Skip to main content

Hells Canyon

July 2024
26min read

Man, Land, and History in the Deepest Gorge on Earth

Hells Canyon is awesome. There is no other single word that can adequately describe it. Incredibly deep, austerely magnificent, it slashes between the states of Oregon and Idaho like a raw and gaping wound. To stand on the rim and gaze into that vast hole is to know humility as few places can teach it; to venture into it is to enter a place apart, a separate world-within-a-world where the old scales and comfortable concepts of size and distance fade into irrelevancy. “The grandeur and originality of the views presented on every side,” wrote Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, one of the canyon’s earliest explorers, “beggar both the pencil and the pen. Nothing we had ever gazed upon in any other region could for a moment compare in wild majesty and impressive sternness with the series of scenes which here at every turn astonished our senses and filled us with awe and delight.” Little seems changed since Bonneville’s time, nearly a century and a half ago. Though whole towns have lived and died in those scorched depths, though mines have been punched through the walls, though the white river has known all types of craft from canoes and rubber rafts to stern-wheelers and jet boats, so much space is caught between those beetling rims, so much emptiness and sheer, overwhelming size, that it is still easy to repeat the experience of the old woodsman quoted in Life magazine in the summer of 1969: “I spent three weeks in there once. Didn’t see a soul. Do you understand? Didn’t see a soul.”

Hells Canyon of the Snake River, as the Oregon Board of Geographic Names has officially defined it since 1970, begins at a natural feature called the Oxbow near the tiny hamlet of Homestead, Oregon. For most of its 104-mile length downstream to the mouth of the Grande Ronde River the canyon’s course is slightly east of north. But about two thirds of the way along, it bends to the left and from that point down it runs generally north-northwest. This lower portion, which includes the mouths of the Salmon and Imnaha rivers, is spectacular enough; but it is the upper section, from the great bend southward, that has given the gorge its awe-inspiring reputation. It is here, between dark brooding walls as little as five miles apart at the top, that the most profound depths are found. How deep? Six Empire State Buildings; four Yellowstone Canyons; nearly two Yosemite Valleys; 47 Niagara Falls. From He Devil Peak on the east rim to the surface of the Snake the drop is 7,900 feet, more than a third of a mile greater than the maximum 6,ioo-foot depth of the Grand Canyon at Point Imperial. The lower west rim is still more than a mile high. The late Richard Neuberger once pointed out that you could drop the entire Catskill Range into the canyon and still come fifteen hundred feet short of filling it. How deep? The deepest. Not just in Idaho or Oregon; not just in the United States; not even just in North America. It is the deepest known river gorge on the face of this planet.


The first historical record of the great gorge is found in the journals of Lewis and Clark, who passed that way in the fall of 1805 and again in the spring of 1806. Outward bound, they had been warned away from the canyon by the Indians and had carefully avoided it, bypassing it over the LoIo Trail to the east and north; going home they intended to follow the same route, but there was a hitch. Snow in the Bitterroot Mountains was deeper than they had expected, forcing them into a month’s encampment on the upper Clearwater River. During that month, three expedition members—Sergeant John Ordway and Privates Robert Frazier and Peter Weiser—seeking a salmon fishery they had been told of on what they called the Lewis River (today’s Snake), penetrated the north end of Hells Canyon as far as the confluence of the Snake and the Salmon. Meriwether Lewis recorded their impressions of the place as a “high broken mountanous country” where the river banks were “in most places solid and perpendicular rocks, which rise to a great hight.” How great a height was not yet suspected; the expedition moved on.

Five years later a Pacific Fur Company executive named Wilson Price Hunt, acting under the orders of fur magnate John Jacob Astor, led an ill-prepared party of sixty-four men into the south end of the canyon looking for a route through to the Pacific Ocean. Unhorsed, hungry, cold, and divided by an earlier disaster into three separate groups, all of which had lost track of one another, the Astorians trudged hopefully into the south portal of the great gorge late in November, 1811. Four weeks later the recombined expeditions, shaken and starving, staggered back out. One man, Jean Baptiste Prevoste, had been drowned; the others had been saved from starvation only by the fortuitous circumstance of having been able to steal some horses from a canyon-wintering band of Shoshoni Indians. Dubbing the Snake “La Maudite Rivière Enragée”—the Accursed Mad River—they abandoned it on Christmas Day, 1811, striking out westward over the snow-covered but much more hospitable Blue Mountains.

