Columbia River Paved Way to Local Fortune

Courtesy photo - Robert R. Thompson, who settled in Alameda in 1878, made a name and a fortune as a steamboat captain in Oregon.

Columbia River Paved Way to Local Fortune

Robert R. Thompson moved to Alameda with his family in 1877. A steamboat captain, Thompson found wealth navigating the Columbia River. 

Before plying the Columbia,  Thompson had cashed in on the California gold rush. Now he intended to do the same in Oregon by mining a new breed of gold miners on their way north. 

Native Americans made Europeans aware of gold on the Fraser River in 1857. Word spread beyond this British Columbia outpost, setting off a gold rush and raising demand for travel on the Columbia River. 

Prospectors saw the Columbia as a way to reach the Fraser, but two obstacles stood in their way: the treacherous waters of the Cascades and Celilo Falls just east of The Dalles (pronounced “dahls”; and always proceeded by “The”).

Passengers and cargo skirted the Cascades by disembarking below the rapids. Ox-drawn carts carried passengers and cargo around the Cascades on a road called a portgage. When conditions were right, shallow-draft stern-wheelers could carry passengers up the Columbia River from the Cascades portage as far as Celilo Falls. There, passengers had to disembark again and the crew had to portage both the boat and its cargo around this second set of falls.  

W. R. Kilburn built this portgage in 1855 and named it the “Oregon Portage” to contrast with the portage that the military had built that same year just across the river in Washington Territory. 
By the time gold was discovered on the Fraser River, Thompson and Orlando Humanson had gained control of the Oregon Portage.

In 1858 Thompson and his partner Lawrence Coe tried their first ascent of the Columbia at the Cascades with a steamboat, a stern-wheeler called The Venture. 

They avoided the Cascades by building The Venture upriver from  from these rapids. But a mishap got in the way of Thompson and Coe’s  succeess. We’ll learn what happehed and see how the Columbia made Thompson a wealthy man in the next installment. 

Contact Dennis Evanosky at