The American West tugged like a great magnet. Its furs, fish, timber, fertile soil, water power and magic drew the venturesome and ambitious. The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center captures those potentials. Come. Explore the land. Meet its native people. Learn what happened here. Gain a sense of history. Follow those who came this way to find a new life and beginning. Listen to Thorea who said, “I must walk toward Oregon and not toward Europe.” The place is here on the great “River of the West” in the old Oregon Country. This sign greets visitors at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center and Museum. As you walk thru the museum you find out more about the history of those in Skamania county. “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.” Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862)
The reasons for coming westward were many. But the west was already inhabited. What happened when east met west? One thing that was affected was trade. What was valuable to one party was not valuable to the other. Glass beads, Chinese coins, brass bells, mirrors, cotton shirts, wool jackets, guns became more valuable to the Native Americans then the traditional trade items. Furs became the hot trade commodity. One effect of trade was sickness and death passed onto the Native Americans. “So many and so sudden were the deaths which occurred, that the shores were strewed with the unburied dead.” Samuel Parker, Fort Vancouver, December 1835 It was a custom for some Native Americans in the Columbia Gorge to bury their dead on islands. Memaloose Island was one of these Islands of the Dead. Others were buried on land. “On the way we saw an Indian burial place where skulls and other bones of all sizes and ages were lying scattered about, the wagon crushing them as it passed along.” John S. Zieber, Cascades, October 5, 1851 When arriving in the area, many had choices to make. The opportunities were endless. Between 1850 and 1853 land speculators and settlers filed claims under the Donation Land Act along the north bank of the Columbia. While some developed small farms, most saw the potentials of offering transportation services, goods, lodging, and meals to travelers who had to portage around the rapids. One part of the museum is a TALL fishwheel replica.
McCord Fishwheel Replica First used in 1879, fishwheels played a crucial role in salmon harvests in the Gorge. They were positioned, these great fishing machines, in the narrow channels where millions of salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon passed in their instinctive return from the sea to spawn. The dips seized tons of fish and dumped them into bins and boxes bound for the canneries. In the 1912 Andrew Vanstrom found a White Sturgeon weighing 673 pounds trapped by the McGowan fishwheels. The third wheel on the river, the McCord Wheel was built by William Rankin McCord, Frank Warren and William Sargent Ladd on the south shore of Bradford Island in 1882. By 1899, 72 such efficient fishing devices were on the river. Thornton Williams and William Rankin McCord patented their devices in 1881 and 1882 and sued each other in a bitter feud over what the courts later judged was public property. Oregon banned wheels in 1926 and Washington did so in 1934. Most inventions are created for efficiency and profit. E.A. Smith’s invention had an ugly motive. In a plan to “do away with Chinamen,” E.A. Smith invented the “Iron Chink” to process salmon cheaply and drive Chinese workers from the canneries. In time it replaced hundreds of Chinese laborers who by hand had cleaned and cut salmon in the canning process.
Among the inventions were tools. I almost skipped this section but then I happened to read: Monkey Wrench That handy tool, the “monkey-wrench”, is not so named because it is a handy thing to monkey with them, or for any kindred reason. “Monkey” is not its name at all, but “Moncky.” Charles Moncky, the inventor of it, sold his patent for $2000, and invested the money in his house in Williamsburg, Kings County, where he now lives. I thought that was so interesting, and almost missed this important notice: This was refuted by historical and patent research in the late nineteenth century. Near the town of Skamania is a beautiful high rock. Learn what almost happened to this prominate feature in the scenic Columbia Gorge Sentinels of Stewardship Beacon Rock “…a remarkable high detached rock stands in the bottom on the Star’d Side…we call the Beaten rock.” William Clark, Beacon Rock, October 31, 1805 The twentieth century tested the mettle of those dedicated to the scenic vistas and resources of the Gorge. Quarrying and development threatened Beacon Rock, Prindle Mountain, Wind Mountain, and other places. Individuals acted to preserve for future generations the wonders of this place. Among the history of the Skamania area is a school room talking about prominent residents. I laughed because in this exhibit they posted rules a teacher in 1872 had to follow. Rules for teachers, 1872
- Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
- Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
- Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
- Men teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes or two evenings a week, if they go to church regularly.
- After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
- Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
- Each teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.
- Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention integrity and honesty.
- The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.
One part of the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center that is surprising is its religious exhibit. “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center has a collection of almost 4,000 rosaries on display.
Why the Swastika on a few of the rosaries? It is the fylot or Gammadion, being formed by four Greek capital letters gamma placed together. Its use dates from the pre-Christian era, and has been used as a religious emblem in India and China for more than ten centuries. After the religious section they have some beautiful quilts on display.
“The past is etched in stone. The present is rich in promise. The future has already begun.” Skamania County Historical Society 1993 Don’t skip the outside of Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. There is a pillboxe, a portion of a water flume, a train and multiple machines. The patio is dedicated to Richard Misner whose favorite quote was from Thomas Edison, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
“Court of the Cedars” In 1980, at age 90, artist and woodsman Dudley Carter created these tree sculptures which represent the Indian heritage of the Pacific Northwest.
Enjoy your visit to the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center!