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BRIDGE of the GODS Magazine

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler Has Been on the Water Since 1983

Mar 16, 2021 08:14PM ● By Bridge of the Gods
Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge Docked at Cascade Locks

Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler photo cc courtesy of Cyndy Yates via Flickr 

In 1983, the Port of Cascade Locks welcomed a diesel-powered 145-foot replica paddle steamer designed to provide tourists a unique river experience. Building the sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge, resulted from a long, arduous process to bring jobs and revenue to Cascade Locks.

In the 1960's a potential employer, Cascade Steel Rolling Mills, located in McMinnville instead of Cascade Locks due to environmental concerns. As a result, the Port of Cascade Locks determined that their best course forward was to invest in and promote tourism.

The first tourism proposal was a recreational tramway. The Oregon Court of Appeals killed the project when it ruled that the Port could not operate a tramway for recreational purposes. The Port's investment in tramway design was lost, and over a million dollars in federal grant funds were in jeopardy.

The Port then landed on the idea of a sternwheeler. Private cruise operators outside of the Port's district challenged the Port's right to create a new operation that might compete with them. Eventually, the Port triumphed and was able to transfer the tramway grant to the sternwheeler project. Additional funds were raised by revenue bonds secured by bridge toll income, and the project was underway.

Sternwheeler, Columbia Gorge Under Construction at the Nichols Boat Yard.
photo by Rodger Nichols, courtesy of 
Museum of Hood River County 

 Nichols Boat Works, Hood River, Oregon, constructed the diesel-powered Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler for the Port of Cascade Locks. Its design was inspired by an 1890s vessel and cost around $2.5 million to build.

 In 2006, American Waterways, Inc., doing business as Portland Spirit, leased the boat, which spends winter and early spring in Portland, Oregon cruising the Willamette River. She returns to the Columbia River for a variety of recreational cruises departing from Cascade Locks, Oregon, May through October.

 Steam-powered River Boats, Portages, and Dams

 In the 19th and early 20th centuries, steam-powered paddleboats called "sternwheelers" commonly traversed the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. There were propeller and side-wheeler steam-powered boats too, but sternwheelers were more maneuverable and easier to land. Freight rates were charged by tonnage, which was a volume, not weight measurement. Four cords of wood per hour fueled their movement.

Because of the Cascades Rapids at Cascade Locks and Celilo Falls at The Dalles, navigation was limited to discontinuous routes punctuated by portages. 

 This situation gave rise to a portage railroad on the south side of the river between The Dalles and Celilo in 1863. The Dalles – Celilo portage was served by the Oregon Pony, the first steam engine west of the Mississippi River. The little engine is on view in the Cascade Locks Marine Park. Celilo Falls disappeared beneath Lake Celilo, which formed in less than two hours after The Dalles Dam closed its gates and blocked the Columbia River's flow on March 10, 1957. Because the Dam also had navigational locks, the portage was soon no longer needed. The Dam resulted in a considerable loss to Naïve Americans who had fished the Long Narrows from The Dalles to Celilo Falls for at least 10,000 years.  

Old Steam Ships Using the Navigational Locks at Cascade Locks
photo courtesy of the Port of Cascade Locks

The navigational locks at Cascade Locks were completed in 1896. Travel without portage via the Columbia River from Portland to The Dalles became possible at that time. Construction began on Bonneville Dam in 1934, the City of Cascade Locks became incorporated in 1935, and the Dam was completed in 1938. The Dam's reservoir, Lake Bonneville, submerged most of the Cascade Locks and Canal. Only the upper part is visible today. With its picnic areas, playgrounds, and the Cascade Locks Historical Museum, Marine Park fronts the Columbia River where the Cascade Locks and Canal once facilitated safe river travel. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


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