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Coordinates: 45°38′58.01″N 120°58′40.53″W / 45.6494472°N 120.977925°W / 45.6494472; -120.977925

Dipnet fishing at Celilo Falls in the 1950s

Celilo Falls (Wyam, meaning "echo of falling water" or "sound of water upon the rocks," in several native languages) was a tribal fishing area on the Columbia River, just east of the Cascade Mountains, on what is today the border between the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. The name refers to a series of cascades and waterfalls on the river, as well as to the native settlements and trading villages that existed there in various configurations for 15,000 years. Celilo was the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent until 1957, when the falls and nearby settlements were submerged by the construction of The Dalles Dam.[1]




Main waterfall

Native salmon fishermen at Celilo Falls. Russell Lee, September 1941.

The main waterfall, known variously as Celilo Falls, The Chutes, Great Falls, or Columbia Falls[2], consisted of three sections: a cataract, called Horseshoe Falls or Tumwater Falls; a deep eddy, the Cul-de-Sac; and the main channel.[3] These features were formed by the Columbia River's relentless push through basalt narrows on the final leg of its journey to the Pacific Ocean. Frequently more than a mile (1.6 km) in width, the river was squeezed here into a width of only 140 feet (43 m).[4] The seasonal flow of the Columbia changed the height of the falls over the course of a year. At low water the drop was about 20 feet (6.1 m). During the spring freshet in June and July, the falls could be completely submerged. The falls were the sixth-largest by volume in the world and were among the largest in North America.[5] Average annual flow is about 190,000 ft³/sec (5380 m³/s), and during periods of high water or flood, as much as 1,240,000 ft³/sec (35,113 m³/s) passed over the falls, creating a tremendous roar that could be heard many miles away.[3]

The Narrows and The Dalles

Fishing sites existed along the entire length of The Narrows. Russell Lee, September 1941.

Celilo Falls itself was the first in a series of cascades and rapids known collectively as The Narrows or The Dalles, stretching for about 12 miles (19 km) downstream.[6] Over that length, the river dropped 82 feet (25 m) at high water and 63 feet (19 m) at low water.[2]

Three miles (4.8 km) below Celilo Falls was a stretch of rapids known variously as the Short Narrows, Ten Mile Rapids, the Little (or Upper) Dalles, or Les Petites Dalles. These rapids were about 1 mile (1.6 km) long and 250 feet (76 m) wide. Ten miles (16 km) below Celilo Falls was another stretch of rapids, this one known as the Long Narrows, Five Mile Rapids, the Big (or Lower) Dalles, Les Grandes Dalles, or Grand Dalles. This stretch of rapids was about 3 miles (4.8 km) long, and the river channel narrowed to 75 feet (23 m). Immediately downstream were the Dalles Rapids (or Wascopam to the local natives), about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long. Here the river dropped 15 feet (4.6 m) in a tumult much commented on by early explorers.[2]

The Long Narrows and the Dalles Rapids are sometimes grouped together under names such as Grand Dalles, Les Dalles, Big Dalles, or The Dalles. One early observer, Ross Cox, noted a three-mile "succession of boiling whirlpools".[2] Explorer Charles Wilkes described it as "one of the most remarkable places upon the Columbia". He calculated that the river dropped about 50 feet (15 m) over 2 miles (3.2 km) here. During the spring freshet, the river rose as much as 62 feet (19 m), radically altering the nature of the rapids.[2] Fur trader Alexander Ross wrote, "[The water] rushes with great impetuosity; the foaming surges dash through the rocks with terrific violence; no craft, either large or small, can venture there safely. During floods, this obstruction, or ledge of rocks, is covered with water, yet the passage of the narrows is not thereby improved."[2]


Fishing and trading

A mural on the Oregon State Capitol rotunda depicts Lewis and Clark's arrival at Celilo Falls in 1805.