Hunt never returned to the canyon, but one of his party, a gargantuan Scotsman named Donald McKenzie, did. In April, 1819, several years after the ill-fated Astor project had collapsed, McKenzie made history by poling loaded canoes upstream all the way through the waters of what he called the Narrows of the Great South Branch. Pronouncing the stream “practicable, for loaded boats with one single carrying place or portage,” he wrote jubilantly to his friend Alexander Ross: “The doubtful question is now set at rest forever.” But nobody—including McKenzie—ever repeated the voyage. Fifteen years later the canyon was still so unfamiliar that apparently no one whom Captain B.L.E. Bonneville spoke to knew it was there—a circumstance that almost led the dapper, French-born army captain turned fur trader to disaster.

Traveling to Fort Walla Walla on business, Bonneville arrived at the canyon with three companions in mid-January, 1834. Here they made the same mistake that Wilson Price Hunt had made: they stayed with the river. Soon they were deep in the canyon. Awed by the scenery, but determined, the four men pressed forward until they reached the neighborhood of what is now the Hells Canyon Dam. Here the narrowing, deepening gorge became too tight to let them proceed. They attempted to climb out, struggling up the west wall for most of a day; but that way proved too rugged, and they were forced to descend back into the canyon. Four miles upriver they tried again, and this time they managed to keep going, up the wall, along a great broken terrace perched halfway between rim and river, and finally up and over the 7,000-foot west rim to descend into the smiling valley of the Imnaha River. From grim Snake to spring-green Imnaha the distance is just over twelve miles. It had taken them more than a week.

The discovery of gold in the central Idaho mountains in 1860 brought a sudden, drastic change to the canyon country, which had been slumbering since the death of the fur trade, shortly after Bonneville’s travels. Thousands of men poured into the drainage of the Clearwater River, where the first strikes had been made. These men needed supplies. Soon steamboats from distant Portland were bulling their way up the Columbia and the lower Snake to the bluff-enclosed mouth of the Clearwater, thirty miles downstream from Hells Canyon, where the town of Lewiston quickly took shape. Just as quickly, the Clear-water mines were overshadowed by new discoveries in the Boise Basin, upstream from the canyon. The big ditch therefore enjoyed a sudden boost in strategic importance. Lewiston could remain the supply center for this new mother lode only if water transport could be established to it. Could this be done? Could steamboats ascend safely through that incredible canyon to the mouth of the Boise?

A small party of Army Engineers was sent to find out. This team, consisting of what the Golden Age , Lewiston’s neophyte newspaper, called “three reliable men,” left for the Boise mines on September 20, 1862. By October 24 they were back in Lewiston, with a report somewhat longer on optimism than it was on facts. “They found nothing in the river to impede navigation, whatsoever, and pronounced it feasible at any season of the year unless it be by ice,” crowed the Golden Age . “The examination of the river shows the fact that Snake River is navigable for steamers and will be much safer to travel than the river is from Lewiston to the mouth of the Snake. …”

In the light of current knowledge about the canyon, it is easy to doubt that those “three reliable men” were ever on the river at all; and surely such doubts must have been uppermost in steamboat captain Thomas Stump’s mind as, in the summer of 1864, his valiant little Colonel Wright became the first vessel to test the accuracy of the engineers’ report. Clawing, winching, and grinding her way upstream through rapid after angry rapid, the Colonel Wright managed to reach the neighborhood of Pittsburg Landing, some fifty-five miles into the cany on. Here she smashed her bow and then her stern against a large rock, destroying her paddle wheel and sending her careening downstream out of control for several miles. Captain Stump directed emergency repairs, turned the boat around, and brought her back to Lewiston, covering the seventy-live miles downstream in a little over three and one hall hours. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which owned the Colonel Wright , decided prudently against any further attempts.


But Captain John Ainsworth, the flamboyant president of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, was reluctant to give up all claims to the wealth of the Boise Basin mines; and in 1865. the year after the Colonel Wright ’s failure, reordered a boat built at Fort Boise strictly for trade on the upper river. It was a fiasco. The Shoshone , as the new boat was christened, ran up such an embarrassing deficit in her three years of sporadic operation that Ainsworth seriously considered abandoning her completely. But then he had a better idea. If the Shoshone couldn’t run at a profit where she was, why, take her to where she could run at a profit. In the summer of 1869 he ordered Captain Cyrus Smith to bring the boat down through the canyon to Lewiston, or, failing that, as he put it bluntly, to “wreck her in the attempt.”

