Barge Ports on the Columbia and Snake Rivers

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 12/08/2010
  • Essay 9659

For centuries, the Columbia River has been at the center of trade and transportation in the Pacific Northwest. Before the nineteenth century, trade focused on fishing and hunting, and travel was constrained by the river's fast waters and falls. Following the arrival of European Americans during the nineteenth century, trade began to shift toward agriculture and mining, and efforts were made to improve transportation on and alongside the Columbia. Between the 1930s and 1970s, a convergence of interests in navigation, irrigation, and power led to the construction of a series of dams and locks that transformed the Columbia and its largest tributary, the Snake River, into a major waterway. Port districts and other government and private entities developed an infrastructure and transportation system that now supports the movement of some 50 million tons of cargo by barge between Lewiston, Idaho, and the Pacific Ocean.

From Canoes to Steamboats

Native Northwest Americans lived, fished, and traveled along the Columbia River and its tributaries for centuries. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered the region, they traveled down segments of the Snake and Columbia rivers in canoes, portaging their equipment when the river ran into falls and rapids. At Celilo Falls, William Clark observed "the great marts of trade" that existed near the narrows. The trade that Clark witnessed at Celilo represented a system of trade centered on falls, which were ancient sites for fishing and rendezvouses.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, another system of trade began to emergeĀ centered on the productions of mining and agriculture. For this system, rough rapids and falls, which impeded the movement of resources between the inland and the coast, were obstructions. By the 1850s, steamboats were moving goods along the Columbia and Snake rivers, but goods had to be offloaded and portaged -- at Celilo Falls, on the middle Columbia, and at Cascade Rapids, between the middle and lower Columbia -- by foot, wagon, and then railroad. As railroads were extended along the Columbia in the 1860s and linked to networks throughout the region, steamboat transportation was superseded by a more efficient and economical railway system.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began studying how it could manage and control the Columbia River. After an 1874 survey, Congress authorized work on the Cascades Canal, which finally opened in 1896. In 1915, The Dalles-Celilo Canal opened and the steamer Undine made the first continuous trip between Lewiston and Portland. For a brief period of time steam liners reappeared on the middle and upper Columbia, but these early locks at the Cascades and Celilo were more suggestive than successful. In a speech in Wallula, at the celebration of the opening of The Dalles-Celilo Canal, historian William D. Lyman (1852-1920), who greatly enjoyed his ride down the Snake and Columbia rivers on the Undine, noted "the establishment of water transportation and waterpower in the Columbia Basin on a scale never known before" and asked: "Do we yet comprehend what this may mean to us and [our] descendants in this vast and productive land?" (Dodd, 157-58). But competition between railway companies on both sides of the Columbia River drove prices down, and by the 1920s there was little commercial navigation on the middle and upper river.

Damming the River

In 1927, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers surveyed the Columbia Basin again and began publishing a series of reports on the development of river resources. These reports became the foundation for the Columbia Basin Project, a multipurpose irrigation, power, and flood control system along the Columbia River. The foundation of the project was the Grand Coulee Dam, constructed between 1933 and 1942 on the upper river downstream from Kettle Falls, an ancient Native American fishing and gathering place that was inundated after the erection of the dam. In 1933, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, a second major dam on the Columbia, the Bonneville Dam on the lower river, was authorized as a federal works project.

A decrease in prices for agricultural products during the Great Depression resulted in a demand for lower freight rates and renewed interest in navigation on the Columbia and Snake rivers. In 1934, the Inland Empire Waterways Association (later the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association) organized to unite interests in waterway development and to advocate for comprehensive development of Northwest waters. Through the association's efforts, barge locks were added to the Bonneville Dam and in 1938 large-scale shipping by barges became possible. According to the association, more freight moved through the middle Columbia in 1938 than in the previous 22 years.