For 15,000 years, native peoples gathered at Wyam to fish and exchange goods.[7] They built wooden platforms out over the water and caught salmon with dipnets and long spears on poles as the fish swam up through the rapids and jumped over the falls.[8] Historically, an estimated fifteen to twenty million salmon passed through the falls every year, making it one of the greatest fishing sites in North America.[9]

Celilo Falls and The Dalles were strategically located at the border between Chinookan and Sahaptian speaking peoples and served as the center of an extensive trading network across the Pacific Plateau.[10] Artifacts from the original village site at Celilo suggest that tribes came from as far away as the Great Plains, Southwestern United States, and Alaska.[11] When the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the area in 1805, the explorers found a "great emporium…where all the neighboring nations assemble," and a population density unlike anything they had seen on their journey.[12] Accordingly, historians have likened the Celilo area to the “Wall Street of the West."[13] The Wishram people lived on the north bank, while the Wasco lived on the south bank, with the most intense bargaining occurring at the Wishram village of Nix-luidix.[10] Charles Wilkes reported finding three major native fishing sites on the lower Columbia — Celilo Falls, the Big Dalles, and Cascades Rapids, with the Big Dalles being the largest. Alexander Ross described it as the "great rendezvous" of native traders, as "the great emporium or mart of the Columbia."[2] Pinnipeds such as sea lions and seals followed salmon up the Columbia as far as Celilo Falls. In 1841 George Simpson wrote "these animals ascend the Columbia in great numbers in quest of the salmon.[14]


Our waters shall be free: free to serve the uses and purposes of their creation by a Divine Providence.
——Portland investor and civic leader Joseph Nathan Teal, at the canal's opening ceremony.[15]

The seasonal changes in the Columbia's flow, high in summer and low in winter, affected Celilo Falls dramatically. Lewis and Clark reached Celilo Falls in the late autumn when the water was relatively low, making the falls into a major barrier. In contrast, when David Thompson passed Celilo Falls in July 1811, the high water obscured the falls and made his passage through the Columbia Gorge relatively easy.[16]

In the 1840s and 1850s, American pioneers began arriving in the area, traveling down the Columbia on wooden barges loaded with wagons. Many lost their lives in the violent currents near Celilo.[17] In the 1870s, the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a plan to improve navigation on the river. In 1915, they completed the 14-mile (23 km) Celilo Canal, a portage allowing steamboats to circumvent the turbulent falls. Though the canal's opening was greeted with great enthusiasm and anticipation, the canal was scarcely used and was completely idle by 1919.[18]

Flooded by the dam

Newsreel footage of native fishers at Celilo Falls in 1956, shortly before the site was submerged by The Dalles Dam (35 sec.) (media help)

As more settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s and 1940s, civic leaders advocated for a system of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. They argued that the dams would improve navigation for barge traffic from interior regions to the ocean; provide a reliable source of irrigation for agricultural production; provide electricity for the World War II defense industry; and alleviate the flooding of downriver cities, as occurred in the 1948 destruction of Vanport City, Oregon.

Aluminum production, shipbuilding, and nuclear production at the Hanford site contributed to a rapid increase in regional demand for electricity. By 1943, fully 96 percent of Columbia River electricity was being used for war manufacturing.[19] The volume of water at Celilo Falls made The Dalles an attractive site for a new dam in the eyes of the Corps of Engineers.

2008 sonar survey showing Celilo Falls remains intact.

Throughout this period, native people continued to fish at Celilo, under the provisions of the 1855 Treaties signed with the Yakama Nation,[20] the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs,[21] and the Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse,[22] which guaranteed the tribes' ancient "right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed stations." In 1947, the federal government convened Congressional hearings and concluded that the proposed dam at The Dalles would not violate tribal fishing rights under the treaties.[23] Subsequently, the government reached a monetary settlement with the affected tribes, paying $26.8 million for the loss of Celilo and other fishing sites on the Columbia.[24]

The Army Corps of Engineers commenced work on The Dalles Dam in 1952 and completed it five years later. On March 10, 1957, hundreds of observers looked on as a rising Lake Celilo rapidly silenced the falls, submerged fishing platforms, and consumed the village of Celilo, ending an age-old existence for those who lived there. A small Native American community exists today at nearby Celilo Village, on a bluff overlooking the former location of the falls.

