Celilo Fishing Panorama

One of the first articles I wrote for the WyEast Blog continues to be among the most popular: Restoring Celilo Falls (February 14, 2009). In the spirit of keeping the idea alive, this article is a tribute to the way of life that all but vanished when Celilo Falls disappeared in 1957, as revealed in photographs.

For this article, I blended images of Celilo Falls in the 1930s (courtesy the Oregon State University Commons archive) into a sweeping new panorama. I had viewed the individual images before, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that the following three images overlapped enough to allow for a blended panorama at relatively high resolution:

You can click here for a large view of the blended image, with the caveat that it retains the same publication terms as any other image in the Oregon State University Commons (use your browser window to pan across the image, as it is much larger than most monitors).

My original intent was simply to have a detailed panorama of the scene at Horseshoe Falls, the most iconic of the dozens of cataracts that made up the massive Celilo Falls complex. But as I stitched the images together, the details within the larger image suddenly came into view, and provided new insights into the unique way of life that had evolved over millennia at Celilo.

For example, in this clip (below) from the panorama, the surprising system for anchoring the wooden fishing platforms is revealed — a pile of rocks in a framed wooden crib! To my amazement, this method shows up in many other images of Celilo, though I had never noticed this detail before:

Another enlarged clip (below) from the panorama shows the precarious hanging platforms along a section of cliffs just below the falls, with fishermen using wooden ladders to reach what must have been slippery, intimidating perches:

In this enlargement from a separate photograph (below), taken just a few moments before the panorama images, the fisherman riding the cable shuttle to the opposite side of Horseshoe Falls is the same person visible in the panorama view (just below the fourth bridge arch):

The above view also shows a returning shuttle car, perhaps empty, or possibly loaded with filled salmon crates. Pulley systems like these moved fishermen and salmon catch on a network of cables that connected the multitude of rocky islands within the falls complex where fishing platforms were located.

In another clip (below) from the panorama, two fishermen are dipping from a group of platforms located at the extreme base of the falls. These platforms are also anchored with rocks, and are designed with dizzying overhangs that create a startling degree of exposure for the fishermen, yet provide a clear zone under the platforms for maneuvering dip nets:

The following clip (from a separate image) shows the same pair of fishermen seen in the previous clip from the panorama, but from a somewhat different angle. In this view, more details on how their platforms functioned are revealed: a crib of rocks anchors the middle platform, while and all three have large, wooden crates for salmon.

The size of the crates is also telling, as the typical salmon weighed 25-40 lbs, with many big Chinooks weighing in at well over 50 lbs. Landing these huge fish clearly required great skill, strength and agility using 15-foot dip net poles on a slippery plank surface.

Also visible in the above image are the safety ropes that the men tied to their waists while working the platforms. This was a relatively recent insurance policy in the ancient fishing tradition, and one that was seldom tested by people who had grown up around the platforms, working the salmon harvest.

The following image shows the top of the ladder seen on the right side of the panorama, but viewed from just above the platforms. As with the fishing platforms, the ladder is anchored by a wooden, rock-filled crib.

The above image also shows fisherman working on the next rock outcrop (in the upper left) seemingly afloat in the river, though clearly on another system of platforms in the larger panorama.

In another photo of the scene (below), the safety ropes can be seen in more detail — one tied to the fisherman — as well as the planked decking that was informally scabbed to platform supports.

Though sturdy, the informal construction of the platforms and catwalks makes sense, given that seasonal flooding almost certainly swept away anything that wasn’t removed by the fishermen at the conclusion of the fall fishing season. Yet, the position of individual platforms reflected traditional locations where the same families had fished over the generations. In that sense, while temporary in design, the platforms were also permanent.

The Tradition and the Legacy

Deconstructing these scenes in creating the panoramic view left me with an even greater appreciation for the fishing tradition at Celilo Falls. It also gave me new inspiration to see the falls restored, not simply for their scenic and spiritual value, but for the working fishery they provided. What a thrill it would be for the dip net fisheries to return to these rocks, and to watch them just as photographer who captured these images did!

The attraction of the Celilo restoration idea is that it is completely reachable. The falls is still there, underwater, and serving as a permanent reminder of our priorities as a society. It can be restored.

As the salmon runs continue to fade on the Columbia, along with the barge traffic once used to justify the dams, the sole argument against restoring Celilo Falls fades as well: it is as simple as finding better ways to generate — or conserve — the 1,800 megawatts of hydropower that is generated by The Dalles Dam. It’s really that simple.