Cy Smith got into the upper end of the gorge as far as Copper Creek Falls—a roaring, churning, thundering white-water chute where the river dropped eighteen feet down in barely three hundred forward. Here he balked. Ainsworth replaced him with a new man, Sebastian K. Miller. Bas Miller took the Shoshone over the falls, lost eight feet of her bow in the process, tied up for two days for repairs, and reached Lewiston five days later. The company’s agent there treated him as an apparition returned from the grave; recognizable pieces of the Shoshone had been fished out of the Columbia River at Umatilla four days before, and the boat and her crew had been given up for lost.

The saga of the Shoshone sounds like the type of exploit that should go into the record books as a one-of-a-kind; oddly enough, however, the whole thing was almost exactly paralleled twenty-five years later by a boat called the Norma . Like the Shoshone , to which she was virtually identical in both size and appearance, the Norma was built on the upper river for trade there; also like the Shoshone , she was a dismal failure, and her owners, a successor corporation to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company called the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, decided to bring her down through Hells Canyon. With a well-known daredevil pilot named William Polk Gray at the controls, the Norma eased out of her berth at Huntington, Oregon, above the canyon, on the afternoon of May 17, 1895. A pair of accidents in the upper river delayed them somewhat, and it was noon on the twenty-second before they reached Copper Creek Falls. Here is Gray’s own highly entertaining account of the trip over those falls, set down many years lateral the request of the U. S. Geological Survey:

When I returned to the boat I called the carpenter, who had been foreman on construction for many-years with the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and had asked to go with me for the excitement, and putting my foot on the starboard guard about ten feet abaft the stem said: “She will strike about there. I want you to run in a bulkhead six feet back ofthat to the midship keelson, then have the mate back it up with cordwood in case water should rush in hard enough to tear away your bulkhead.” He examined the falls and replied: “You ain’t intending to go over that place, are you ; you will drown us all.” I looked at him a moment and then asked: “Tom, you never had much notoriety, did you?” “No, why?” “They have all our names that are on this boat, and if you should be drowned your name would be in every paper in the United States and Europe.” His reply: “Oh! Go to Hell” sounded like the decree of fate. I replied: “Put in the bulkhead, Tom. We’ll chance the other place.” An hour later the sounds of hammer ceased and I heard mumbling. Walking softly to the bulkhead hatch I heard: “Damned old fool; going to be drowned for excitement because a damned fool wants notoriety.” But the bulkhead went in good. When we dropped over the fall we seemed to be facing certain destruction on the cliff below, but I knew my engineer was “all there” and would answer promptly. Backing slowly and within ten feet of rock to starboard her bow passed the mouth of Copper Creek, where an eddy, emptying, gave her a slight swing out and I backed strong with helm hard to starboard—the bow must take its chances now; the stern must not. Almost before one could speak the bow touched the point of the cliffjust hard enough to break three guard timbers without touching the hull, and we bounded into the still water below. The carpenter, who had stationed himself on the hurricane deck outside of the pilot house with two life preservers around him, stepped out in front of the pilot house and shouted: “Hurrah, Cap! You start her for Hell and I’ll go with you from this on.”

They spent the rest of the day negotiating the deepest, narrowest section of the canyon, where the crew, impressed by the perpetual twilight at the base of those 7,000-foot walls, reported seeing stars at midday. Tying up for the night at Johnson Creek, they ran the ninety miles on into Lewiston the next day—the second, and last, steamboat ever to make it all the way through the deepest gorge on earth.

The voyages of the Shoshone and the Norma , similar as they were, (differed in one important aspect. In 1869, Bas Miller and the Shoshone had plunged bravely into a nearly unknown wilderness canyon, inhabited by bands of Nez Perce and Shoshoni Indians, virtually unchanged for millennia. But the twenty-five intervening years had altered things drastically by the time Gray and the Norma came along. The Indians were gone.

The biggest single cause of this change was the Nez Perce War of 1877—one of the most shameful events in the canyon’s history. The Nez Perce claimed the canyon and the lovely, lofty Wallowa Valley to the west of it, both by tradition and by the terms of an 1855 treaty. White stockmen and miners wanted both, and forced a new treaty through in 1863. The Hells Canyon and Wallowa bands of Nez Perce, led by Toolhoolhoolzote and Joseph, refused to accept the new treaty. Fourteen years of stubborn negotiations, during which Joseph died and was replaced by his son Young Joseph, culminated in a tumultuous ten-day conference in May, 1877, at Lapwai, Idaho. Toolhoolhoolzote was thrown in the guardhouse; the shocked Young Joseph agreed at last to move from the Wallowa. He was ordered to be on the drastically shrunken reservation defined in the 1863 treaty by June 14.

