Kettle Falls

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/27/2005
  • Essay 7577
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Kettle Falls, on the upper Columbia River about 40 miles south of the Canadian border, was once one of the most important fishing and gathering places for Native Americans in the Northwest. Salish speakers called it Shonitkwu, meaning roaring or noisy waters. The sound of the river, plunging nearly 50 feet in a series of cascades, could be heard for miles. It was said that the salmon ran so thick here that it was impossible to throw a stick into the water without hitting a fish. All this came to an end in 1941, with the completion of Grand Coulee Dam, located about 100 miles downstream. The dam, built without a passage for fish, closed the upper Columbia and its tributaries to migrating salmon. Today, the noise at Kettle Falls comes not from rushing water but from nearby Highway 395. The falls themselves are just slabs of quartzite, buried deep beneath the surface of a reservoir called Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake.

"Ilth Koy Ape"

The Canadian explorer and mapmaker David Thompson (1770-1857) was the first non-Indian to describe Kettle Falls. He and a party of French-Canadian voyageurs arrived at the falls on June 19, 1811, a few days after the ceremonies and dances that marked the beginning of the summer fishing season. He called both the place and its inhabitants "Ilth koy ape," a local phrase for the J-shaped baskets that the Indians used to catch fish.

For thousands of years, Kettle Falls had served as the nexus for a complex trading network based on ocean-going (anadromous) fish. Huge numbers of salmon passed through the falls during spawning season, from June through October. The fish were a magnet for Native Americans from both sides of the Rocky Mountains. Plains Indians brought buffalo hides, pemmican, and pigments ground from iron oxide deposits to Kettle Falls, trading for tule mats, dentalium shells, and other goods from the Pacific Coast. Later, European trade goods were added to the mix. Up to 14 tribes met regularly at the falls to fish, trade, and socialize, in what Thompson called "a kind of general rendezvous for News, Trade and settling disputes" (Nisbet, 101).

Thompson spent two weeks at Kettle Falls, building a canoe and otherwise preparing for what would become the first navigation of the Columbia from its headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth on the Pacific. A careful observer, he described in detail the practices that governed the salmon fishery at the falls. He initially thought the Indians were overly "sensitive" and "superstitious" about the fish that passed through the area in such seemingly inexhaustible numbers. He later decided that experience had taught them the best way to manage what was for them a critical food source.

Fishing at the falls was a highly organized enterprise. A salmon chief (called "See-pay," or Chief of the Waters) launched the season by spearing the first salmon; decided when the general harvest could begin; supervised the placement of basket traps along the rocky shoreline, and oversaw the construction of fishing platforms that extended over the turbulent water. At the end of the day, he divided the catch.

Thompson was surprised to see that only one man was fishing, with a spear, when he arrived, even though there were more than enough fish in the river to keep many people busy. He was told the harvest did not begin in earnest until the salmon chief announced that enough fish had safely cleared the falls. This was necessary, the Indians said, to protect the harvest in the future.

Thompson found it hard to believe many of the things that the Indians told him about salmon: that the fish ate nothing on their journey upriver, that any trace of blood or offal in the water would spook them; that they would die after spawning. After confirming some of this through his own dissections and experiments, he concluded that "the Natives knew the habits of the Salmon better than we did" (Nisbet, 101).

Cannery Woes

The "falls" at Kettle Falls were a series of cascades created by enormous blocks of quartzite piled in ledges across the riverbed by prehistoric floods. Water plummeted over the falls with so much force that it seemed to boil. Rocks and boulders tumbled furiously in a gyroscope of water at the bottom, carving circular potholes and craters in the underlying rock. "These boulders, being caught in the inequalities of rocks below the falls, are constantly driven round by the tremendous force of the current, and wear out holes as perfectly round and smooth as in the inner surface of a cast-iron kettle," wrote Canadian artist Paul Kane (1810-1871), who visited the falls in 1847 (Kane, 215-216). The potholes and the churning water reminded French Canadian voyageurs of cauldrons. They named the place La Chaudière, for kettle.

By all accounts, the falls were magnificent to look at. Kane described them as "exceedingly picturesque and grand." But it was the quantity of fish in the water that drew the most comment from early visitors. Kane, for example, marveled at the apparently ceaseless flow of summer Chinook salmon that he saw on two separate trips to the falls, in August and September of 1847. "The salmon continue to arrive in almost incredible numbers for nearly two months," he wrote. "In fact, there is one continuous body of them, more resembling a flock of birds than anything else in their extraordinary leap up the falls ... ." (Kane, 218).

Jesuit priest Pierre Jean De Smet (1791-1873) watched Indians catching up to 3,000 fish a day when he visited Kettle Falls in the early 1840s. The development of mechanical means of harvesting and preserving fish, beginning in the 1860s, caused this number to drop precipitously. In 1929, the Colville Confederated Tribes reported a total harvest of only 1,333 fish at the falls. Years before the construction of any dams on the Columbia, salmon runs were already in serious decline. The primary cause was overfishing, due to the proliferation of canneries near the mouth of the river.

