Oregon Experience

The River They Saw

Jan. 5, 2011 4 a.m.
Crown Point, circa 1914 by George Weister

Crown Point, circa 1914 by George Weister

Oregon Historical Society

The beauty and magic of the Columbia River Gorge has attracted photographers for more than 150 years.  The River They Saw chronicles the history of the Gorge with rarely seen images crafted by Carleton Watkins, Sarah Ladd, Benjamin Gifford, Al Monner and many others.  These early photographers left a stunning visual legacy through images still considered among the greatest landscape photos ever made.

The Columbia River Gorge is unique – and a uniquely-precious resource – in many ways.

This 100-mile stretch of the Columbia River was millions of years in the making. Then, 15,000 years ago, a series of massive, ice-age floods carved the Gorge even deeper and wider.  And today its steep slopes expose a rich geologic history for all to read.

The Gorge cuts through the Cascade Range between Oregon and Washington and is the only low-elevation passageway through a string of mountains extending from California to Canada.  It has long served as a critical east-west portal for fish and wildlife, for human travel and trade, and even for changing weather.

Native people have lived in the Columbia Gorge continuously for more than 10,000 years, in some of the longest-inhabited villages in North America. And for most of the time since the Pleistocene Era, the Gorge looked much the same and changed only slowly. 

But over the past 200 years, a growing population, economic development and two large hydropower dams have changed this place dramatically.

We have an extensive record of most of that change, because since the earliest days of photography, people have photographed here. And as the picture-taking technology evolved, a succession of skilled photographers documented every aspect the evolving landscape.

Thousands of these images have survived the test of time, though not always in the best condition. They have become both objects of beauty and powerful historical records. And as we look through the photographs, we can now ponder whether they are more important as art or as history – or whether that even matters.



William L. Lang & Robert C. Carriker, Great Rivers of the West: Essays on the Columbia River

Wilma Roberts, Celilo Falls: Remembering Thunder

Ellen Morris Bishop, In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History

George W. Aguilar Sr., When the River Ran Wild! Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation


Picturing Progress: Carleton Watkin’s 1867 Stereoviews of the Columbia River


Oregon Historical Quarterly

Master of the Columbia: Photography by Carleton E. Watkins at the Oregon Historical Society by Megan K. Friedel

Oregon Historical Quarterly

Eyes of the Earth: Lily White, Sarah Ladd, and the Oregon Camera Club by Carole Glauber

Oregon Historical Quarterly

Web sites

The Oregon Historical Society

The Portland Art Museum

Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957 by Terry Toedtemeier and John Laursen, The Northwest Photography Archive, (2008).

Carleton Watkins Stereoviews

Friends of the Columbia Gorge

Center for Columbia River History

Columbia Gorge Discovery Center

Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum

Flicker: Portland Art Museum: Wild Beauty Photo Pool

Broadcast Date: January 04, 2011