Future of Columbia Gorge sternwheeler uncertain as Cascade Locks courts larger cruise line

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
Oct. 18, 2022 12 p.m.
Tourists file in for a ride on the Columbia River Gorge sternwheeler in Cascade Locks.

Tourists file in for a ride on the Columbia River Gorge sternwheeler in Cascade Locks.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

For generations, members of the Umatilla, Yakima, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes have fished for salmon in the Cascade Locks area. In town, you can stop at little tents on the side of the road to buy it.

Kim Brigham’s family has sold fish in Cascade Locks for as long as she can remember. In 2014, port officials suggested she open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“We just kind of jumped into it,” said Brigham. “We knew that we had a good product and we had a good name here.”

The family cashed out their 401ks and built the Brigham Fish Market. Business has been brisk.

Umatilla tribal member Kim Brigham built the Brigham Fish Market with her family.

Umatilla tribal member Kim Brigham built the Brigham Fish Market with her family.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

The restaurant gets a few diners from the local Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler. But Brigham thinks they’d get more if a larger cruise liner docked in town. Those tourists pay $5,000 for a week on the water, as opposed to $40 for an afternoon on the sternwheeler.

“I think it probably would help,” said Brigham. “I mean we’re a small business. We can’t sit that many people at once. But it would be nice.”

Cascade Locks used to be one of the few inexpensive towns along the Columbia River Gorge. But a few years ago, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs planned a casino in town. Developers bought land in anticipation; when the casino didn’t get state approval, they started building anyway.

City administrator Gordon Zimmerman said developers built single-family homes and the town is now a commuter hub for Portland and Hood River.

“We got discovered, because we had affordable housing,” said Zimmerman.

Cascade Locks city administrator Gordon Zimmerman said the town was more widely discovered in the 2000s after developers bought land in anticipation of a casino being built.

Cascade Locks city administrator Gordon Zimmerman said the town was more widely discovered in the 2000s after developers bought land in anticipation of a casino being built.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

The number of jobs in Cascade Locks over the next decade is expected to grow 42%. That’s significantly higher than the national average of 33%.

After years of financial struggle, port leaders want to build on the city’s economic success. So they are negotiating to bring American Cruise Lines into town. The company’s big vessels can carry more than 200 passengers and staff, who would likely spend plenty of money if they docked locally.

But there’s a problem. The port is small and only has one dock, which is dedicated to the sternwheeler. So port leaders are now trying to decide whether it’s best to move the sternwheeler or build new docks so they can have both the sternwheeler and cruise ships.

“A party interested in building docks in Cascade Locks…would increase tourism, bring out larger vessels, increase the number of people who are able to actually ride the sternwheeler,” said port general manager Olga Kaganova.

The port owns the sternwheeler. But day-to-day operations are run by American Waterways Inc., better known as Portland Spirit, the company that runs a fleet of tourist boats in Oregon.

Portland Spirit’s contract with the port is scheduled to sunset in December and negotiations are getting tense.

“It’s such an icon out here that you cannot imagine the Gorge without imagining the sternwheeler,” she said.

Building new docks would solve the port’s problems. But which organization pays for what improvement is a sticking point. The sternwheeler, for example, would need a utility hook up and ramps for passengers with disabilities.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Kaganova thinks the port could make more money from sternwheeler operations. She said the port had been receiving around $65,000 a year in revenue sharing for the sternwheeler, though that number represents a hit from COVID-19 disruptions.

“Our previous contract with (Portland Spirit) has certainly limited the revenue to the port, and the port believes that it could be operated for an increased revenue,” she said.

There are other sticking points in the negotiations. For example, the sternwheeler needs $3 million in restoration work to its engines and interior.

Portland Spirit general manager Dennis Corwin said deciding who pays for what upgrades has also been frustrating.

“We approached them about four years ago to start that conversation for repowering and doing some cosmetic updates, and the process has really taken a long time,” said Corwin.

The sternwheeler was built as a reproduction in 1983. Management said the engines and interior need replacing.

The sternwheeler was built as a reproduction in 1983. Management said the engines and interior need replacing.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Another sticking point in negotiations revolves around which sternwheeler improvements Portland Spirit should cover, and which the port would pay for. No decision has been made and, meanwhile, it can take two years to fulfill a marine parts order.

“We’re now looking probably at 2025 before this process is complete,” said Corwin, “if the parts are ordered right away.”

Also, to recoup millions of dollars in investments, the new contract needs to last 15 years not just five, said Corwin.

“We’re all for economic development and growth in the region and in Cascade Locks,” he said. “But there does seem to be a little bit of cart (before the) horse scenario going on here.”

Corwin said Portland Spirit officials are amenable to moving the Gorge sternwheeler to another dock, but there are other problems. For example, maneuvering an old-tech sternwheeler is tricky.

The sternwheeler paddling up the gorge in October 2022.

The sternwheeler paddling up the gorge in October 2022.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

“There are extreme winds and extreme currents,” said Corwin. “We’re dealing with a 40-year-old ship again that has got very different navigation ability than the modern-day vessels with bow thrusters and such.”

Under the current agreement, Portland Spirit pays the port a monthly concession fee, regardless of gains or losses. Indeed, during the years of the great recession, the nearby Eagle Creek wildfire and during the pandemic, ridership was so low the sternwheeler did not turn a profit. It kept paying the port however, as busy years supplement slower years.

In Portland Spirit’s last contract proposal, it included a payment increase of more than 50%. But so far, the two parties have been unable to reach and agreement.

Over the last five years, the sternwheeler has seen an average 35,000 passengers from Marine Park in Cascade Locks. The best year was in 2018 when there were 48,000. The worst year was during the pandemic in 2020 when only 16,000 passengers bought a ticket. Those ticket fees help Portland Spirit pay for things like the Cascade Locks Historical Museum, the visitor center and the annual fireworks show.

Corwin ended contract negotiations this month. He said the sternwheeler can no longer take bookings for next year.

“I can’t really in good conscience sign contracts if I don’t know I have a vessel,” said Corwin. “And right now, I don’t.”

There is a work-around for the port, but it’s not easy.

Cruise ships could dock on nearby Thunder Island. But that would involve working around tribal fishing platforms and negotiating fishing rights.

Cruise ships have a hard time docking  on Thunder Island at Cascade Locks because of tribal fishing platforms. Oct. 2022

Cruise ships have a hard time docking on Thunder Island at Cascade Locks because of tribal fishing platforms. Oct. 2022

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Cruise line captains don’t want to deal with such delicate issues. So the port is talking to the tribes to see if there’s some wiggle room.

Meanwhile, contract talks over sternwheeler operations are deadlocked, and it isn’t taking any bookings after Dec. 31.

The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler will keep running until Dec. 31. After that, operators no longer have a contract with the Port of Cascade Locks.

The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler will keep running until Dec. 31. After that, operators no longer have a contract with the Port of Cascade Locks.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
How Oregon Dungeness crab make the journey from sea to table.
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories