Skamania County -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 6/22/2006
  • Essay 7811
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Skamania County on the Columbia River in Southwest Washington is home to several of the state's most famous features including Mount St. Helens in the northwest and Bonneville Dam in the southeast. It has the distinction of having been created by the Washington Territorial Legislature, abolished, then recreated. The county's story was shaped by the river and particularly by the rapids called The Cascades B that divided the lower from the middle Columbia. Skamania has always been tied to the economy and politics of Oregon and of Portland, the principal seaport on the Columbia. In the last years of the twentieth century, the economy shifted away from logging, and tourism became the dominant industry. Half of Skamania County's workers are employed outside the county. In 2005, the estimated population was 10,664.


In what was to become Skamania County, the first residents called themselves Chilluckittequw (Ruby and Brown) and they lived along the rivers that drained into the Columbia between Beacon Rock and about Hood River. They spoke a language later classified as the Upper Division of Chinookan and could communicate with other tribes that lived along the Columbia from The Dalles to the mouth at the Pacific. Explorers Lewis and Clark (1805) called them the Smock-shops and other observers dubbed them Sahellellah, Shahala, Ninuhltidihs, and Kwikwuilits. American settlers named them Cascades.

A massive landslide off Table Mountain in about 1450 (called the Bonneville Landslide) blocked the Columbia and shoved it a mile off its course. The river backed up into a 100-mile lake and drowned the forest along the shore. When the river broke through the slide, it flooded downstream and cut the four-mile Cascades rapids. This changed things dramatically for the indigenous people, who now had a choke point on the river where they could easily gather salmon during the summer months. The salmon became the central feature of the Chilluckittequw culture and economy and the locals rented the fishing places along the rapids to other tribes after first taking the fish they needed. They also killed game and ate the wapato bulb harvested from river shallows. Americans compared the wapato favorably to the potato.

The population of the Chilluckittequw dropped from about 3,000 in 1780 to a few hundred in the mid-nineteenth century because of diseases acquired from Europeans and Americans. By the end of the century, the few dozen survivors lived near the rapids. Many others intermarried with other tribes and with settlers. Indians continued to gather fish at the Cascades until the rapids were flooded by Bonneville Dam in the 1930s.

Travelers Around the Cascades

The first Americans to visit the future Skamania County were the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who mapped the river in 1805 and made note of the Cascades Rapids, which Clark called Athe grand schute. This obstacle to navigation along the Columbia became the main engine of economy in Skamania County. Travelers and shippers had to leave their canoes, rafts, and steamboats, and portage themselves and their goods several miles around the rapids to embark at the other end. On his way upstream in 1811, North West Company explorer David Thompson looked at the road and found it to be 1,450 yards long, with a deep descent near the Indian villages, at the far end, with up and down hills, and side hills most of the way, besides a confusion of rucks, gullies, and thick woods from end to end. "To say that there is not a worse path under the sun would be going a step too far, but to say that for difficulty and danger few could equal it, would be saying but the truth" (Attwell, 26).

Fur traders lugged their goods, furs, and themselves around the Cascades over the trail that Thompson described. The Chilluckittequw charged tolls and rented their labor to the trappers and, beginning in the 1830s, to nearly exhausted Oregon Trail migrants from the United States. In 1844, settlers cut a wagon road along the north side of the rapids. Four years later, Joel Palmer cut the pack trail along the south side for cattle and horses. This gradually became a wagon road, as traffic increased.


In July 1851, Francis Chenoweth (variously called Hardin or Justin, with surname sometimes as Chenowith) built a railroad consisting of one wagon on wood rails pulled by a single mule. Chenoweth charged 75 cents for every hundred pounds of freight. He added more mules and cars (the first railroad in the future Washington state) and sold it to the Bradford family, which expanded it further and built a hotel. By 1854, Upper Cascades included a store, a hotel, a blacksmith forge, and corrals for stock.

Americans who crossed the Oregon Trail settled around the rapids, some out of design, but many because that was where their wagons, their stock, or their morale gave out. Isaac Bush established a small hospital to care for sick travelers. Native American Sam Anders (or Andres) opened a store. The three settlements along the rapids -- Upper, Middle, and Lower Cascades -- included some 3,000 people making the community the largest in Washington Territory in 1861.

Before 1850, the names and dates of arrival of the earliest settlers around the Cascades are obscure. Incoming settlers squatted where they liked without any legal title. Beginning in 1850 with the Donation Land Claim Act, settlers could file a claim to 640 acres if married, 320 acres if single. Residents claimed the land where they lived and these records are the first documentation of Skamania Couny's early settlers.

Conflict of Cultures

In 1847, Cayuse tribesmen killed Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and 12 others at their mission up on the Walla Walla River. The Oregon provisional government (Oregon was not yet an official U.S. territory) organized a military response. The settlers and the Indians immediately realized the strategic importance of the portages at Cascades, The Dalles, and Celilo Falls. Who controlled these portages controlled the river. Oregon Governor George Abernathy ordered a blockhouse built at the Cascades. This became Fort Guilliam on the south side of the rapids, a supply base for the posts and operations upriver.

