My fascination with history derives from the fact that in immersing myself in the accounts of long gone days, I am occasionally confronted with perspectives and insights that literally twist our world around.
Today the landscape near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers is dominated by the I-5 and I-84 corridors that link the Portland area with the rest of the Pacific Northwest. In subtle ways, the grid lines of these arterials establish where we are by redefining our accessibility. All our travel flows through these hard-wired circuits. The organic connections that for over a century linked our communities along the Lower Columbia River have entirely disappeared.
Today no one is surprised to find Scappoose’s sports teams competing with Oregon teams from Tualatin, Oregon City and Salem. But this is just a recent development. Until 1908 Scappoose’s rivals were located right in Ridgefield and Kalama – both on the other side of the river in Washington. Grange hall dances in Oregon’s hilltop communities often featured frantic drives down off the heights, lights flashing, horns blaring, trying to catch the last cross-river ferry.
Kalama, Kelso and Cowlitz on the Washington shore enjoyed close ties with Oregon’s Scappoose, St. Helens and Goble as ferries, paddle boats and steamers crisscrossed the river in a continuous tangle of commerce and human affairs. Traffic flowed on the river seamlessly stitching towns and communities together.
All this changed in 1908 when the railroad bridge between Portland and Vancouver was completed and the line was expanded to Kalama. Up until this time, train traffic had passed northward along the Oregon side of the river. At Goble the entire train was loaded on to The Tacoma, a 1,362 ton train carrier that could accommodate 21 cars and the locomotive. For over 24 years The Tacoma was the critical link that connected the only rail line carrying freight north into the Puget Sound area. But in October, 1908 the new rail bridge in Vancouver suddenly disconnected the Oregon side of the Lower Columbia from the main stream of commerce heading north. By Christmas day, The Tacoma had made its last crossing.
For a few years smaller ferries still continued to ply the river shuttling residents from the Lower Columbia River to their cross-river neighbors or to intercept the trains heading back and forth between Portland and Seattle. But with the construction of the Longview to Rainier bridge even that remnant of cross-river traffic eventually dried up.
The river that had once been a seam holding the Lower Columbia communities together, now became a partition that estranged these communities from each other, like relatives that have moved across country, or in-laws from a prior marriage. With the coming of the railroad and later the Interstate highway, an ancient geographic paradigm that had carved the tracks of human intercourse in this region was replaced, virtually overnight, by a new configuration that completely obliterated even the memory of what had existed before.