By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Recalling Celilo Falls

I shall never forget my Oregon history lesson about Celilo Falls when I was 9 years old.

Our family, driving back to Monument after visiting Mother’s parents in Portland, stopped at the Falls where my stepfather, Lynn, bought a fresh salmon.

We got out of the car and followed Lynn down to the river’s edge, where the waters of that mighty Columbia made our John Day back home seem like a trickle. Turbulent, roiling, churning, raging whirlpools. Everywhere, rocky islands jutted out into the waterway. And there, on many of those slippery jagged rocks that barely surfaced above the water, Indian fishers precariously balanced. Some were on planks that extended even farther over the Columbia, each risking his life to spear, and, with 20-foot-poles, net the catch.

For centuries, Celilo Falls had been a premier fishing spot for the giant Chinook and other salmon as they battled upstream through the rough waters and rocky impediments. The water passing over those rapids and waterfalls was said to have 10 times the volume of what passes over today’s Niagara Falls.

Indians had exclusive rights to this superb fishing site, and elders and chiefs stipulated regulations regarding it. Fishing season was not permitted to begin until after the “First Salmon Ceremony,” where, according to early explorers, the first salmon customarily was cut into pieces and given to children of the village.

The leaders also specified that fishing each day would start and stop with the sound of a whistle. If a fisher fell, or was pulled into the water by the weight of his catch — and in most instances that unfortunate person drowned — fishing was immediately halted. Later, fishermen were required to tie a rope around their waist and attach it to the shore.

Spring and early summer were the seasons for these great runs of salmon and steelhead, and catches of several hundred fish per day per fisher were said to be common.

Elders and those without family were permitted to take what they needed from the catch. Some were sold to passers-by. Visiting tribes were presented with what they could carry home, and the rest belonged to the fishers and their families. The hope was that the dried salmon supply would last the year — with enough left to trade to eastern Oregon tribes.

Celilo Falls was not just a premier fishing spot. Here in Oregon Country, for more than a century and a half, it was a renowned trading hub and marketplace. As many as 5,000 might go there to trade, barter and buy, not with money, but with dentalium, or tooth or tusk shells.

Indians, British and Americans traded otter, beaver and other furs for trinkets and buttons. Indians traded dried venison, buffalo and bear meat. Canoes, robes and horses were valuable trade items. White traders’ wares included beads, calicos, red blankets, kettles and other housewares, knives, guns and ammunition. Slaves also were traded and, according to the “Dictionary of Oregon History,” “... captive slaves had whatever currency value they were deemed worth, and this traffic was in places considerable.”

Along with the trading, games were played and religious ceremonies held.

Artifacts belonging to these people: tools, weapons, art, items of adornment, ashes of their campfires and buried sanctuaries of their dead that were found at this Columbia River site, indicate it was one of the longest occupied locales on the continent.

And although a considerable amount is known about this historic fishing spot and market, the origin of the name “Celilo” and its meaning is not known. “Oregon Geographic Names” notes that several theories have been suggested, but adds, “Stories to the effect that Celilo is a name based on the remark of a steamboat captain, ‘I see, lie low,’ may be dismissed as fiction.”

As Oregon Country became more populous, settlers began to view these obstructions and falls — by volume, the sixth largest falls in the world — with disfavor. The “chutes,” as they were known, required river travelers to portage around the falls on this River of the West until more roads were built. Hefty tolls often were charged. The obstacles prevented steamers from proceeding to upriver ports.

When the Oregon Steam Navigation Company in l862 built a portage railroad, which operated until 1880, portaging became simpler.

Arrival of more settlers and increased commerce resulted in more “progress,” and the Cascade Locks were constructed in 1896. As of April 28, 1915, the nearly nine-mile long, $5 million Celilo Canal and series of five locks, permitted steamers to traverse over this total fall of about 80 feet and continue upriver. More change came in 1933, some 40 miles east of Portland, with the start of the construction of Bonneville Dam, named for Brig. Gen. Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, an early military explorer. Completion of the dam brought flooding of Cascade Locks, and changed forever Celilo’s historic fishing spot, while providing hydroelectric power and improved navigation. In 1938, building of the world’s largest single lift lock enabled an ocean-going freighter to dock upriver at The Dalles. But according to “The Oregon Companion,” that was a one-time event.

In 1993, a new, larger lock opened and bulky barges became common traffic on the Columbia. Fish ladders permitted passage of salmon and steelhead, but sturgeon were unable to use the ladder and populations were confined to above or below the dam.

Today, a 9-year-old would have no visual lesson of the premier fishing site, or of a trading center where Indians from hundreds of miles away once came — a place described by explorer Alexander Ross as the “emporium mart of the Columbia.”

But I have not forgotten my history lesson. I remember well when we stopped at Celilo Falls, where Indians fishers risked their lives for the big catch, and we bought a salmon.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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