The first cannery on the Columbia was established in 1866 at at Eagle Cliff in eastern Wahkiakum County in southwest Washington by four entrepreneurs from Maine: brothers George, William, and John Hume and their partner Andrew Hapgood. They canned 288,000 pounds of salmon during their first season. By 1886, there were 55 canneries on the lower river, taking in more than a hundred times that first year's harvest.

New technologies evolved to feed the canneries' demand for fish, including seine nets and gill nets, which were dropped into the water by boats and pulled into circles that were deadly for fish; pound nets, so-called because steam-driven pile drivers were used to "pound" permanent anchors for nets that were stretched across the river; and fish wheels, which literally pumped fish out of the water. At times the catch from these devices was more than the canneries could handle. The excess was simply thrown away.

The completion of Rock Island Dam in Central Washington -- the first dam to span the Columbia River -- further decimated the fishery at Kettle Falls. The average annual catch when construction began in 1930 was about 1,500 fish. In 1933, the year after the dam was finished, Indians caught only 267 fish at Kettle Falls.

Requiem for Kettle Falls

Rock Island Dam -- built by private power but operated now by the Chelan County Public Utility District -- was equipped with fish ladders to help mature salmon surmount the dam and continue on their journey to spawning grounds upriver. Fish ladders are basically stepped pools, arranged like staircases; salmon leap from one pool to the next until they can finally swim past the dam. The system works best on low dams such as Rock Island, which is just 40 feet tall. It was not an option at the 550-foot-tall Grand Coulee Dam. No ladder in the world could carry fish around an obstacle that high.

Grand Coulee, completed in 1941, ended migratory salmon and steelhead runs in the entire upper Columbia Basin. A study prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 put the annual loss at 1.1 million fish. The Indian catch went from a historical average of 644,500 fish a year to nothing. "One day we were fishermen, the next day there were no fish," said Michael Marchand, a member of the council of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Oregonian, 2000).

With the dam nearing completion in June 1940, the Colvilles organized a "Ceremony of Tears" to mourn the loss of the fishery at Kettle Falls. Representatives of the Yakimas, Spokanes, Nez Perce, Flatheads, Blackfeet, Coeur d'Alenes, Tulalips, and Kalispels joined the Colvilles for three days of ceremonies, games, dances, tributes, and expressions of grief. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended. In the words of writer William D. Layman, "The people reflected and prayed -- gone the salmon, gone the favorite places along the river where fish might be caught, gone thousands of acres of food-producing bottomlands and access to root and berry grounds." Three weeks later, Kettle Falls disappeared beneath Lake Roosevelt -- the reservoir rising behind Grand Coulee.

The land around the long-submerged falls is now part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, which encircles the 144-mile-long reservoir backed up by Grand Coulee Dam. An interpretive trail from the Kettle Falls Campground follows part of a portage road established to link the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Colvile, established in 1825, with a boat landing below the falls. The trail winds past St. Paul's Mission Church, built at a bend in the road by Catholic missionaries in 1846. The fort, named after the company's London governor, Andrew Colvile, closed in 1871; the mission was gone by 1880.

Gone, too, is the original town of Kettle Falls, incorporated in December 1891 by a group of Spokane businessmen backed by New York financiers. The town fathers envisioned Kettle Falls as a major resort, with fine hotels and other amenities to supplement the spectacular scenery and recreational fishing. One large hotel was built on the edge of the river but the rest of the dream evaporated when the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway bypassed Kettle Falls in favor of Marcus, several miles north. The little town limped along until the construction of Grand Coulee forced its 300 or so residents to pack up and move. Many of them settled in the community of Meyers Falls, which, in time, changed its name to Kettle Falls. The original townsite, like Fort Colvile and the falls themselves, was inundated by Lake Roosevelt.

The interpretive trail leads to an overlook marked by a huge, grooved boulder. This is a “sharpening stone,” made of amphibolite -- more fine-grained than the local bedrock -- and used by generations of Indians as a whetstone for spear points, knives, and other implements used to harvest salmon. It is today the most visible marker of what archaeologists say was 9,000 years of Native American life at Kettle Falls.


Jack Nisbet, Mapmaker's Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005); Nisbet, Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1996); William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Lake Roosevelt Administrative History, National Park Service website accessed December 2005(; "Dams of the Columbia Basin and Their Effects on the Native Fishery," Center for Columbia River History website accessed December 2005 (; Jonathan Brinckman, "Study Draws Lessons from Grand Coulee," The Oregonian, January 14, 2000, p. A-1; Associated Press, "Indians Ready for Big Doings -- Farewell to Kettle Falls Fishing Grounds to Draw Tribesmen," Spokesman-Review (Spokane), June 13, 1940, p. A-10; William D. Layman, “The Columbia, Wild & Free,” Columbia, Spring 2003, p. 19; Don Duncan, "Low Water Exposes a Bit of Columbia River History," The Seattle Times, March 31, 1989, B-1.
Note: The location of the first cannery on the Columbia was corrected on December 20, 2006.

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