A little over two weeks later, the Wallowa band of Nez Perce, some four hundred strong, together with several thousand head of cattle and horses, gathered forlornly on the Oregon bank of the Snake at a place now called Joseph’s Crossing, deep in Hells Canyon. The Snake was at flood stage, a roiling, swollen yellow torrent about a hundred yards wide. Joseph had expected this, and had begged at Lapwai to be allowed to wait until September to travel to the reservation so that the crossing could be made at low water. He had been met with a curt and entirely adamant refusal. Hazardous as it was, the crossing would have to be made now.

Rafts of hide bundles were fashioned; the rafts were heaped high with baggage and gear. Young men, stripped naked and riding bareback on horses known to be strong swimmers, entered the water in groups of four, one to each corner of a raft. Bobbing, yawing, and spinning helplessly in the powerful current, the little flotilla moved slowly out from the bank. Here and there rafts got away from their handlers, hobbling downstream or upsetting and spilling their contents into the turbulent Snake. One story has it that while the Indians’ attention was occupied with the baggage rafts, thieves crept up to their herds and cut out several hundred head to be driven back up to the Wallowa and branded with white men’s brands. It is certain, however, that much of the livestock was lost in the river.

Next came the people themselves—the women and children, the old and infirm, the men with families, all except those responsible for the livestock. Mounted on the tribe’s best horses, they rode apprehensively into the broad, swift river. And amazingly—miraculously—all made the swim in safety. There was not a single loss of human life.

When the livestock had been brought across, the bedraggled little band began the long climb out of the canyon and toward the reservation, still twenty-five miles away and across another deep gorge. They never made it. The war began a few miles short of the boundary, touched off by three young Indians who were goaded into it by an old man who should have known better. Four months and a thousand miles later it ended in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, a heartbreaking fifty miles from the sanctuary the Nez Perce sought in Canada. Toolhoolhoolzote was killed in the last hours of the fighting; Joseph died many years later, on September 21, 1904, at the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. At the time of his death he was still trying to get permission to move back to the Wallowa Valley, where a town had already been named for him—a town in which he was not allowed to reside. It is little wonder that the official cause of death, as listed on the death certificate prepared by the reservation doctor, was “a broken heart.”

White stockmen and miners had been moving into Hells Canyon as early as the mid-i86o’s; now, with the Indians out of the way, this process accelerated. Homesteaders came, clinging to precarious 160-acre patches of ground scattered through all but the very deepest portions of the great gorge. Here and there post offices sprang up (including one called “Joy” because the settlers in that neighborhood were so pleased to be getting mail service at last). It is from this period that most of the place names in the canyon may be dated; many of them demonstrate the sardonic humor necessary to survive in such grim terrain. PO Saddle, a narrow, deep pass on the west rim, is officially a shortened form of “Peep Over,” though you will find it listed on the early maps as Pissover Saddle. Alex Warnock was bucked off his horse near a small stream north of Saddle Creek in the main gorge; his hat lodged in a bush out of reach, remaining there for many years and giving its name to Hat Creek and, because the creek headed out up there, to Hat Point. Sleepy Creek was so named because the sun hit it so late in the day that the cowhands who named it got several extra hours of sleep the night they camped there.


It was also in this period that one of the grimmest events in the canyon’s history occurred. The time, as nearly as it can be made out, was early spring, 1887; it was, in any event, later that year that decomposing bodies with an oriental cast to their features began floating past Lewiston and the alarmed authorities launched an investigation of what was later to be called the Chinese Massacre, the Deep Creek Massacre, or—by the more sensational historians of the canyon—the Crime of the Century.

In the fall of 1886, thirty-two Chinese placer miners had moved onto the bar at the mouth of Deep Creek, six miles upcanyon from the mouth of the Imnaha River and some thirty river miles above the lower end of the canyon. Rumors had quickly gathered about them; the most commonly accepted story credited them with the possession of “seventeen flasks of gold dust,” each worth between $500 and $1,000. It was wealth enough to set men plotting darkly, and certain men did.

