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NW Life | local | Oregon Historical Photo Of The Week

Oregon Historical Photo: Salmon Wheel Boat on the Columbia River, 1883

Salmon Wheel Boat, Upper Cascades, Columbia River, 1883. Photograph by Carleton Watkins.

Salmon Wheel Boat, Upper Cascades, Columbia River, 1883. Photograph by Carleton Watkins.

The Oregon Historical Society. #21623

Every week, Oregon Experience shares a photo highlighting the state’s diverse, exciting history. All photos are courtesy of The Oregon Historical Society.

In 1866 the first commercial cannery was built in the Columbia River Gorge. By the late 19th century, mechanical fish wheels were collecting over 200 tons of salmon a year.

The wheel was a large carousel mounted with baskets turning on axles, propelled by the river’s current. The baskets swept directly into the paths of salmon swimming upstream, scooping them out of the water. When preserved in tins, salmon was transformed from a delicacy to a cheap source of protein.

This new technology was so efficient it eventually decimated the salmon population, contributing to the decline of native communities and culture. Fish wheel operations on the Columbia were finally banned in 1928 (Oregon) and 1935 (Washington).

Between 1867 and 1885, photographer Carleton Watkins took more than 60 large-format images in the state, including this one from the Oregon side of the Columbia River east of the present-day Bonneville Dam.

To learn more about the history of the Columbia River Gorge captured by early photographers, watch the Oregon Experience documentary “The River They Saw.”

The River They Saw


Columbia River Gorge salmon wheel