Early Threats and Protection Efforts

Access, development, and protection have defined the relationship between non-Native Americans and the Columbia Gorge

Early Threats and Protection Efforts
An advertisement circa 1912 for a proposed housing development that touted, among other features, the “world’s highest elevator” at Mist Falls.
For over 150 years, the Columbia River Gorge has charmed conservationists and developers. Starting with the Oregon Trail, non-Native Americans made their way to the Gorge along the wild and dangerous Columbia River. When the railroad was built in 1881, work to create a road that ran through the entire Gorge accelerated. Topography and weather slowed efforts, but the Oregon legislature approved funding in 1913 for the Columbia River Highway (now the Historic Columbia River Highway).


A pre-Scenic Area advertisement. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act prohibits industrial development in protected areas.

The prospect of easy access into the Gorge from the Portland area brought numerous development schemes to profit from the Gorge’s beauty. One such scheme came from the Columbia Highlands Scenic Homes Company which called for the “highest elevator in the world” at Mist Falls, “golf links and polo grounds” at Angel’s Rest and an “electric light and power plant” using Wahkeena Falls to generate power.

This inspired highway builders and others to work for protection efforts along the highway. For example, an Oregon law enacted in 1915 prohibits the diversion or interruption of more than two dozen waterways forming waterfalls or cascades in view of or near the highway. Later, citizens would work with timber owners to swap forests in the “waterfall alley” of the Gorge with timberlands in other parts of the state.

Once people could easily access the Gorge, the next significant development threat came in the form of energy access. When Bonneville Dam was being built in the early 1930s, the Portland area was looking for an upper hand over the Seattle area with lower energy costs. Proposals were pushed to price energy from the dam in concentric circles, with the cheapest power going to those industries closest to the dam. Local business interests marketed the Gorge as a potential "Pittsburgh of the West” with steel mills lining the river. Conservationists rallied to stop the proposals and threats subsided for the time being.

The access/development/protection scenario played itself out once again in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Transportation access took center stage as the suburban I-205 freeway and Glenn Jackson Bridge were being built and land-use advocates realized that the bridge would spur residential development to spread east into the Gorge. Subdivision proposals in the western Gorge near Multnomah Falls and Beacon Rock were proposed. Coupled with these threats was a 1979 National Park Service study of the Columbia Gorge for some level of park status.

In 1980, Friends of the Columbia Gorge was formed and helped bring forth protection in the form of the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.

Read about Friends’ history and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.