There were eight involved in the original plot, hired hands employed by a rancher running cattle on the east rim of the canyon. The plan they came up with was as simple as it was ugly. They would ride down to the Chinese camp, shoot all the Chinese, bury the gold, and climb back out of the canyon to their cows. Later, after the furor had died down, they could go back, dig up the gold, and be rich.

The night before, one of the younger men, Carl Hughes, changed his mind and begged to be left out. So there were seven men in the party when it arrived at the mouth of Deep Creek early the next afternoon. Riding directly into the camp, they opened fire immediately, at close range. The Chinese had no chance at all to resist. All thirty-two were slain and their bodies thrown casually into the convenient river.

The investigation that began when the waterlogged corpses reached Lewiston quickly spilled over local borders to become a national—and even an international-incident. An indemnity claim was filed by the Government of China against the Government of the United States to the amount of $275,000. One of the murderers, a man named Frank Vaughan, eventually broke down and confessed; he was taken into custody along with Carl Hughes, the man who had backed out on the morning of the massacre. The others faded away and were never apprehended. Fifteen years later, two young men who had been trying their luck panning gold at Deep Creek showed up in Joseph one day bearing a flask partially filled with gold dust that was worth approximately $700.


It was all that was ever found of the rumored Chinese treasure.

The first decade of the twentieth century was, in many ways, the high point of civilization’s attempt to tame the rugged reaches of the deepest gorge on earth. That was the decade that saw three towns founded in the depths of the great canyon. Only one remains. The first, and shortest-lived, of these three communities was Eureka, a mining camp on a small bar at the mouth of the Imnaha River. Gold was discovered there in the summer of 1902. A “Eureka Mining Company” was quickly incorporated; by August, 1903, there were two thousand people living on the bar, a postmaster had been assigned, and the foundations for a gigantic stamp mill were crawling up the canyon wall. Eureka, Oregon, was on the map.

Because of the difficulty of travel through the canyon country from Joseph, all heavy traffic had to come by way of the Snake River. The Eureka Mining Company had its hand in that, too. A wholly owned subsidiary, the Lewiston Southern Company, was put together early in 1903 to run steamboats between Lewiston and Eureka Bar. The lower half of that run, from Lewiston to the Grande Ronde, was easy enough; but the upper half was a challenge. Here the river narrowed down, the canyon walls climbed, and the rapids increased drastically in both size and frequency. The Lewiston Southern Company had prevailed upon the Army Engineers to do channel improvement work in the area early in 1903, and the rapids had been tamed somewhat by dynamite, but they were still vicious. Two were especially troublesome: the Wild Goose, a few miles above the Grande Ronde, and the Mountain Sheep, deep in the narrowest section of the canyon—a mere sixty-two feet wide—a mile and a half below the Imnaha. A stern-wheeler could not hope to ascend these white staircases of angry water under its own power; help was required. It came in the form of a great iron ring set firmly into the canyon wall well above each rapid. A steel cable was attached to each ring; an empty barrel was fastened to the free end of the cable, to mark it and keep it afloat. Lewiston Southern’s only steamer, the Imnaha , carried a powerful winch. Approaching a rapid, she would locate the barrel, fish it out of the water, tie onto the cable, and draw herself up to the calmer water above. There the barrel would be released, to float back over the rapid and lie in wait for the next trip.

The stamp mill for the Eureka mines arrived in Lewiston early in November, 1903, and was immediately loaded on the Imnaha . On Sunday, November 8, with captain Harry Baugham at the wheel, she pulled away from the dock to begin the trip upriver. It was to prove her last voyage. Late that evening or early the next morning, while negotiating Mountain Sheep Rapid, she fouled her paddle wheel on that helpful cable-and-barrel arrangement. The wheel jammed; the engine died. Powerless, the Imnaha drifted back into Mountain Sheep Rapid. At the brink she touched shore just long enough for the crew and passengers to leap clear; then, as they watched helplessly, over she went. Halfway down she swung crossways and hung up, caught like a cork in the narrow channel; the water backed up behind her, and the pressure tore her in two. The stamp mill went to the bottom of the river.

The Eureka Mining Company put up a brave front, but the lack of significant pay dirt, coupled with transportation difficulties, thoroughly crippled it. Within three weeks, men were being laid off at the mines. Cargo runs on the Imnaha ’s successor, the Mountain Gem —built with money raised by subscriptions from Lewiston businessmen—slowed to a trickle, then ceased altogether. The post office was closed. By 1906 it was all over; soon nothing was left but the gigantic, lonely stamp mill foundation, stair-stepping up the canyon wall behind the empty bar like some kind of Incan ruin. It is there today, little changed—as durable a monument to the folly of man’s greed as has ever been constructed.

