a popular way to send greetings to family and friends. The Penny Postcard today has become a snapshot of history.

Penny Postcard, Celilo Falls, Oregon, 1900, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Celilo Falls, Oregon, 1900. Penny Postcard, Image 1900, Postmarked 1905, "Celilo Falls, Oregon.". The Oregon Historical Society has the original of this image (#OrHi89622), "Celilo Falls on the Columbia" by Benjamin Gifford, 1900. Card is postmarked August ___, 1905. Postmark "World's Fair, Portland, 1905". Card #67. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.
Penny Postcard, Celilo Falls, ca.1917, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Celilo Falls near The Dalles, Oregon, ca.1917. Penny Postcard, Postmarked 1917, "Celilo Falls near 'The Dalles', Columbia River, Oregon". Caption on back reads: "This view shows the falls at low water. When the snow melts in summer in the mountains, the water often rises sixty feet; at that time steamers pass safely over.". Published by Chas. S. Lipschuetz Company, Portland, Oregon. Card #236. "On Union Pacific System". In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.
Penny Postcard, Celilo Falls Basalts, ca.1930, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Celilo Falls from Columbia River Highway, Oregon, ca.1930. Penny Postcard, ca.1930, "Celilo Falls from Columbia River Highway, Oregon". Copyright Gifford, 7A-H74. Published by Wesley Andrews Co., Portland, Oregon. Card #858. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.
Penny Postcard, Celilo Falls, ca.1930, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Celilo Falls, Indian fishermen, with fishwheel, Oregon, ca.1930. Penny Postcard, ca.1930, "Fish Wheel and Indians Snagging Salmon at Celilo Falls on Columbia River, Oregon." Caption on bottom reads: "Indians have Perpetual Fishing Rights at the Falls.". Image Copyright Cross & Dimmitt. Published by Angelus Commercial Studio, Portland, Oregon. Card #13. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.


From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

Clark, October 22, 1805 ...
A fine morning calm and fare we Set out [downstream of the John Day Dam] at 9 oClock passed a verry bad rapid [today the location of the "Sam Hill Memorial Bridge", U.S. Highway 97 crossing from Biggs Junction, Oregon, to Maryhill, Washington. The rapid, which was labeled "Five-Mile Rapid" in 1858, is now under the waters of the Lake Celilo, the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam.] at the head of an Island close under the Stard. Side [???], above this rapid on the Stard. Side is Six Lodges of nativs Drying fish [Maryhill vicinity], at 9 mls. passed a bad rapid [Deschutes Rapid, also under the waters of Lake Celilo] at the head of a large Island [Miller Island] of high, uneaven [rocks], jutting over the water, a Small Island in a Stard. Bend [???] opposit the upper point, on which I counted 20 parcels of dryed and pounded fish; on the main Stard Shore opposit to this Island five Lodges of Indians are Situated Several Indians in Canoes killing fish with gigs [Haystack Butte, Columbia Hills, vicinity], <and nets> &c. opposit the center of this Island of rocks [Miller Island] which is about 4 miles long we discovered the enterence of a large river on the Lard. Side [Deschutes River] which appeared to Come from the S. E. - we landed at Some distance above the mouth of this river [Deschutes River] and Capt. Lewis and my Self Set out to view this river above its mouth, as our rout was intersepted by a deep narrow Chanel which runs out of this river into the Columbia a little below the place we landed, leaveing a high dry rich Island of about 400 yards wide and 800 yards long here we Seperated, I proceeded on to the river and Struck it at the foot of a verry Considerable rapid [Deschutes Rapids], here I beheld an emence body of water Compressd in a narrow Chanel of about 200 yds in width, fomeing over rocks maney of which presented their tops above the water, when at this place Capt. Lewis joined me haveing ....     at about two miles above this River appears to be confined between two high hils below which it divided by numbers of large rocks, and Small Islands covered with a low groth of timber, and has a rapid as far as the narrows three Small Islands in the mouth of this River, <we returned> this River haveing no Indian name that we could find out, except "the River on which the Snake Indians live," we think it best to leave the nameing of it untill our return [Deschutes River].

we proceeded on pass the mouth of this river [Deschutes River] at which place it appears to discharge 1/4 as much water as runs down the Columbia. at two miles below this River passed Eight Lodges on the Lower point of the Rock Island [Miller Island] aforesaid at those Lodges we saw large logs of wood which must have been rafted down the To war-ne hi ooks River [Deschutes River], below this Island [Miller Island] on the main Stard Shore is 16 Lodges of nativs; here we landed a fiew minits to Smoke, the lower point of one Island opposit [???] which heads in the mouth of Towarnehiooks River [Deschutes River] which I did not observe untill after passing these lodges     about 1/2 a mile lower passed 6 more Lodges on the Same Side and 6 miles below the upper mouth of Towarnehiooks River [Deschutes River] the comencement of the pitch of the Great falls [Celilo Falls], opposit on the Stard. Side is 17 Lodges of the nativs [near Wishram, Washington]     we landed and walked down accompanied by an old man to view the falls [Celilo Falls], and the best rout for to make a portage ...     we made 19 miles to day






Ordway, October 23, 1805 ...
a clear pleasant morning.   about 8 oClock Capt. Clark went with the most of the party and took all the canoes across the River and halled them about a quarter of a mile over the rocks past a perpinticular fall of 22 feet and put them in a verry rapid channel below.   this portage has been used by the natives takeing their Small canoes round and close below the great falls is a large fishery in the Spring of the year and the flies at this time are verry numerous and trouble us verry much as the ground is covred with them   we got the canoes all in the channel below the big fall   then the best Swimmers went on board and took them through the whorl pools a little more than half a mile   then came to two more pitches of abt. three feet each   we let the canoes down by ropes.   one of them broke loose from us and went over Safe and was taken up by the natives below.   towards evening we got the canoes all Safe down to camp without dammageŚ

The Latitude at this place which is called the grand falls of the Columbia River as taken by Capt. Lewis is 45░ 42' 57.3' North.   the hight of the particular falls in all is 37 feet eight Inches, and has a large rock Island in the midst of them and look Shocking   the water divided in several channels by the rocks.






