Skamania County was formed in 1854 and the county government functioned in the former quartermaster residence of Fort Cascades. The government offices were subsequently moved to the port hospital within the compound itself. This building then served as the courthouse until 1893. Three wooden benches, one drop-leaf table and a few chairs completed the list of furniture. The reason for the move from the Lower Cascades to Stevenson in 1893 is not clear.
Late one night in 1893, in a dispute over rental fees, a suspect crew transported the county records from the town of Cascades to Stevenson. Stevenson became the county seat overnight. As it turned out, this move saved the county records because in 1894 the greatest recorded flood on the Columbia River destroyed every remaining building at the Fort. The town of Cascades was never rebuilt.
In 1850, Hamilton Island, originally named by Lewis & Clark “Strawberry Island,” became the site of the first portage railroad and the settlement of the Cascades and was swept away in the severe flood of 1894. Forty years later the community of North Bonneville developed as a construction town next to the massive Bonneville Lock, Dam and Powerhouse project, which began in late 1933.
In 1908, Stevenson was incorporated and the SP&S Railroad arrived, pushing the town up the hill away from the river. Streets were graded, wooden sidewalks constructed and the city asked residents to keep their cows from roaming the streets. Huge piles of logs were stacked along the waterfront to fuel the sternwheelers.
Mills and logging camps peppered the hillside, with flumes and skid roads to carry the logs to shipping points. Saloons flourished until prohibition went into effect. With the construction of the State Highway, and later construction of Bonneville Dam, the town moved further up the hill as portions of the original town site were flooded by the Bonneville Pool.
Strategically located just above the rapids known as the Upper Cascades, the Stevenson area has been home to Native American settlements for thousands of years. Their villages were focal points for commerce and social gatherings as they came to trade and fish along the river banks. Later the first explorers and missionaries used the Columbia River to penetrate the Cascade Mountains on their way to the Pacific Ocean. In 1843 the Oregon Trail brought the first of a great wave of settlers past our shores. Pioneers portaged around the Cascade Rapids on their way to the Willamette Valley.
Today, you can stroll along Stevenson’s riverfront parks where giant fish wheels once plied the Columbia River’s waters for salmon. Make sure you visit the world-class Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum where you will be able to visualize and participate in the bountiful life and history of the Columbia River Gorge and Skamania County.
For more information on Skamania County, visit www.skamaniacounty.org.