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New Images Show Celilo Falls Still Intact


Native Americans in the Northwest have resigned themselves that Celilo Falls are gone forever. 

In the late 1950's The Dalles Dam backed up the Columbia and buried the falls under 40 feet of water. 

Now, for the first time in more than 50 years, the falls are no longer invisible.   OPB's Vince Patton has learned that there are brand new images of what Celilo looks like today.


Exit 97 on Interstate 84 leads to a  roadside park.

Green grass covers a lawn stretching a hundred yards down to the Columbia River.

There's no visible sign of craggy rocks, fishing scaffolds, or roaring waterfalls.

 Celilo Duo

A sonar scan shows the entire Celilo Falls area as if from an aerial view, but capturing the rock formations at the bottom of the Columbia River.  The signature Horseshoe Falls appears in the lower right.   The scan aligns perfectly against a 1948 aerial photo showing all the original geologic formations remain intact.
Photos Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

51 years ago, Celilo Falls was one of the largest waterfalls in North America. That's before The Dalles Dam reservoir wiped it out.

Today, a flat watery plateau entombs what used to be the most important site for trade,  fishing  and culture for the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

Ada Colfax Frank: "Oh, I mean it was a loss. I grew up here. I seen it. I went across it. And it was very important."

Ada Colfax Frank still lives at Celilo Village.   As a girl she watched the falls disappear on March 10, 1957.

Ada Colfax Frank: "It was just awful. I mean you could see the falls disappearing, the rocks disappearing you know, it was something to cry about."

In recent years, several tribal members raised a serious new question.  Did the Army Corps of Engineers simply flood the falls? 

Or did it destroy them first?

Thomas Morning Owl heard that story as he researched Celilo's history.

Thomas Morning Owl: "There was a belief that there had been some major blasting that had occurred at the Celilo Falls area prior to the inundation."

Morning Owl has seen a number of historic photos which show large explosions.

One photo caption states the Army Corps of Engineers set off its initial blast for The Dalles Dam  on the same day tribes held their spring salmon feast a few miles away.

Morning Owl agrees that the photos appear to show efforts to blast away rock at the site of the dam, not at Celilo itself.

Thomas Morning Owl: "But others, I asked them about it and they said, 'No! There was actual blasting at Celilo.'"

Another tribal leader asked the Army Corps of Engineers directly about it.

 Horseshoe Falls
Celilo's signature Horseshoe Falls stand out in a sonar scan.  The steep rock face in the center once held many precarious fishing platforms.  Red surfaces are 40 feet under water.  Green and blue reflects depths down to 70 feet below the surface.

The colonel in charge of the Corps' Portland District at the time was Thomas O'Donovan.

Thomas O'Donovan: "And I said, 'okay. I'll see what I can do.'"

O'Donovan  asked his staff to investigate.

They dug out an old memo from 1956.

In it, Elsie Thomas in house #2 in Celilo Village complains that blasting nearby broke two windows and put a hole in her roof.

Colonel O'Donovan concedes that may mean blasting happened somewhere within the Celilo Falls area for damage to reach the village.

Thomas O'Donovan: "And you'd be surprised how far a concussion reverberation can carry and break a window.

Thomas O'Donovan: "I have some experience in the demolition world, all combat engineers do, and you'd be surprised how far that can carry."

The Corps also unearthed an old design map.

It shows plans to excavate one section of the river to make it deep enough for a new ship channel. 

Blasting was the common method to remove solid rock.

That excavation zone sat only 600 feet away from Celilo's signature Horseshoe Falls.

Thomas O'Donovan: "My team came to me and said, 'look we don't think we blew the falls up.' I said, 'well that really isn't gonna cut it'  in terms of sitting down with the tribes and talking about this important cultural resource that it is for them."

The Colonel urged his staff to deploy one more tool: A survey ship capable of scanning the bottom of the river.

Thomas O'Donovan: "We may do this hydrographic survey and see nothing but a flat sand floor and not be able to see the geologic structure the falls were formed from."

For two days the boat cris-crossed the Celilo pool.

Its sonar system scanned the river's floor 40 to 70 feet under water.

As sound waves returned to the boat, a computer mapped every bump, rock and depression in the sand.

Thomas O'Donovan: "Absolutely non-intrusive. Does not change anything. It essentially is sonar.   Sound."

For the first time in half a century, it is now possible to see Celilo Falls.

The images show that  all the distinct features remain intact  - from the riffles to the islands to the horseshoe of the great falls. 

No apparent damage from explosions.

Thomas O'Donovan: "Whatever that amount of work was you can see it was not truly significant against the magnitude of the overall Celilo Falls area."

Thomas Morning Owl is elated by what he sees.

Thomas Morning Owl: "And it's amazing. It's amazing to see this. It calls to mind the pictures that you see when the falls were still alive, still alive. You see the rock faces here where the people had their scaffolds, the rock face is still there."

You can put on 3-D glasses and see even more detail in the images.

They reveal  that a former ship channel next to the falls remains as deep as ever.

There are even ripples in the sand at the bottom.

The scans show that 50 years of sediment has not filled in the falls.

The Corps has presented the images to the river tribes.   Each is deciding how to use the new information.

Ada Colfax Frank hopes the tribes share the images with everyone.

Ada Colfax Frank: "To me it's just great to see it's still there.   I mean, you know, they didn't blow it up."


Celilo Revealed - Oregon Field Guide

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