Clark, October 24, 1805 ...
The first pitch of this falls [Celilo Falls] is 20 feet perpendicular, then passing thro' a narrow Chanel for 1 mile to a rapid of about 18 feet fall below which the water had no perceptable fall but verry rapid ...     It may be proper here to remark that from Some obstruction below, the cause of which we have not yet learned, the water in high fluds (which are in the Spring) rise <nearly> below these falls nearly to a leavel with the water above the falls; the marks of which can be plainly trac'd around the falls. at that Stage of the water the Salmon must pass up which abounds in Such great numbers above- below thos falls are Salmon trout and great numbers of the heads of a Species of trout Smaller than the Salmon. those fish they catch out of the Salmon Season, and are at this time in the act of burrying those which they had drid for winter food. ...    Capt Lewis and three men crossed the river and on the opposit Side to view the falls which he had not yet taken a full view of-     At 9 oClock a. m. I Set out with the party and proceeded on down a rapid Stream of about 400 yards wide at 2 1/2 miles the river widened ito a large bason to the Stard. Side on which there is five Lodges of Indians. here a tremendious <heigh> black rock Presented itself high and Steep appearing to choke up the river [the future Browns Island] nor could I See where the water passed further than the Current was drawn with great velocity to the Lard Side of this rock at which place I heard a great roreing. I landed at the Lodges and the natives went with me to the top of this rock which makes from the Stard. Side; from the top of which I could See the dificuelties we had to pass for Several miles below; at this place the water of this great river is compressed into a Chanel [the "Short Narrows" or Tenmile Rapids] between two rocks not exceeding forty five yards wide and continues for a 1/4 of a mile when it again widens to 200 yards and continues this width for about 2 miles when it is again intersepted by rocks. This obstruction in the river accounts for the water in high floods riseing to Such a hite at the last falls. The whole of the Current of this great river must at all Stages pass thro' this narrow chanel of 45 yards wide. as the portage of our canoes over this high rock would be impossible with our Strength, and the only danger in passing thro those narrows was the whorls and Swills arriseing from the Compression of the water, and which I thought (as also our principal watermen Peter Crusat) by good Stearing we could pass down Safe, accordingly I deturmined to pass through this place notwithstanding the horrid appearance of this agitated gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction (which from the top of the rock did not appear as bad as when I was in it;[)] however we passed Safe to the astonishment of all the Inds: of the last Lodges who viewed us from the top of the rock [this high rock became Browns Island when the waters of Lake Celilo inundated the valley]. passed one Lodge below this rock and halted on the Stard. Side to view a verry bad place, the Current divided by 2 Islands of rocks the lower of them large and in the middle of the river, this place being verry bad I Sent by land all the men who could not Swim and Such articles as was most valuable to us Such as papers Guns & amunition, and proceeded down with the Canoes two at a time to a village of 20 wood housies in a Deep bend to the Stard. Side [area of Horsethief Butte and Horsethief Lake] below which a rugid black rock about <the> 20 feet hiter <of> than the Common high fluds of the river with Several dry Chanels which appeared to Choke the river up quite across; this I took to be the 2d falls or the place the nativs above call timm, The nativs of this village reived me verry kindly, one of whome envited me into his house, ...    I dispatched a Sufficent number of the good Swimers back for the 2 canoes above the last rapid and with 2 men walked down three miles to examine the river Over a bed of rocks, which the water at verry high fluds passes over, on those rocks I Saw Several large Scaffols on which the Indians dry fish; as this is out of Season the poles on which they dry those fish are tied up verry Securely in large bundles and put upon the Scaffolds, I counted 107 <Scaff> Stacks of dried pounded fish in different places on those rocks which must have contained 10,000 w. of neet fish, The evening being late I could not examine the river to my Satisfaction, the Chanel is narrow and compressed for about 2 miles [the "Long Narrows" or Fivemile Rapids], when it widens into a deep bason to the Stard. Side ["Big Eddy", today the location of Spearfish Lake], & again contracts into a narrow chanel divided by a rock [head of Threemile Rapids] I returned through a rockey open countrey infested with pole-cats to the village where I met with Capt. Lewis the two old Chiefs who accompanied us & the party & canoes who had all arrived Safe; the Canoes haveing taken in Some water at the last rapids. here we formed a Camp near the Village [near Horsethief Butte and Horsethief Lake] ...





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*River Miles [RM] are approximate, in statute miles, and were determined from USGS topo maps, obtained from NOAA nautical charts, or obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, 2003

Sources:   See The Dalles for sources.

All Lewis and Clark quotations from Gary Moulton editions of the Lewis and Clark Journals, University of Nebraska Press, all attempts have been made to type the quotations exactly as in the Moulton editions, however typing errors introduced by this web author cannot be ruled out; location interpretation from variety of sources, including this website author.
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August 2011