Exploring the Route of Canada's Great Map Maker (NW)
David Thompson and The Great Columbia River
There are a series of television vignettes on Global TV featuring David Thompson and The Man in Motion Rick Hansen. The four 30-second spots sponsored by the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation celebrate the life of David Thompson, the Great Map Maker.
During his lifetime, Thompson travelled 90,000 km (56,000 mi) and mapped (4.9 million sq km) (1.9 million sq mi), from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. Using his watch, compass, sextant and knowledge of astronomy, Thompson explored/mapped the entire Columbia River, shaping the history of the Pacific Northwest.
When someone associates a river with British Columbia, it would most likely be the Fraser River. The Columbia River, however, is by far the more important of the two major rivers. The river is 1931 km (1,243 mi) long with approximately 607 km (433 mi) in British Columbia and its source in Columbia Lake in the East Kootenays. The watershed is greater than the entire nd size of France. In British Columbia the Columbia River flows largely through wilderness, other than the small cities of Revelstoke, Castlegar and Trail. In Washington State, the Columbia River flows through Wenatchee and Kennewick, before serving as the border between Washington State and Oregon. At Kennewick the river turns west into the Columbia River Gorge, flows past Portland and on to the Pacific Ocean. For those driving south on I-5, the Columbia River is first seen just past Kelso, Washington.
The Spanish first discovered the mouth of the river, but it was an American, Captain Robert Gray who named the river after his ship in 1792. In 1805, Lewis and Clark used the Columbia to reach the Pacific Ocean at latitude 46 degrees north, proving there was no continuous river to the Pacific or a North West Passage. Two years later, Simon Fraser thinking he was exploring the Columbia River finally had to admit at 49 degrees north [Vancouver], he was exploring the wrong river. Since this new river was too perilous, a safer fur trade route to the Pacific was needed. It would be up to David Thompson to find the Columbia River.
David Thompson in 1807 was instructed by the North West Company to cross the Rocky Mountains, establish a fur trading post and map the entire Columbia River. Both the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) could not let the Americans dominate the fur trade in the Columbia District. On the shore of Windermere Lake near Invermere, Thompson constructed Kootenae House and traded with the local Kutenai Indians. For the next four years, Thompson insisted on exploring the headwaters of the Columbia, the Kootenay River and south into Idaho and Montana. Although the Columbia River flowed north for 238 km (148 mi), Thompson believed he had found the Columbia River, but still needed to explore the Arrow Lakes region of the river.
When John Jacob Astor announced that his company, the Pacific Fur Company (PFC), was going to build Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, the NWC insisted that Thompson reach the Pacific as quickly as possible. Leaving Kettle Falls in Washington State, Thompson travelled roughly 933 km (580 mi) south, finally reaching the mouth of the Columbia on July 14, 1811. Much to the disappointment of Thompson, the PFC was already building Fort Astoria. The Americans had won the race to the Pacific. Thompson returned to Kootenae House by way of the Arrow Lakes, having now explored and mapped the entire river.
In the following year, when the War of 1812 broke out, Fort Astoria was purchased by the NWC and eventually closed. The HBC and the NWC merged in 1821 and built Fort Vancouver right across the river from Portland, Oregon.
As the years passed, American settlers arrived by way of the Oregon Trail, moving into the Willamette Valley and encroaching on the fur trade. The solution was to relocate Fort Vancouver north to Camosack (Fort Victoria) on Vancouver Island. The new Chief Factor of Victoria was James Douglas, later called the ‘Father of British Columbia’.
The Columbia River Gorge is a geological wonder. The rocky shoulders of the Cascade Mountains begin in British Columbia and extend south into Washington State. The Columbia River cuts a 135 km (85 mi) gorge east west through the mountains. The Gorge officially starts at Troutdale, the western gateway and ends at Biggs Junction in the east, both on the Oregon side of the river. If entering The Gorge from the east near The Dalles, visit the Columbia Valley Discovery Center, a historical and anthropology museum. Use the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway, US-30, the nation’s first scenic highway, as opposed to I-84, the interstate into Portland. Two essential visits are the Crown Point at Vista House, one of many viewpoints, and the 190 m (820 ft) Multnomah Falls, one of twenty-six waterfalls along the scenic route.
The Columbia River Gorge is much more than scenic viewpoints and parks. As a recreational area, it is great for hiking, mountain biking, windsurfing, rock climbing and photography. What people may forget is the trans-border Columbia River Treaty in 1964 between Canada and the United States. Due to the heavy water flow, the river is ideal for hydroelectric power. In total, 14 dams were built on the Columbia River and 60 smaller dams on the various tributaries. With the completion of the dams, they produced 44% of the electric power for the entire United States. Canada built three dams in this collaborative project, the Mica, Revelstoke and Keenleyside Dams, all operated by BC Hydro.
Along with the creation of the dams for electrical power, the dams provide flood control and irrigation. The best example is the reclamation project of the Columbia Basin Project [CBP] in Central Washington. The Grand Coulee Dam, one of the largest in the world, provides water for agricultural, be it the Fruit Loop Drive or the forty plus wineries along the river.
The Columbia River Gorge is one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Oregon and Washington’. David Thompson in American history is a mere footnote; while in British Columbia, he is an integral part of our history. Ironically, Simon Fraser named the only river after David Thompson (through Kamloops), a river neither men explored. In addition, it was Thompson who named the Fraser River after Simon Fraser, a river Thompson never explored.
Upper Multnomah Falls.
Lower Multnomah Falls.
From the Vista House looking both East toward The Dalles and Troutdale to the West.