Crossing Over

A two-horse-power ferry provided passage across the Columbia River at White Bluffs.

A two-horse-power ferry provided passage across the Columbia River at White Bluffs.

Drive down any freeway in the state, and you’ll see the same dull gray pavement, with tarry black repairs. The roads look the same on both sides of the mountains and whether they are on dry land or bridges. We’ve come to take these roads and bridges for granted, to the point where we can estimate to within minutes just how long a trip ought to take. But it wasn’t always so.

After they offed the Astorians, the Hudsons Bay Company established routes that provided for the safe distribution of trade goods and transportation of furs gathered over an entire year. In auspicious places, the English built forts to store the furs that came from far north in what is now British Columbia, and from the Snake River country and Montana. Fort Spokan, Fort Walla Walla and Fort Okinagan provided relief to travelers making their way across what is now Eastern Washington. But here’s the rub: travelers moving upriver had to have horses. They followed trails established by the Native Americans, wending their ways across the interior, far from the rivers and following creeks that were often meager, polluted or salty. It took ages. It was on the return trip that canoes could be used to speed through the rapids to an eventual meeting with parties from other regions, to pass with the safety of numbers through the last challenges of the Columbia River Narrows near The Dalles, Oregon.

Well past the fur trade era, though, travelers still had the challenge of crossing the Columbia to get where they needed to go. Native Americans had long since divined the best places and the best ways to make the crossing. Using canoes fashioned from timber far up the river, they exploited eddies in the current to make the crossing easier. One such crossing was at White Bluffs, where the Big Eddy provided a boost to crossing the river. Ferries continued to use the Big Eddy route for decades after Native American canoes had disappeared.

Doris provided cross-river transportation at Hanford in 1935.

Doris was the cross-river transportation at Hanford in 1935.

As technology improved, ferries required less of an assist from natural currents. Motorized ferries could be placed wherever it was convenient. Older ferries were replaced by motorized versions.

Smiget provided passage for automobiles across the Columbia at White Bluffs in 1932.

Smiget provided passage for automobiles across the Columbia at White Bluffs in 1932.

It should be remembered that the ferries weren’t really as important as the river boats were. Supplies and passengers continued to rely on river boats until the road systems and railroads were improved enough to make river traffic obsolete.

The river boat W. R. Todd provided reliable contact with the outside world from places like Hanford and White Bluffs.

The river boat W. R. Todd maintained reliable contact with the outside world from places like Hanford and White Bluffs.

When the Milwaukee Road developed a spur line to Hanford, river transportation was doomed. Regular service to White Bluffs and Hanford by rail meant that boats could no longer provide the type of service that residents of those communities wanted.

The Milwaukee Road depot at Hanford put an end to the era of river transportaion.

The Milwaukee Road depot at Hanford helped put an end to the era of river transportation.

But railroad transport wasn’t the be-all and end-all. As early as the 1920s bridges over the Columbia River were being built. The road system might have been rough and unreliable, but the Columbia was no longer a barrier to cross-state travel after the Vantage Bridge was built.

Oscar's camera captured this view of the new Vantage Bridge in the 1930s.

The Vantage Bridge was built in 1927 as part of the Sunset Highway. It served a major cross-state transportation route until Wanapum Dam was built in 1962, threatening to overtop the bridge. In 1968 this bridge was reconstructed as a highway crossing of the Snake River at Lyon’s Ferry.

Washington State prides itself on its ferry system, but those ferries are mostly located in Puget Sound these days. Until recently, though, river crossings like the one at Vernita were supported by ferries. The Vernita Bridge replaced the old ferry in 1965.

During the days of strict secrecy about the work of the Hanford Reservation, Lois Colton's photograph of the Vernita Ferry might have landed her in jail.

During the days of strict secrecy about the work of the Hanford Reservation, Lois Colton’s photograph of the Vernita Ferry might have landed her in jail.

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One response to “Crossing Over

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much. nancy morse

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