Celilo which means “sounds of water upon the rocks” in several Native American languages was located on the Columbia River about 100 miles east of Portland, Oregon. Celilo Falls refers to a twelve-mile stretch of the river that was a series of waterfalls and rapids, as well as settlements, and trading villages. An estimated fifteen to twenty million fish passed through the falls every year making it one of the continent’s most prolific fishing areas. People had been living there for at least 10,000 years, and perhaps as long as 15,000 making it the longest continually inhabited community in North America—until The Army Corps of Engineers built the Dalles Dam in 1957, and Celilo Falls disappeared under the flooded river behind the dam.
Celilo Falls was located at the border between Chinookan and Sahaptian speaking peoples and served as the center of an extensive trading network extending from the Great Plains, to what is now the Southwest U.S., and north up into Alaska. Meriwether Lewis reported that when the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through the area in 1805, they found a “great emporium…where all the neighboring nations assemble” with a population density unlike anything they had seen previously on their journey. Fishing took place at sites that had been used by countless generations of the same families, who caught fish primarily using dip nets, which are hoop mounted nets attached to long poles. The salmon population peaked for only a few days in the spring and summer, but they were so numerous, and the river configured so propitiously, that it was common for individual fishers to catch several hundred fish each day.
In the 1840s American pioneers began arriving in the area, traveling down the Columbia River on wooden barges. Many died in the violent currents near Celilo. The Army Corps of Engineers began improving navigation on the river and completed the 14-mile long Celilo Canal in 1915, which allowed steamboats to circumvent the falls. Even though the canal was opened with great enthusiasm, it was under-used and idle by 1919. As the population increased in the 1930s and 1940s, civic leaders argued that a series of hydroelectric dams would improve navigation, provide a reliable source of water for agricultural irrigation, alleviate flooding, and very importantly, provide electricity for the war effort. Construction began on the Dalles Dam in 1952 and was completed in 1957. On March 10th of that year the floodgates were closed and the water rose, submerging the falls, fishing platforms, and the village of Celilo. Hundreds of people watched with tears in their eyes as thousands of years of Native American culture vanished.
Today, Celilo Village is a collection of homes built on a bluff overlooking the site where the falls used to be, separated from the river by Interstate Highway 84 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Indian families who live in the village still fish the Columbia River, but Celilo Falls and the immense and productive fishery they provided are only memories.