“Wild Sublimity and Weird Grandeur:” A Ride Up the Columbia River

Frank and Nell are finally finishing up the Continental US portion of their vacation. In this section, they travel up the Columbia River to Portland, noting the many natural wonders that can be seen along the way. Frank compares the Columbia to the Hudson River, but dares to say that the East Coast river barely compares. I wonder if Frank’s New York cousins thought he was bragging a bit too much in his letter? The Felters mention several other noteworthy items here: the impressive Oregon lumber and produce industries in action, the mighty Cascade Locks, and a funny story about a stubborn pony that just won’t get on their boat. At the turn of the century, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest were still lush and contained many natural resources that would have stood out compared to areas in the East that had been clear cut long ago. We end with the Felters boarding the steamer “Cottage City” finally headed for Alaska!

Now we are passing Multnomah Falls. The stream as it leaves the mountain top above, is Thirty feet wide, yet it seems but a foot or two across, so high is it: the fall being 860 feet perpendicularly.

A little later we are abreast of Cape Horn, which is seemingly a mass of rock and metal fused at some time ages ago, and at a later period the bottom gave way and a portion went down, leaving an almost perpendicular cliff 2500 feet high.

There are numerous points in the upper Columbia that resemble the Hudson River scenery: but in the Columbia’s ocean of waters, its score of cataracts, its rugged crags and towering precipices, its snow capped peaks, its beautiful colorings and changing shadows, its majestic heights and awful depths, and in its wild sublimity and weird grandeur,- the Hudson cannot, -nor can any other river compare favorably with the Columbia.

The Cascade Locks some 40 or 50 miles East of Portland, were built by the U.S. Government at a cost of Twenty Millions, and now the steamers pass through these locks, where formerly a railroad had to be used to transfer passengers and goods around these dangerous rocks to the steamers on the other side.

Cascade Locks
Cascade Locks and Mt. Adams, 1920. Library of Congress.

So rapid is the current here, that to make a few hundred feet progress diagonally across and up the river, requires an hour or two of time when the river is high and to go directly up the stream, through the rapids would be impossible.

It is along here that this mighty river has found its way through and across the Cascade range of Mountains. At this point the average yearly rainfall is Eighty (80) inches, while a mile or so further East it is only Eighteen (18) inches, or less than one-fourth the amount.

We reach our destination The Dalles about eight o’clock in the evening, two hours late from the fact that our boat was stopped 121 times, more or less, to take on or put off freight and passengers, during the trip. Once we saw a man on the bank waving his arms wildly about, and the Captain therefore ran the boat over against the sandy shore, and a gang plank was run out. The man ashore tried to lead a horse up the plank, but the horse didn’t want to come abroad. Then two men pulled while two men pushed: but all to no purpose, the little animal jumped off the side of the plank and swam ashore. This occurred several times, and the Captain, very much disgusted, rang the bell to go ahread, and we left out friend and his obstinate little cayuse on the shore. The man was very much crestfallen, but the cayuse shook himself and winked at us, and seemed very happy to still be on dry land. We lost about 20 minutes by this episode, but were well repaid by the diversion it gave us.

The little town at which we stop for the night, was named from the rapids, of Dalles of the river just above. Here the river is narrowed between great walls of volcanic stone to a few yards in width, and the waters pile up on top of each other in their mad endeavor to get through the gate.

Oh that I had the pen of inspiration and could portray half of the beauty and grandeur of the Columbia, but it is no use wishing, and we undertake the return trip to Portland out eyes still drinking in the wonders and glories of this river.

Columbia River
Columbia River, Oregon, Showing Crown Point and Vista House, 1920. Library of Congress.

When we reach the Cascade Rapids we are all on deck to witness the sport. The bell rings for extra speed ahead, and we shoot through so rapidly we hardly know they are passed, although in coming up we were a long time getting through.

Cascade Rapids.jpg
Cascade Rapids, undated. Library of Congress.

Reaching Portland it takes us several days to get down to our normal condition, and in the mean time we visit a saw mill in East Portland. Here we saw a man handle a log 6 or 7 feet in diameter and 80 or 90 feet long, as easily, by means of some small levers and machinery, as a child would lift a plaything.

White Salmon River
Logs on White Salmon River at its Junction with the Columbia River, Oregon, 1936. Library of Congress.

Oregon has the greatest timber belt in the world. In four (4) Counties alone there are over Fifty-six billion feet of standing timber, mostly of Pine, which if sawed and sold at market prices for rough lumber, at $7.00 per 1000 feet, would bring in the enormous sum of Three Hundred and Ninety Million Dollars. This same Oregon Pine brings $20.00 per 1000 feet, in the Los Angeles Market.

The fruits of Oregon are delicious. Strawberries two inches in diameter, and the sweetest I ever tasted are sold in season at four and five cents per quart. One brand called “Hood River” berries are shipped to New York and Boston and sold there at 25 and 30 cents, sometimes at 50 cents per box.

Strawberry Harvest.jpg
Strawberry Harvest in Oregon, 1958. Oregon State Archives.

But I know you are tired of Oregon, so we engage our stateroom on the Alaska steamer “Cottage City” pack up our things and leave for Tacoma where we will stay a few days, and then board the steamer at that point. Tacoma is a pretty city of about 35,000 inhabitants and is as quiet from a business point of view, as Portland.

Cottage City.jpg
“Steamship Cottage City” by Antonio Jacobson, 1891. Blue World Web Museum.


Seattle however, which is three times the size of Tacoma, and a few miles farther North on Puget Sound, is a very busy city doing an immense business with all Alaska points, and with the Orient also.

On Saturday the 14th of July we find ourselves on the steamer bag and baggage, and settle ourselves down for a five days ride.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.


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