Even as Eureka lay dying, however, two more attempts were being made to found communities within Hells Canyon. At the south portal of the gorge, just north of the Oxbow, the cities of Homestead and Copperfield were headed for their brief moments in the sun.

Homestead is, in a sense, still there, though it is little more than a name on the map today. Founded around 1900 as an agglomeration of homesteaders, prospectors, and hard-rock miners, it flourished briefly with the success of the Iron Dyke copper mine during World War i, plummeted in importance when the mine closed in 1922, and managed to hang on to a tenuous existence mostly through the outright cussedness of a few people who simply refused to leave. Copperfield was another matter altogether. Born out of next to nothing in 1908, it rose like a meteor, flared just as brightly, and plunged to earth just as rapidly, after briefly making front-page news as far away as New York City. Credit for its demise is usually given to Miss Fern Hobbs, though the lady always insisted modestly that she really had little to do with it, that it was mostly that nice Colonel Lawson from the state penitentiary; after all, he did command the troops. …

The business of Copperfield was vice—or, as historian Stewart Holbrook once succinctly put it, “drinking, fighting, gambling, and whoring.” Its clientele were construction workers. Modern technology was beginning to inch its way into the canyon; a half-mile-long tunnel was being punched through the Oxbow to serve as a penstock for a new hydroelectric plant, and nearby the Oregon Short Line was making a gallant attempt to push a railroad through Hells Canyon to Lewiston—an attempt that would never get beyond Homestead. Between them, the two projects employed better than two thousand men. The nearest place to offer anything that could generously be called a red-light district was the city of Baker, more than a hundred miles away. Under the circumstances, Copper-field was probably inevitable.

Copperfield had no sheriff, no jail, no law enforcement apparatus of any kind. The mayor and the city councilmen were the keepers of the town’s rowdiest saloons. Riots, gang wars, fist fights, and public drunkenness were not only tolerated but, in the interests of publicity, encouraged. Baker County Sheriff Ed Rand rarely went near the place. The rest of the county government carefully looked the other way.

By 1913 the stink of Copperfield had grown to such proportions that it had begun to be smelled in distant Salem, Oregon’s capital. Governor Oswald West sent a stern message to the Baker County officials, giving them until Christmas to clean up the town. Christmas came and went; Baker County sat on its hands. Os West took matters into his.

Thus it was that, on January 2, 1914, Miss Fern Hobbs alighted from the Huntington-to-Homestead train when it stopped at the Copperfield depot. Miss Hobbs was Governor West’s personal secretary. She was twenty-five years old, stood five feet three inches tall, and weighed in at 104 pounds after a heavy meal. She carried a light briefcase. Right behind her came Colonel B. K. Lawson, warden of the state penitentiary; Frank Snodgrass, chief of the penitentiary guards; and five burly National Guardsmen. They carried heavy rifles.

Copperfield had been forewarned; the streets were decorated with pink bunting, and the entire population had turned out to greet the governor’s tiny emissary and to escort her to the town hall. There, while her armed escort stood guard at the building’s only doorway, Miss Hobbs mounted the rostrum, opened her briefcase, and took out four pieces of paper. They were letters of resignation, she said, prepared for the town’s officials. Would they sign?

They would not.

Miss Hobbs sighed, reached into her briefcase once more, pulled out a fifth sheet of paper, and called Colonel Lawson to come forward and read it. He did so. It was a declaration of martial law, signed by the governor. The citizens of Copperfield were now under state jurisdiction. They would kindly disperse, leaving all weapons at the door.

Colonel Lawson’s voice had the effect of a pin poked into a balloon. The town collapsed. Within ninety minutes the streets were empty, the saloons were closed and being dismantled, and Fern Hobbs was on the southbound train, heading out of the canyon and onto the front pages of just about every newspaper in the country.