With gold strikes and military operations, traffic up and down the river increased, requiring wharves and warehouses. In 1851, rivermen put lines on the steamboat James P. Flint and hauled her up through roiling waters of the rapids to establish her as the first steamer on the middle river. But pulling boats through the rapids had limitations. In 1854, Putnam Bradford and L. W. Coe built the Mary above the Cacades and gave birth to a shipbuilding industry on the middle and upper river. With additional bottoms operating on the middle river, freight rates dropped, but never enough to satisfy the shippers.

In 1855, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) secured treaties with many of the Indian tribes in Washington, who ceded their lands to the United States in exchange for reservations, some payments, and the right to fish. The imbalance in the treaties was quickly realized by the Native Americans some of whom lashed out at the white settlers flooding into the territory. The Yakimas, Klickitats, and perhaps local Indians targeted the settlements at the Cascades, which they knew to be of strategic importance to upriver settlements. In March 1856, Indians attacked Fort Rains, a blockhouse built at the Middle Cascades to protect the portage railway. Ten settlers and three soldiers died; in retaliation, the U.S. Army hanged nine Indians.

Skamania County

In March 1854, the new territorial legislature carved out Skamania (said to be Chinookian for "swift water") County out of Clarke (later Clark) County. Skamania then encompassed the north bank of the Columbia east to the Rocky Mountains. A month later, the legislators lobbed off the portion east of the Deschutes River for Walla Walla County. The Skamania County seat was at the lower Cascades (where the legislative representatives lived and had their businesses).

In January 1865, the legislature deleted Skamania County and divided the land between Clarke and Klickitat counties. The officers were forbidden to act in their official capacities after April 1, 1965. Clarke County officials wanted to tax the assets of the Oregon Steam Navigation Co. and other properties at the Cascades. But Congress disapproved  the 1865 legislation, so the session of 1867, the legislature repealed the act, restoring Skamania County to existence. Any acts of the county officers were approved retroactively.

Steamboats on the Columbia

Captain John C. Ainsworth, Simeon G. Reed, and Robert R. Thompson founded the Oregon Steam Navigation Company in 1860 and bought up all the steamboats on the Columbia and the portage railway at the Cascades. This became the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co. (ORN) which consolidated all the steamboat lines and portage railroads on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Steam locomotives replaced the mules. By 1885, the amount of wheat shipped from Eastern Washington through Portland was triple that of the Willamette Valley.

During low water, cargo on the 401 miles of the Columbia and Snake between Portland and Lewiston had to be handled 14 times, 10 times just as far as The Dalles. ORN's monopoly grated on Eastern Washington farmers. With the rise of the Patrons of Husbandry -- the Grange -- in the 1870s came pressure on Congress to fund improvements to navigation. Work on a 3,000-foot canal at the Cascades on the Oregon side began in 1878 and dragged on for 18 years. On November 6, 1896, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a system of locks at the Cascades and steamboats could navigate from Portland as far as The Dalles. In 1905, 1,417 boats carried 133,070 passengers through the canal.

The Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific Railroad, competitors in the transcontinental business, launched the Seattle Portland & Seattle Railway and built a line along the north side of the river through Skamania County beginning in 1906. Construction and operation of the line brought more prosperity to the county. Along with the railroad, highways on the Oregon and Washington sides left steamboating aground and by the early 1920s, scheduled passenger runs on the river had ended.

Fishing and Logging

With the demise of the Indians, settlers stepped in to harvest salmon. At first, fish were salted and shipped as far away as Germany, but in the 1870s, the development of industrial canning technology allowed fisherman to utilize China lines, set nets, drift nets, seines, fish wheels, traps, and set lines to take vast quantities of salmon. Often, Chinese laborers staffed the canneries in poor conditions and for low wages. The fishermen sold their catches to the canneries, but few ever seemed to get ahead economically. Sturgeon became a profitable fish, but both sturgeon and salmon suffered from over fishing and ultimately from the construction of Bonneville Dam in the 1930s.

A community grew up on the donation claim of John W. Shepard called Shepard's Point, but not much developed around the legal county seat at Lower Cascades. In April 1890, a group of young men spontaneously undertook to move the county seat one night in April 1890. They loaded saddlebags and wheelbarrows with the county records and by morning, the seat was gone. According to pioneer Henry Metzger there was, "not too much objection" (Skamania Pioneer, Sec. 3, p. 3), but some did object and took legal action. The matter was settled out of court in 1894 when disastrous floods washed away the old court house and most of Lower Cascades.

In 1893, developer George Stevenson purchased the Shepard claim and platted a town. Stevenson's plan took hold and within a few years, the town of Stevenson boasted saloons, a hotel, a skating rink, and a ball park. A ferry connected Stevenson on the north bank to Cascade Locks on the south bank. When the railroad came through in 1908, the town shifted north to make way for the tracks.

As transportation down the river improved with the canal and locks, logging and milling became profitable and dominated economic activity in the county. The steep gradients of the watersheds led to the construction of log flumes, trough systems that carried logs downhill. The Broughton Flume near Underwood operated from 1922 until 1986. The U.S. government established the first forest reserves in 1891. These became national forests in 1907, with 80 percent of the northern part of Skamania County becoming the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Loggers harvested trees from private lands and paid the U.S. Forest Service for trees from the National Forest.

