A mile across, Celilo Falls were the tenth widest waterfall in the world, the widest in the United States, and the largest along the Columbia River. Each year, millions of salmon, hundreds of sea lions, and thousands of Indians from several tribes would converge on the stair step falls, making it one of the single greatest fishing sites in the world. It was home to native settlements for over eleven thousand years. It was such a trading center that the fur trader Alexander Ross described it in 1849 as the great emporium or mart of the Columbia. When the salmon were running, the falls would be festooned with hundreds of fishermen perched on a ramshackle network of scaffolds that seemed to hover over the rushing torrent. Dip nets went down and twisting flopping salmon were hauled up. Remarkable footage can be seen in this video.
It all ended at 10:00am on March 10, 1957 when the flood gates of The Dalles Dam were shut, a lake rose behind them, and the falls were submerged in silence.
Generations later, there are memories:
“The first thing everybody remembers or recalls is the roar of the water. You know, you could hear that roar of the water miles away before you even got by the place and all of a sudden you come upon it.” – Ed Edmo
“There was a beautiful mist and the sound of the water. The sound was like a pulse. It was a beautiful sight to see. It just was. There was people everywhere. It was a few tourists but mostly it was just Indians and they were pulling those fish out and hauling them up to the warehouse.” – Barbara Walker
“The smell of salmon was everywhere. Salmon was everywhere. Those are things I’ll never know. You can talk to elders but we’ll never know it as they did.” – Gretchen Halfmoon
“My dad was working on the railroad and he took me out of school and brought me in the car over here and I remember watching the water come up like a bad dream.” – Ed Edmo
“I couldn’t go to watch the falls being flooded because my grandma didn’t want me to see. All I seen was tears. I think my tears were just like a flood.” – Linda Meanus, granddaughter of Celilo village chief Tommy Thompson