For three decades following the demise of Copperfield, Hells Canyon slumbered once more. The Lewiston-to-Huntington railroad project was abandoned, revived again briefly in the igao’s, then permanently laid to rest when a survey showed that the line would cost at least $198,000 a mile to build—never mind the maintenance costs. The power plant at the Oxbow proved far too fragile to withstand the power of the raging Snake; it operated sporadically for a few years, was patched several times, finally fell apart irrevocably, and had to be left to the elements. The promoters of copper and gold and silver mines gave up and moved away. A few prospectors stayed on, lured by the tenth of an ounce or so of gold a day it was possible to take from the bars deep in the canyon; a few ranchers kept stubbornly running stock, lured as much by the challenge of the great gorge as by the money they might make in the sheep or cattle market. One of these ranchers, Len B. Jordan, was to become Idaho’s governor and later her United States senator. And there was Rosie Dunbar, a middle-aged woman who trudged through Homestead one day in the mid-thirties headed for the canyon, all her earthly belongings tied into two large bundles which she was lugging in relays, one at a time, along the rough road. A sympathetic Homestead resident gave her an old wheelbarrow big enough to haul both bundles at once; she pushed on to Leep Creek, took up a homestead, and lived long enough to see herself become a canyon legend as “the Wheelbarrow Woman.”

But if there was little action during those thirty years in the canyon, there was plenty of planning going on. Despite the initial failure of the power plant at the Oxbow, the tremendous hydroelectric potential of this big, rapidly flowing river proved far too tantalizing to be overlooked. Surveys aimed at finding the best way to utilize this resource were under way as early as 1916, but it was not until the early 1930’5 that Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a comprehensive plan for the orderly development of the Snake-Columbia river system. The resulting “308 report,” first published in 1934 and since revised several times, was to become the standard against which all future developmental plans for Hells Canyon would be measured. Five major dam sites were located within the 104-mile length of the canyon (a sixth and a seventh were added later), and after years of squabbling between private power companies and public power companies, three dams were in fact built, each within about twenty miles of the other—the 395-foot Brownlee, the 205-foot Oxbow (a resuscitation of the old Oxbow Power Plant), and the 330-foot Hells Canyon.

These were minor enterprises compared to what other power advocates had in mind. In November, 1954, four large private utilities, banded together and incorporated as the Pacific Northwest Power Company, filed an application with the Federal Power Commission to build a high dam at what was known as the Pleasant Valley site, near Pittsburg Landing in the middle part of the canyon—the high point of the Colonel Wright ’s voyage. Their own interests at stake, public-power advocates immediately contested it on the now familiar grounds that it would preclude development of an even higher dam downstream—in this case, at Nez Perce. This time, public power appeared to be winning: in January, 1958, the FPC, after exhaustive hearings, set forth an opinion denying the Pleasant Valley license.

But the Pacific Northwest Power Company, though down, was not out. Two months after its Pleasant Valley application was denied, the company filed once more—this time on the Mountain Sheep site, four miles above Nez Perce, literally on top of the rapids where the Imnaha had come to grief a half-century before. Hearings were set for the spring of 1960; a few days before they were to open, a competing application was filed—for the Nez Perce site—by a combine of sixteen public utility districts known as the Washington Public Power Supply System. It looked as though the issues were to be defined with crystal clarity: public power v. private power, the Nez Perce site v. the Mountain Sheep site. But a complicating factor was about to enter the picture.

This new factor was thrust into prominence largely because of an accident at the Oxbow. There, in September, 1958, a fish trap had collapsed just before the upper Snake’s fall run of salmon was due to reach it. When the excitement was over, at least half the run had been killed and the remainder so seriously weakened that some fisheries experts doubted that they would be able to spawn. Later that same fall it became evident that the expensive downstream fish-passage facilities at the new Brownlee Dam were experiencing a rate of failure in the neighborhood of 90 per cent. The prolific salmon runs in the upper Snake basin declined suddenly to next to nothing.

There had always been a certain amount of opposition, on the part of fisheries people, to dams in Hells Canyon. Up to this point, such opposition had usually taken a practical turn, supporting Mountain Sheep—just above the mouth of the extraordinarily productive Salmon River—as a means of preventing the building of Nez Perce, which, by blocking the Salmon, threatened to eliminate the highly valuable Snake River fishery altogether. Now, however, with the grim examples of the Oxbow and Brownlee failures to point to, the fisheries interests were emboldened to go a step further.

They announced that they would intervene formally in the Federal Power Commission proceedings in opposition to both Nez Perce and Mountain Sheep.

The complicated, convoluted, and extremely exhausting FPC hearings dragged on until February, 1964. In that month the Pacific Northwest Power Company was given its license for Mountain Sheep. The Washington Public Power Supply System immediately announced that it would appeal. The appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court, and what happened there startled everyone (except, perhaps, the Court itself). In its June 5, 1967, opinion, written by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court found for neither the Supply System nor the Pacific Northwest Power Company. Instead, it remanded the proceedings to the Federal Power Commission for further hearings, with specific instructions to give more weight to the alternative proposed by the fisheries interests—the alternative of no dam at all. The question, Douglas wrote, is not “solely whether the region will be able to use the electric power.”