Restoring Celilo Falls

Celilo Falls has always been phantom of history to me, since I born a few years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers buried the falls behind The Dalles Dam in 1957. My understanding of the falls and the loss it now represents has come from old photos and maps, and a few shaky film images.

The railroad bridge in the background of this iconic view is the key to locating the falls today

The railroad bridge in the background of this iconic view is the key to locating the falls today

Yet for many, the falls and the native culture surrounding them are alive and vibrant in their memories, thanks to seeing and experiencing them first-hand. For Native Americans, the vivid memories only add to the pain of losing a place that quite literally defined a people for millennia.

The idea of restoring the falls — even temporarily — has been suggested over the years, usually to be slapped down quickly by the Corps of Engineers as unfeasible, or even dangerous. In the late 1980s, a brief, 30th anniversary movement to temporarily draw down the pool behind the dam briefly gained local momentum before the federal agencies killed any talk of the idea. The Corps likely realized that revealing the falls to the public even once could make it politically impossible to ever refill the dam again.

This 1940s aerial view shows the falls and railroad bridge, looking south

This 1940s aerial view shows the falls and railroad bridge, looking south

The hostility of the federal agencies toward even acknowledging the falls fanned the rumors among the local tribes that the falls had, in fact, been purposely destroyed by the Corps of Engineers just before they were inundated. This rumor persisted until last year, when a new mindset among Corps managers spurred the agency to compile a comprehensive sonar map of the falls to show that they are quite intact, beneath the still surface of the reservoir.

The sonar confirmation of the intact falls has breathed new life into the hopes of many that the falls will not just someday be restored, but perhaps someday soon. This is where the restoration of Celilo Falls fits within the scope of the MHNP Campaign: the emerging environmental theme in the coming century is restoration, and no place in the Pacific Northwest is more deserving — perhaps even the nation, considering that 11,000 years of Native American culture at Celilo makes it the oldest continuously settled place in North America.

This map clip correlates today's landmarks to the aerial view of the falls, above

This map clip correlates today's landmarks to the aerial view of the falls, above

But the connection to Mount Hood is even more elemental: the mountain towers over the Celilo country like a beacon, and has been a similarly important feature in the culture of Lower Columbia tribes. Celilo and WyEast are connected, and so their restoration should be. A joined effort to heal these places expands the possibilities for both.

What will a restored Celilo Falls look like? Initially, it will likely be mineral-stained and muddy. But the new sonar maps confirm that silts have not overtaken the falls, so if the pool behind The Dalles Dam were simply lowered today, we would see a largely intact falls — perhaps even with traces of the cantilevered dip net fishing structures that once clung to the rocks around the falls. And over time, the falls would quickly recover to blend again with the surrounding landscape.

R. Swain Gifford's 1875 etching of Mount Hood towering over the Celilo Narrows is among the earliest geographically accurate renderings of the area

R. Swain Gifford's 1875 etching of Mount Hood towering over the Celilo Narrows is among the earliest geographically accurate renderings of the area

What would a restored Celilo Falls mean for the mid-Columbia economy? The immediate impact would be on power supplies, and it is unlikely that the falls could ever be restored without some alternate energy supply — perhaps a wind farm of equal wattage? — ensuring that no net loss in energy production would result.

The next big question would be impacts on shipping, but the good news here is that barges were already using the Celilo Canal to bypass the falls long before the dam was erected. The canal system would conceivably resume this function, if the falls were reborn, albeit with likely improvements and modernization.

These scene was photographed in the mid-1950s, just before the falls was inundated

These scene was photographed in the mid-1950s, just before the falls was inundated

What kind of protection should the restored Celilo Falls receive? That part is easy. The astonishing scope of history tied to the falls easily qualify the site for World Heritage status within the U.S. National Park System, perhaps as a National Historic Site. This would put the restored falls in a category with places like Mesa Verde, in Colorado, and provide the needed framework to preserve and understand the historic resources that lie beneath today’s reservoir.

Restoration of Celilo Falls is a long-term dream of so many, but movement in that direction really began as soon as the falls disappeared in 1957. The falls has never left our collective consciousness, and thus demands restoration.

Another small step toward restoration will occur in 2009, when the commemorative Confluence Project will bring an art installation to Celilo. The project is marking the two centuries since Lewis and Clark passed through the region, and the millennia of human history that makes Celilo unique. A small step, but also a bit more progress toward what I believe will be the inevitable restoration of Celilo Falls — under the gaze of a restored Mount Hood.