"You Can Do Some Work for Me"

Beginning in 1923, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the Columbia for its best uses. The 1931 "308 Report" recommended 10 dams to provide for navigation, hydro power, flood control, and irrigation. Construction on Bonneville Dam, below the Cascades, began in 1933 and the lock was ready for traffic in 1938. The Cascades rapids disappeared under Bonneville Lake.

Completion of the power house in 1937 led to the formation of the Bonneville Power Administration to distribute the cheap electric power to be produced from all the Columbia River dams. The dam included an innovative fish ladder, designed after construction commenced, to allow migrating salmon to pass up and down the river. Construction of the dam led to the founding of the community of North Bonneville on Hamilton Island.

Environmental Shocks

The fish ladders at Bonneville and the other Columbia dams were not as successful as planned. Fingerlings swimming down river got caught in the powerhouse turbines, and mature fish could not always find the ladders on their way upstream. Salmon runs declined. From these reduced stocks, Indian tribes were allowed under treaties and the Boldt Decision of 1974 to a share of the fish. Sport and commercial fishermen took fewer fish and left less money in river communities. In 1999, four runs of salmon on the Columbia were declared as threatened or endangered species.

Logging and forest products in Washington state embarked on a long, slow decline beginning in the 1930s. Private timber holdings became exhausted and the best logs came from public lands, but at a measured pace. After the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental movement introduced new considerations into almost every aspect of Skamania County’s economic life. Protections for the threatened Northern Spotted Owl and salmon runs resulted in dramatic reductions in the sale of public timber and the loss of jobs tied to logging.

In addition to the Bonneville Landslide, Skamania County is home to two other state catastrophes. In 1902, the Yacolt Burn, the state's largest fire in recorded history probably started in the Wind River Valley. More than 370 square miles of timber went up in flames and 38 people perished. Mount St. Helens, in the extreme northwest, erupted on May 18, 1980, but the blast blew north, the pyroclastic flows flooded Lewis and Cowlitz Counties to the west, and the ash plume drifted to the northeast. Fifty-seven people died.

Winds of Change

Sometime in the 1950s, surfers in Hawaii added sails to their boards and invented windsurfing. In the 1970s, windsurfers discovered the strong winds in the Columbia Gorge and the surfers moved in with their colorful boards and sails and wetsuits. With the tourists came plans for resorts and other development spawning a movement to protect the gorge’s scenic beauty. After years of controversy, Congress created the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, which placed all development along the river in the hands of a local commission responsible to the U.S. Forest Service. The commission and its powers became an important aspect of the county’s politics and economy.

In March 1993, more than a quarter of the county’s employable residents were out of work, principally because of reductions in logging. Capitalizing on the Columbia Gorge's status as a scenic area, the Skamania Lodge opened in Stevenson with 195 rooms and the jobless rate dropped immediately by 6 percent. By 2005, the jobless rate was at 6 percent and the lodge had grown to 254 rooms, a 19-hole golf course, and a convention center. Skamania Lodge became the county’s biggest private employer. Forty businesses opened and the county economy took a new direction from extraction to tourism.


Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Revised Edition), (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986, 1992), 21-22; George W. Fuller, A History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), 232-236; Jim Atwell, Columbia River Gorge History, Vol. 1 (Skamania, WA: Tahlkie Books, 1974); "A Special Bicentennial-Historical Edition," The Skamania County Pioneer, August 27, 1976 (Seattle Public Library bound volume); History of Skamania County coordinated by Dorothy Sams (Stevenson, WA: Skamania County Community Development Program, 1958); The Columbia Gorge: A Unique American Treasure compiled by Michael S. Spranger (Pullman: Washington State University Cooperative Extension Service, 1985), 2-19, 39-53, 54-67, 73-74; Dorothy Johansen, Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest, Second Edition (New York: Harper & Row, [1957], 1967), 280, 282; 516-519; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 22-23; Steward H. Holbrook, Rivers of America: The Columbia (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1956), 283-326; Nicholas K. Geranios, "Resort Brings New Life and Money to Skamania," The Seattle Times, June 20, 1993, p. B-8; the online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area" (by Cassandra Tate), "Congress designates the Columbia River Gorge as a National Scenic Area on October 17, 1986," (by David Wilma), "Native Americans attack Americans at the Cascades of the Columbia on March 26, 1856," (by David Wilma), "Yacolt Burn, largest forest fire in recorded state history, destroys 238,920 acres of timber and kills 38 people from September 11 to 13, 1902," (by David Wilma), and "Mount St. Helens erupts on May 18, 1980," (by Greg Lange) (accessed June 14, 2006); Laws of Washington: A Publication of the Session Laws of Washington Territory, (Seattle: Tribune Print Co., 1895), Vol. I, 249, Vol. II, 801-802; The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Francis Chenoweth builds Washington's first railroad in July 1851" (by Gregg Herrington), (accessed August 23, 2008).
Note: This essay was revised slightly on August 23, 2008, and corrected on January 26, 2015.

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