The test is whether the project will be in the public interest. And that determination can be made only after an exploration of all issues relevant to the “public interest,” including future power demand and supply, alternate sources of power, the public interest in preserving reaches of rivers and wilderness areas, the preservation of anadromous fish for commercial and recreational purposes, and the protection of wildlife.

The commission, the power companies, and even the public watching the debate had forgotten that what was at stake was more than just public power v. private power, or fish v. dams. What was at stake was the battleground itself, an extraordinary wilderness canyon, the deepest gorge on earth. The commission had tossed this little irrelevancy aside. The Court, in one powerful paragraph, had brought it back.

At a congressional hearing on the canyon some time later, a lawyer for Pacific Northwest Power was heard to remark somewhat petulantly ofthat Supreme Court decision that “Until that moment, nobody had ever discerned in the canyon of the Snake River any form of that remarkable beauty which would prevent the development of this very important energy resource.” This is not quite true. As early as the 1920’s, efforts had been made to have Hells Canyon included in the National Park system, and since 1960 there had been a small but vocal preservationist movement in the Lewiston area, headed by a jet-boat operator named Floyd Harvey. The Supreme Court did not invent the idea of preservation for the great gorge. It may be said, however, that it breathed a considerable amount of life into what was until then a virtually moribund cause. Within a few weeks of the Court’s decision, the powerful Sierra Club announced that it planned to intervene in the proceedings on behalf of preservation; within a few months a Hells Canyon Preservation Council had been formed and had begun to put together the first draft of a bill to preserve the canyon. A year later a young Portland attorney named Bob Packwood was elected to the United States Senate from Oregon, and the cause of preservation had a champion in Congress. Packwood enthusiastically introduced the Preservation Council’s bill, which was denied committee hearings, died with the close of the Ninety-first Congress, was revived at the beginning of the Ninety-second, squeaked through to hearings, and finally died altogether. A new bill, written by Hells Canyon Preservation Council President Pete Henault on his dining-room table in Idaho Falls, Idaho, was introduced under the combined sponsorship of the entire Oregon and Idaho senatorial delegations. Al Ullman, who had been elected to Congress in 1956 on his record as head of the pro-dam National Hells Canyon Association—but who could read the handwriting in the public-opinion polls—introduced companion legislation in the House. The Senate bill passed. The House bill was bottled up in committee, died, was reintroduced. Finally, on November 18, 1975, the House, by a 342-53 vote, passed Al Ullman’s preservation bill. The few differences between that bill and the Senate-passed version were easily reconciled; and on December 31, a few brief hours before the opening of the Bicentennial Year, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area into law. The era of exploitation was over.

Exactly seven months later, on July 31, 1976,1 sat with approximately three hundred other people under the boiling sun at Hat Point, on the Oregon rim, as the new Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was dedicated. A fleet of bright yellow buses commandeered from a neighboring school district had inched up the tortuous, rutted Hat Point road all that morning, bringing us there; the Forest Service had wisely closed the road to private traffic for the occasion. Far below, in the vast depths of the canyon, the Rush Creek rapids showed up as an insignificant white patch on a thin gray ribbon of water; I remembered how the rapids had looked as I stood beside them a few months earlier and listened to Lewiston physician Dave Spencer tell, in a shouted conversation that barely carried over the roar of the churning, high-piled white water, how that insignificant white patch had torn the windshield from his $6,000 jet boat the one time he had been rash enough to attempt to climb it.

There were speeches. Bob Packwood referred to “the jewel that is Hells Canyon”; Oregon’s Governor Bob Sträub called it “this magnificent, incomparable area”; Al Ullman capped them both by flatly and unashamedly describing it as “the most beautiful area in the world.” Afterward we scattered out along the rim among the alpine flowers to eat lunch. I thought of Fern Hobbs and Wilson Price Hunt, of the Norma and the Shoshone , of the vanished promise of Eureka, of the shame of Joseph’s Crossing, of the bloodstained bar at the mouth of Deep Creek. I took some pictures. Then we all got in the buses and drove away from the rim, down the long twisting road into Enterprise, leaving the big canyon to the winds and sun.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.