Commerce of the Northwest Pacific Coast

Any great commercial city, as London, New York, or the younger cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, would serve an equally good purpose by way of illustration. A commercial city is the point of storage, account and exchange for the commodities of the region.

The advantages of Portland as such a center are at once apparent. As noticed above she is the “cross-ways” of the track between the mountains from California to Alaska, and the path made by the Columbia River from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. At this point are made four right angles, fixing the center of a circle a radius of which a hundred miles long embraces solid land only, and at four hundred miles includes within the western arc a portion of the ocean, which is by no means an unproductive segment. It must follow from this position that she can reach a greater number of producers and consumers than any point not located at such a natural center. This fact, other things being equal, simply assures her commercial preeminence.

But to make this commanding position certain it will be necessary to be assured as to the avenues of approach from the four cardinal points of the compass. If it be true that Portland is at the natural center of the Pacific Northwest, a region six hundred miles square, and the avenues of approach are easy and secure, no one can doubt that she will continue to be the metropolis of this country, and perhaps rival San Francisco, as being the center of a region more extensive and productive. This is no fancy, as is evidenced by the impression made in by-gone times upon commercial men as they examined her geographical situation. Looking at the map of old Oregon, while he was still in Boston half a century or more ago, Hall J. Kelley, a patriot, and originator of a scheme which was much patronized by leading men in Massachusetts, laid off a great city as a capital for the new commonwealth which he was to establish on the Pacific coast. He put this chief city on his map at the junction of the Willamette with the Columbia, not knowing that this site was flood land. Portland now occupies the spot nearest available to Kelley’s city. Still further, when the Hudson’s Bay Company wished to blind a fort from which to reach most easily all points of the Northwest, both by land and sea, they selected a site as near to our city as their necessities would admit-building a fort at Vancouver. They would probably have brought it nearer the Willamette, on the south side of the Columbia if the land had been fit for building, and if they had not anticipated that England would not secure the south bank. This tells the tale of the natural center of the Pacific Northwest.

To examine the avenues of approach and to see if they are sufficient to supplement this imperial position, it will be most convenient to begin our scrutiny from the west. Here is found a water-way at tide level of over a mile in width leading up from the Pacific between the hills to the docks of our city. The Columbia River on this lower course, is one of the most majestic of streams, and is unrivaled for navigation. Its fresh waters destroy those forms of marine life inimical to dock-yards and wooden piling, and clear the ships of their accretions of barnacles, as they come in from the sea. It is true that it is obstructed to some extent by a bar at its entrance, but under the operation of the jetty constructed by the government this is being constantly cut down by confinement of the waters, and a depth of thirty feet or perhaps more, at low water, sufficient for the deepest vessels will he secured. There is now a sure depth of twenty-six feet at low water. By the use of dredgers, jetties, and wing dams the bars in the river between the sea and Portland, are rapidly disappearing and in a very few years all obstructions will have ceased to exist. It is simply a matter of improvement, which is wholly practicable, to make the lower Columbia and Willamette fit for the largest craft that floats. This improvement is now progressing and the commerce of all the world, or such part of it as floats on ships, may therefore be brought to Portland. The entrance from the sea could not be more advantageous. It is not so deep or wide as the Straits of Fuca, and Puget Sound. But it does not appear that one or two hundred feet of depth or five miles of width more than necessary would give even the Straits of Fuca any decided advantage. Both are royal water ways from the sea, naturally, or easily made, ample for the largest vessels. The superior width of the Straits allows of sailing more easily than in the Columbia, while the fresh water of our river is a great advantage to foul keels.

The gap through the coast mountains formed by the passage of the Columbia makes also a pass at tide level for the construction of railways from the ocean to Portland. The route is easy and direct, and from Hunter’s point, opposite Kalama to Portland it is occupied by the track of the Northern Pacific. The convenience and speed attained on the river has retarded rather than otherwise the construction of a road from Astoria, but there is no natural obstruction.

Toward the North, to Puget Sound, British Columbia and Alaska, there is a natural route, passing through the valley of Cowlitz River and thence by water, or, as ultimately will be the case, the whole distance by rail. On the whole course of the lower Columbia numerous small rivers enter the great stream, navigable by steamers of light draft, the towns beside which are, and will be more and more supplied from the markets of Portland. The numerous sea coast towns, at the mouth of the small rivers, and on the small bays, conveniently find a market and emporium at Portland.

Toward the south extends the Willamette Valley, making a way practically level for a hundred and fifty miles. Beyond this the general slope of the country is still upward-across hills and valleys-to the crest of the granite Siskiyou Mountains three hundred miles distant on the California border. This whole region of Western Oregon, most productive in grain and fruit, finds its emporium at Portland. It is large enough and has the resources for sustaining a population of four millions. When this figure is reached, one-sixth this number will be found at Portland. Not only may this country of Western Oregon be reached from Portland by lines of rail which slope thither, but a very large portion of the Willamette River is a water-way directly to her docks. This is an easy and inviting path to enterprising steamers, and while not now bearing and perhaps not likely to bear the great bulk of freight, has great and permanent value in preventing railroad monopoly and in keeping freight rates at a normal figure. It is not improbable that the value of water as an agent for moving heavy and bulky products will be more and more recognized by the agricultural population, and the hundred streams that meander from the mountains to the Willamette, across level plains and through deep valleys, will be cleared of drift wood, deepened and straightened, and as they flow on will carry also along with them a multitude of loaded barges. Each such stream is the basis of a canal, and this abundance of water will make every farming community independent, and forever keep down extortionate rates of transportation. As all the water of this great valley flows past Portland, so must all the commerce which it bears.

