The Willamette–River that Lewis and Clark Missed


In Psalm 107:23-24 King David writes: “Those who go down to the sea in ships, Who do business on great waters, They see the works of the Lord, And His wonders in the deep.”

Recently my husband and I decided to take the final ride of the season aboard the Willamette Star, a cruise boat that navigates the Willamette River all the way from Portland, Oregon to Oregon City. There the river reaches  Willamette Falls and turns around. Since we’d already taken a dinner cruise on the Columbia  this summer, we opted for the trip offered earlier in the day. About thirty passengers rode with us, enjoying lunch, the view, and the history.

 As we traversed the river, a woman hired to be our cruise narrator stepped to the microphone and regaled us with the history of the waterway, pointing out various sites as we passed them. Fabulous estate homes are built along both banks—one home once belonged to an actress. A Portland Trailblazer is reported to live somewhere along the shore, though the narrator would not point out the home. An old water-pumping station stands in its turn-of –the-century finery, an elegant structure no longer of use except to display its beautiful architecture. The Old Spaghetti Factory needed a headquarters so the banks of the Willamette were chosen as the site. The distinctive blue-tiled roof, we were told, sparkles when the sun is out.

Houseboats line both sides of the river, but they aren’t your everyday houses on a raft that have fueled the storylines of old movies. These buildings feature modern structural designs built on bases that rise when the river does. All are connected by pipeline to the city of Portland sewage and water systems. Along one stretch of homes, the houseboat owners sign a contract that they will decorate their dwelling for Christmas, adding festive lighting to the edge of the river during the holiday season.

Our cruise narrator told us that when Lewis and Clark first navigated the Columbia seeking passage to the Pacific Ocean, they missed the Willamette River.  Upon further investigation and discussions with the natives, the explorers learned that a second river existed that the Indians used for transportation north and south.  Stretching more than a hundred miles from Eugene to Portland, the Willamette ends as a tributary into the Columbia.

When we reached Willamette Falls we were surprised at the size and drop of the water.  Apparently Lewis and Clark, once they learned of the river’s existence, navigated the  waters as far south as its falls before turning back. How, I wondered, could they have missed a waterway of this size that fed into the Columbia?

As I stood on the bow of the boat, watching the water pass beneath me, I was humbled knowing that this same river had flowed for hundreds of years.  Men like Lewis and Clark had navigated its waters, pioneers had traveled its banks, and natives had used it for transportation years before that. Yet here it was, still flowing as it always had.

In Ecclesiastes 1:7 King Solomon writes: “All the rivers run into the sea, Yet the sea is not full; To the place from which the rivers come, There they return again.” The Willamette is certainly testimony of that.

2 Replies to “The Willamette–River that Lewis and Clark Missed”

  1. Cool pictures, Pat. I had no idea how interesting the Willamette River is, south of Portland or that a waterfall existed.
    Love you,

  2. We have relatives who live in Canby, up the Willamette from Portland. We often ride along the old highway past the falls and on up the river. The falls are always awesome.

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