In the decades that followed, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built additional multipurpose dams to harness the flows and gradients of the Columbia and Snake rivers. These dams generated hydroelectricity, reclaimed water forĀ irrigation, and created navigable waterways. Eight dams were particularly crucial for the development of the Columbia-Snake waterway. The reservoir behind the first of these dams, the Bonneville Lock and Dam, submerged the Cascade Rapids and the old locks system. The next dam completed on the Columbia, McNary Lock and Dam, was authorized by the federal government in 1947. The reservoir behind it, Lake Wallula, flooded the Umatilla Rapids in 1954. In 1952, work began on The Dalles Lock and Dam and in 1957 its reservoir, Lake Celilo, submerged the falls, fishing platforms, and site of the village at Celilo. Lake Celilo extends to the John Day Lock and Dam, which was begun in 1958 and in service by 1968. Its reservoir, Lake Umatilla, extends to the McNary Dam.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, four additional dams were built on the lower Snake River to complete the Columbia-Snake waterway: Ice Harbor Lock and Dam, behind which Lake Sacajawea formed; Lower Monumental Lock and Dam, behind which Lake Herbert G. West formed; Little Goose Lock and Dam, behind which Lake Bryan formed; and Lower Granite Lock and Dam, behind which Lower Granite Lake extends to Lewiston. When the last locks opened in 1975, the series of slackwater lakes created by the eight dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers made it possible for barges, pushed upriver through locks by small towboats, to travel the 465-mile distance from the Pacific Ocean to the inland port of Lewiston. Back in Portland, barges are met by ocean-going ships, which can transport cargo to distant markets.

All eight dams have fish ladders that were designed to preserve the migration patterns of anadromous fish. But after the construction of the dams, these fish runs decreased dramatically. In the 1980s, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and other government agencies began creating bypass and other facilities to restore the rivers' fish populations.

The Place of Ports

To fully benefit from and further advance the Columbia-Snake river system, a number of counties and cities established new public port districts. After the Washington State Legislature passed the Port District Act in 1911, the first ports in the state were established to provide maritime shipping and rail-water transfer facilities. In 1939, in an attempt to stimulate the state's depressed economy, the Legislature expanded ports' authority to include the operation of industrial development districts. In these areas, ports can levy taxes and develop industrial sites accessible by road, rail, and water. As the Columbia-Snake system was being developed, ports in and surrounding the state were established with broad authority to acquire, develop, and lease land for industrial and transportation facilities. Chief among ports' interests were opportunities related to improved navigation along the rivers.

The Port of Kennewick, initially established in 1915 to accommodate the increase in steamboat traffic that came with the opening of The Dalles-Celilo Canal, constructed docks and warehouses for steamboat passengers and cargo. When steamboat traffic declined, the Port focused on rail-and-water transfer facilities, but in 1926 many of these facilitates were wiped out by a flood. In 1941, a revitalized Port built a grain elevator, dock, and belt conveyor to load barges. In 1942, it leased land on Clover Island for constructing river barges and tugs. Most of this infrastructure was wiped out by another flood in 1948 or submerged by the rising waters of the McNary Dam pool. Although the Port redeveloped Clover Island in the 1950s as an industrial site, in recent years it has been redeveloped again as more of a recreational and retail area.

Across the Columbia from Kennewick, the Port of Pasco was established in 1940 to build docks, grain elevators, and warehouse facilities to transport primarily grain downriver by barge. In 1959, the Port purchased a former World War II army depot called Big Pasco, which it transformed into a large industrial site. In 1976, after the increase of international trade and the widespread use of standardized cargo containers in the 1960s, the Port opened a container barge slip, the Port of Pasco Container Terminal, which was the first container crane facility on the upper river for barges.

Farther down the Columbia, just upstream from the Bonneville Dam, the Port of Klickitat was formed in 1944. Discussions about establishing a port district in Klickitat County began while the Bonneville dam was under construction, so that the county could benefit from the newly navigable waters created by it, but plans for a port were not realized until a war-related increase in the demand for lumber generated sufficient interest in the idea. The Port purchased land in Bingen in 1952 for a barge channel, but the site was compromised by strong winds and floods. In 1958, the Port developed a second harbor site in eastern Bingen, where it dredged another barge channel in the 1960s. Later, after the completion of The Dalles dam project, the Port developed a new barge loading site at Dallesport.

