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BRIDGE of the GODS Magazine

A Waterfall That’s Gone but Not Forgotten

Jun 25, 2021 12:00AM ● By Sherrill Pool Elizondo
Dipnet fishing at Celilo Falls in the 1950s

Dipnet fishing at Celilo Falls in the 1950s - photo by United States Army Corps of Engineers

I hadn’t thought much about a road trip to Washington State and Oregon in July 2019 until recently, being preoccupied with spinal issues that flared during the trip. In the past 18 months, it’s been doctor appointments, cortisone shots, physical therapy, an ablation, and trying to resume exercising. Covid-19 became a concern in March. Now, it’s occasional day trips or an escape to my beach home and never without a book to read. A recent one could explain why I’ve had obsessive thoughts about a particular place in Oregon. The book concerned a drowning in a wild and scenic river and the family going against environmentalists to retrieve the body. I keep thinking about all the waterfalls I saw on that trip except for ONE.

My husband and I drove from Cypress, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and spent the night on the first day of our two-week trip. Due to unforeseen civic events in Salt Lake City and Idaho, we ended up in Oregon on our second night -- in a rest stop! It was a tiring drive I wouldn’t recommend, but we wanted to spend more time in the Pacific Northwest. We explored Washington State, making at least two trips to the farthest northwest tip of the contiguous lower 48 on the Makah Indian Reservation, where we hiked Flattery Trail. At the end of the trail, we viewed the Strait of Juan De Fuca, where it meets the Pacific. A breathtakingly beautiful and serene place, one of those unspoiled remote places still seen in our country.

Eventually, we traveled back to Oregon. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a must-see. During trips, I look up historical events concerning the smallest of towns as there are gaps in my knowledge of history and geography. When we weren’t trudging to waterfalls, lookouts, landmarks, or savoring salmon at every opportunity, I was reading. We stopped at Vista House, the museum at Crown Point in Multnomah County, Oregon, that provides a spectacular view of the Columbia River. Multnomah Falls was beautiful, as were other waterfalls, but I was in awe of the Columbia. As we drove along the river, I saw the Dalles Dam, never imagining what sad circumstances occurred after it was built.

Some of my generation barely remember Sputnik, President Eisenhower sending federal troops into Arkansas, seeing Bridge Over The River Kwai, or watching Father Knows Best. I don’t recall learning in school about a dam in Oregon or a scenic waterfall that disappeared. For thousands of years, Native Americans gathered at Celilo Falls to fish and trade. Historians called the area “The Wall Street of the West.” I learned what a spiritual place it was for Native Americans and about the spirit of Wy-am, “echo of falling water.” There are written accounts of Celilo Falls by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The area is considered to be one of the longest continuously inhabited communities in North America.

Celilo Falls Historical Sign, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge near Wishram in Klickitat County, Washington shows the falls as they were before they were flooded by The Dalles Dam - photo cc by J. Stephen Conn

March 10, 1957
Floodgates of the new dam were closed, and the horseshoe-shaped Celilo Falls disappeared in a matter of hours with the rising water never to be seen, heard, or felt again. There are accounts of Celilo in books, film, and on the internet. One video includes slide photos of when Celilo was lost to the rising water. In another, Native Americans speak before the Oregon Senate Judiciary on the 50th anniversary. I ask myself if something like this could happen today. I can only imagine the loss Native Americans experienced that day and the repercussions which followed for them, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In learning about this place on the Columbia, experiencing an ongoing Pandemic with all my concerns and anxieties, being concerned about a world my children and grandchildren have inherited, and reading about other people’s losses, I have gained a new perspective on my own life.

There’s a Native American saying: “When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you; it is you who belong to this land.”

Not until I returned home in August 2019 and did more reading about the Columbia River Gorge did I discover the true story about Celilo Falls. I began to write down my thoughts. While curtailing strenuous exercise for health reasons, I felt personal loss not dancing every day in my exercise program. I tried to write more and rewrote this story many times. It changed with current events between 2019 and 2021. The Pandemic began, and I added more as I observed my fears and anxieties as well as the concern others shared due to actual or potential loss due to illness, death, or loss of a job. Many uncertainties.

Observing the political scene and violence in our country created more feelings of hopelessness for some. I began to see that I was writing about loss in general. I then made an effort to remember and visualize the very genuine and beautiful world surrounding us in nature with renewed appreciation. It became important for my husband and me to take in as much of the outdoors in places where very few people gathered and did not require us to travel far. Stacked against my anxieties, health issues, and the recent death of friends, I came to realize that some losses in life are small in comparison to others. Even significant personal losses are small compared to what has been lost forever in our shared physical world. No one can change the past, but one can live each day trying to be a better person using optimism.  We can work toward positive outcomes and learn from the past. Nature can be very healing and inspiring.

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful places in the world, most certainly in the United States. It was a privilege to have seen the area and make some discoveries along the way. I have hardly touched on the scope of what there is to know about the Columbia River Gorge.

My words are not as adequate or as eloquent as some. I would urge anyone who wants to learn more about Celilo Falls and the Native Americans who have inhabited the area for thousands of years to check these links for further reading:

Stories from the River: Celilo
Confluence - Confluence Library article by Woodrow Hunt

Celilo Falls
Oregon Ecyclopedia article by Katrine Barber

Celilo Falls silenced by the Dalles Dam | Echo of Water Against Rocks
Video: University of Oregon produced and directed by Ian McCluskey & Steve Mital

Celilo Falls Underwater Images and Effigy Beach
Video: Oregon Field Guide Season 20 Episode 2008

Celilo Park Confluence – River Sites article

Proposal To Resurrect Columbia River’s Celilo Falls Draws Flak
NW News Network article by Tom Banse (with audio option)

Photos from the trip:

Neah Bay, Washington State - photo © Carlos A. Elizondo

View of the Columbia River Gorge east from the Vista House at Crown Point - photo © Carlos A. Elizondo

View looking north across the Columbia River from the Vista House at Crown Point - photo © Carlos A. Elizondo

Multnomah Falls, Oregon - photo © Carlos A. Elizondo

Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks, Oregon, looking toward the Washington shore of the Columbia River - photo © Carlos A. Elizondo

About the Author
Sherrill Pool Elizondo graduated from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) with a degree in English and Education. She is a sixth-generation Texan and interested in genealogy. She’s been an aspiring writer for over 35 years and is the proud parent of three sons, and has six talented and remarkable grandchildren who now all reside in the state of Texas. Her stories can be seen online at Boomer Cafe, Bullock Texas History Museum, 70 Candles, Grand Magazine, and Texas Escapes. She was born and raised in San Antonio, has lived most of her adult life in the Houston area, and enjoys another home in Rockport, Texas.

Sherrill Pool Elizondo with husband, Carlos, at Crater Lake, Oregon, July 2019 - photo courtesy of Carlos A. Elizondo