In 2008 the Army Corps of Engineers completed a survey of the Celilo Falls site using sonar technology, in response to the 50th anniversary of the flooding of the falls. The survey revealed that the falls remain intact below the artificial lake, and that "rocky outcrops, carved basins and channels that match aerial photographs from the 1940s."[25]


Celilo Falls retains great cultural significance for native peoples. Ted Strong of the Intertribal Fish Commission told one historian, "If you are an Indian person and you think, you can still see all the characteristics of that waterfall. If you listen, you can still hear its roar. If you inhale, the fragrances of mist and fish and water come back again."[23] In 2007, three thousand people gathered at Celilo Village to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the inundation of the falls.[26]

Artist and architect Maya Lin is working on interpretive artwork at Celilo for the Confluence Project, scheduled for completion in 2009.[27][28]

Aerial view of Lake Celilo on the Columbia River, after construction of The Dalles Dam. The former location of Celilo Falls, the Short Narrows, and the Long Narrows are noted in parentheses. (The river bends to the southwest downstream of Browns Island; the left panel is rotated so that the image fits horizontally.)

See also


  1. ^ Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 52.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Gibson, James R. (1997). The Lifeline of the Oregon Country: The Fraser-Columbia Brigade System, 1811-47. University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 125–128. ISBN 0774806435.   online at Google Books
  3. ^ a b "World Waterfall database". Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  4. ^ Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 80.  
  5. ^ World Waterfall Database
  6. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: The Dalles (historical)
  7. ^ Barber, Katrine; Ed. William G. Robbins (2001). Narrative Fractures and Fractured Narratives: Celilo Falls in the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and the Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press.  
  8. ^ Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 154.  
  9. ^ Rohrbacher, George (January 2006). "Talk of the Past: The salmon fisheries of Celilo Falls". Common-Place. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  10. ^ a b Ronda, James P. (1984). Lewis & Clark among the Indians. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  11. ^ Center for Columbia River History. "Oregon's Oldest Town: 11,000 Years of Occupation". Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  12. ^ Cressman, L.S.; et al. (1960). "Cultural Sequences at the Dalles, Oregon: A Contribution to Pacific Northwest Prehistory". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 50 (10): 1–108. doi:10.2307/1005853.  
  13. ^ Alpert, Emily (2006-07-10). "Remembering Celilo Falls". The Dalles Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  14. ^ Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 191–192. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3.   online at Google Books
  15. ^ J. B. Tyrell, ed., David Thompson: Narrative of his Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 (Toronto, 1916, 496-97; "Address of Joseph Nathan Teal, The Dalles-Celilo Celebration, Big Eddy, Oregon (May 5, 1915," Oregon Historical quarterly, 16 (Fall 1916), 107-8. (As quoted in The Columbia River's fate in the twentieth century)
  16. ^ Meinig, D.W. (1995) [1968]. The Great Columbia Plain (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classic edition ed.). University of Washington Press. pp. 37–38, 50. ISBN 0-295-97485-0.  
  17. ^ (DOC) Waiilatpu Mission Resource Education Guide. Whitman Mission National Historic Site. 2004-11-14. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  18. ^ Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 204.  
  19. ^ Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 284.  
  20. ^ "Treaty with the Yakama, 1855". Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  21. ^ "Treaty of Wasco, Columbia River, Oregon Territory with the Taih, Wyam, Tenino, & Dock-Spus Bands of the Walla-Walla, and the Dalles, Ki-Gal-Twal-La, and the Dog River Bands of the Wasco". Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  22. ^ "Treaty with the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla, 1855". Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  23. ^ a b Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 378.  
  24. ^ Dietrich, William (1995). Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. p. 376.  
  25. ^ Rojas-Burke, Joe (November 28, 2008). "Sonar shows Celilo Falls are intact". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2008-11-28.  
  26. ^ Modie, Jonathan. "The Celilo Legacy commemoration brought together the tribes of the lower Columbia River and others to remember Celilo Falls, bringing a mix of sadness and nostalgia.". Wana Chinook Tymoo. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  27. ^ Egan, Timothy (2003-08-04). "Looking Backward and Ahead at Continent's End". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  28. ^ "Confluence Project: Celilo Park". Retrieved 2008-02-01.  

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