In 1952, during the construction of the McNary Dam, the Port of Walla Walla, which became one of the largest and most active port districts, was established. The dam submerged most of the land classified for industrial use in western Walla Walla County, but it also created new industrial development opportunities due to the newly navigable waterway. When the dam was completed in 1954, the Port began developing industrial sites on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. At its largest site, in Burbank at the confluence of the two rivers, the Port constructed a cargo dock and two barge slips.

The Columbia-Snake Inland Waterway

After the U.S. Army released lands that it had held for operations at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and vacated the area, the City of Richland was reincorporated and the Port of Benton was formed in 1958. The Port acquired land along the Columbia and opened a low dock barge facility. The facility is now primarily used to receive depleted nuclear submarine and surface ship core reactors, which are processed and buried at the adjacent Hanford Reservation.

The Port of Whitman County was another port established in 1958 to provide access to slackwater lake navigation on the Snake River. Two dams, Little Goose and Lower Granite, are situated in the county. The Port's original comprehensive plan anticipated seven sites along the river, but only three of these were developed. Development of those sites -- Wilma, Almota, and Central Ferry -- began in 1969. Wilma, the largest and busiest site, is located near the terminus of the Columbia-Snake waterway, downriver from the ports of Clarkston and Lewiston.

The most inland ports, the Port of Clarkston and the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, were also established in 1958. With the completion of the Lower Granite Dam and the arrival of slackwater in 1975, the ports began operating as part of the Columbia Snake River system as destinations for barges. The Port of Clarkston has facilitated a great deal of economic development in Asotin County; it operates one of the largest cranes on the Columbia, which is used to load barges with logs, containers, and other cargo. The Port of Lewiston, Idaho's only seaport, provides the largest crane, warehouse facility, and grain storage facilities on the inland river system.

Anticipation of additional improvements for barge navigation on the upper Columbia River, between Richland and Wenatchee, led to the establishment of a number of other port districts in 1958. These included the ports of Mattawa-Wahluke (now Mattawa), Beverly (now Royal Slope), Quincy, Kittitas County (now dissolved), Douglas County, and Chelan County. In 1960, the ports of Coulee City, Hartline, Wilson Creek, Grand Coulee, and Warden (all in Grant County) were organized. But locks were not added to the existing dams on the river -- Priest Rapids, Wanapum, and Rock Island -- and in 1981, due to public opposition, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers abandoned plans to build the Ben Franklin Dam near Pasco, which would have opened the upper Columbia to barge navigation and made Wenatchee a port city.

Barge traffic, facilitated by public ports and other businesses that operate on the Columbia and Snake river, currently surpasses the capacities and efficiencies of railroad transportation and it has become an extensive business supporting the inland's major industry, agriculture. The Columbia-Snake system is the nation's major wheat handler, annually moving about 40 percent of U.S. wheat exports. In addition to the grain shipped downriver, fuel and fertilizer are shipped upriver on return trips. In all, some 40 million tons of cargo move through the deep channel between the Pacific Ocean and Portland and Vancouver, and some 10 million tons move thorough 14-feet deep waters from Portland and Vancouver to Lewiston.


Lawrence L. Dodd, "History in the 20th Century: 'We'll Rise Again,'" in Where the Great River Bends: A Natural and Human History of the Columbia River at Wallula, ed. by Robert J. Carson (Sandpoint, Idaho: Keokee Books, 2008), 149-65; A Columbia River Reader ed. by William L. Lang (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1992); William L. Lang, "What Has Happened to the Columbia? A Great River's Fate in the Twentieth Century," in Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River, ed. by William L. Lang and Robert C. Carriker (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 144-67; William D. Lyman, The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1963); "Columbia Snake River System Facts," Pacific Northwest Waterways Association website accessed November 2010 (; Port of Benton website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Clarkston website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Port of Kennewick website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Klickitat website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Lewiston website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Pasco website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Walla Walla website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Port of Whitman County website accessed December 1, 2010 (; Progress and Growth in the Columbia River Basin (Richland: Tri-City Herald, May 1962).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You