This small, quiet community of service stores and artisans spread along WaNaPa Street makes a pleasant stop before you cross the spectacular Bridge of the Gods to explore the larger community of Stevenson, across the Columbia. Only 45 miles from Portland, Cascade Locks retains a down-to-earth ambiance that city escapees find relaxing. No BMWs and keeping up with the Joneses here.
The area first appeared on the white man’s map when, on October 24, 1805, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery reached a series of violent, roaring cataracts of whitewater on the Columbia River. “The horrid appearance of this agitated swelling (water), boiling & whirling in every direction,” wrote Clark. Even the local native Indians, highly skilled canoeists, would never venture down these rapids.
After examining the waterfalls, Lewis and Clark decided to portage their most valuable items around them. This included their scientific equipment, written notes and rifles. Those in their party who could swim would then attempt to paddle the canoes down the rapids.
The natives eagerly lined the river banks to watch the men come to an inglorious end in the turbulent water and prepared to claim their abandoned equipment when it floated to the river banks. The explorers emerged safely at the other end of the rapids to the amazement (and great disappointment) of the natives. Decades later, pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail’s water route would do the same thing.
As quiet as Cascade Locks may first seem, there are plenty of world-class activities here. It’s the home to the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, a legendary triple deck riverboat that offers sightseeing cruises up and down the Columbia River. Choose from a variety of tour themes such as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Oregon Trail Adventure, champagne brunch cruises and dinner cruises. A cruise on this 145-foot, 330-ton replica is a must-do. The history of Cascade Locks has always been deeply intertwined with the plethora of sternwheelers that plied up and down the Columbia between 1880 and 1920—an era that, sadly, is bygone. During the steamboat heyday dozens of these multi-story boats chugged up and down the river, their whistles echoing across the towns and into the mountains as they delivered people, trade and goods along their routes.
The annual Sternwheeler Days, held every June in Cascade Locks, still celebrates this important part of the town’s history. A group of living history buffs known as Mountain Men don buckskins, calico and furs to recreate the lifestyle of the trappers and their families from the 1840s to the 1870s.
A solid attempt has been made to preserve the town’s heritage in the Cascade Locks Historical Museum situated in one of the three original lock tender’s houses (1905) in the Port of Cascade Locks Marine Park. The history and construction of the Cascade locks is told in this three-story museum that overlooks the original locks, now a National Historic Site.
The Government Locks and Canal around the Cascade Rapids were constructed between 1878 and 1898, quite an engineering feat for the time. The locks were 460 feet long, 55 feet high, with 52.5 feet wide steel gates. Operating completely by waterpower, both chambers of the locks could be filled or emptied in ten minutes.
As with much technology of that era, the locks became obsolete when the Bonneville Dam was built in 1937. Today you can still walk across to see the structure and hand-hewn masonry of the original Locks just below the museum. In the museum, displays about logging and sawmills, fishing and fishwheels, Native Americans, railroads, the sternwheelers and steamboats that ran the river and early river navigation bring the town’s history to life.
Next door in an exhibition chamber is the Oregon Pony Steam Locomotive, which started work in the Oregon territory in1862, the first to be used here. Adjacent to the Visitor’s Center, in the middle of a car roundabout, is a superbly wrought life-size and life-like bronze statue of Sacagawea. Cast by local resident Heather Soderberg, the first woman to own a bronze foundry in the U.S, you would be remiss if you did not visit her studio on WaNaPa Street in town.
But the overwhelming sight in Cascade Locks is the Bridge of the Gods, a beautifully symmetrical steel truss girder bridge built in 1926 that spans the Columbia River. At 1,858 feet long, 35 feet wide and 140 feet above the water, the bridge crosses the river where a natural land bridge used by the natives collapsed about 1 millenium ago. View the bridge from the Charburger parking lot and look at the huge mural on the bridge’s concrete support depicting the land bridge, Northwest wildlife and Lewis and Clark.
Do not miss the fun eateries in town or bring a picnic to enjoy at Marine Park. Afterward, visit The Cottage for antiques and then Lorang Fine Art and Gorge-ous Gifts.
Tours of the Bonneville Dam, at Bradford Island Visitor Center (Exit 40) are also a great diversion for the family. Here, you can see salmon swimming up the fish ladder in the underwater viewing room. At the adjacent fish hatchery, be sure and visit the 10-foot long Herman the sturgeon. The hatchery grounds are beautiful and make for a peaceful stroll. Cascade Locks is also a renowned sailing site and training ground for U.S. Olympic level sailors. Numerous world sailing championships have been and are held here.
Hiking and biking are other activities offered in abundance in Cascade Locks. Some favorites (just to name a few) are the Eagle Creek Trail, Wahclella Falls, the Pacific Crest Trail, Herman Creek Trail, Wyeth Trail and the Oxbow Fish Hatchery Trail. All are within striking distance of the town. Be sure and check out their newest mountain biking trail, easyCLIMB. It was constructed by the Northwest Trail Alliance, in partnership with the Port of Cascade Locks and community support, to provide an introductory mountain biking experience for all. It is open year-round, so be sure to give it a try!
Don’t let its size deceive you, Cascade Locks offers a fun selection of activities for all tastes and you’ll enjoy your visit.
Photo Credit: Jeff Jones
Article by: Roy Stevenson
Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler - take cruises on the Columbia River
- I-84, Exit 44 (Eastbound, Westbound)