But broad and easy as are the avenues of approach from the west, the north, and the south, and large as is the region thus brought within the reach of her commerce, it is from the east that the greatest portion of her trade must come; and it is true beyond all controversy that the city which is the emporium for the Columbia Basin will lead all others. On those immense plains and uplands with multitudes of valleys upon their environs, leading back into the old hills and towering mountains, there is room for the seat of a nation equal to France. Here are two-thirds of Oregon and Washington, all Idaho, and large parts of Montana and British Columbia. It is a region where the cereals average twice as much per acre as in Dakota; where fruits flourish in sheltered localities as in the deep valleys, beside lakes, and along the rivers; where live stock of all kinds transform the wealth of the pastures into value, and where mineral treasures are of vast and unknown extent.

By many it will be strenuously denied that Portland can be the emporium for this region. Some other point it is contended, as upon Puget Sound, will most readily command the trade. But Portland’s strength is assured by the following considerations: The trade of the Columbia Basin will flow westward to the Pacific Ocean. It will seek the most direct and easy route thither, since thereby its producers will pay less rates for transportation of their products. The tributaries of the Columbia, from the borders of Utah, to the borders of British Columbia and from the eastern flanks of the Cascade Mountains spread out like the ribs of a fan; all converge upon the main Columbia, and thus unitedly pass through the gap of the Cascade Mountains on to Portland. It is simply a principle of physics that any body, whether a ball or a train of cars, will roll most readily down an inclined plane, and that friction or traction is increased by the attempt to go up hill. But from the head of Snake river to the head of the Columbia, or of any tributary of either river, to Portland, is an inclined plane hither. To be sure the canyons of both these rivers and of many of their tributaries, are rugged, but once let a road be laid alongside their banks or down the general valley, and there is a perceptibly down grade the entire distance, adding the force of gravity to the wheels of the engines to help them with their loaded trains. The gap of the Columbia is the only pass through the chain of the Cascade Mountains at the level of tide water. All other passes lead over the main axis of the range at an elevation of three to four thousand feet. It is manifestly more expensive of time and force to draw a train over the back of the Cascade Mountains to Puget Sound than to bring it through the gap of the Columbia on a downgrade. It is the inland farmer and merchant who must pay the difference, and however slow they may be in recognizing this, they will, with the certainty of water finding its level, choose the route which makes their bill the least. It is true that the roads to Portland may not always charge their minimum, but if they are able, by reason of natural advantages, to carry at a less rate than is possible for the roads across the mountains, they will at the scratch come down to it, and make that advantage the make-weight in their struggle. Any road which can persistently carry merchandise at one cent per hundred or even per ton, less than its rivals, will beat them in the long run. The natural grade to Portland from all parts of the inland country gives her thus much advantage. But, to complete the circle of exchange, if the wheat, live stock and ores of the upper country come down to Portland, this will be the most advantageous point at which to procure merchandise and necessaries for that entire region. Port-land can thereby most readily receive the products of the Columbia basin, and supply the mercantile wants of her people.

The above reasoning not presented as a special plea in favor of Portland, but simply as a statement of the facts in the case, is absolutely conclusive of the natural pre-eminence of the city at the entrance to the gateway of the upper Columbia.

But this only half states the case. While the waters of the Columbia and its tributaries have made passes to all parts of the river basin for the railroad, they are themselves a means of transportation of the most gigantic power. To be sure, this river, and the rivers which feed it, are wild and violent streams. They flow with great force, often break into rapids, and are at many places obstructed by rocks. The Columbia has four impassable rapids, or cataracts, and half a dozen others of such strength as to strain a strong steamer in passing. The Snake river is swift and turbulent through a large part of its course and boasts the highest water fall of any great river in North America. Such streams as the Deschutes, John Day, Klickitat, Yakima, Spokane, Palouse, Pend d’Oreille, Okanagon and Kootenai, or the tributaries of the Snake, for the larger portions of their way are fierce torrents cutting their canyons hundreds and in places thousands of feet deep into solid rock. But it is by no means impossible to bring most of these rivers into use for the purposes of commerce. By canals, locks, boat railways, wing dams and removal of obstructions, the Columbia may be made navigable for all sorts of river craft, for one thousand miles. It will thereby become an artery of commerce bearing a fleet of steamers and barges loaded with grain and ores. Any product might thus be brought even from the British line at prices which literally “defy competition.” The opening of the Snake river to its head waters would be a matter of more difficulty, but to the Salmon Falls the river may be improved so as to accommodate steamboats of all kinds. Every one of the hundred minor streams might likewise be made fit for bearing off the abundant products of the soil. The time may come when a network of canals, both for irrigation and for the uses of commerce will cover the surface of the Columbia Basin. Such commerce will necessarily flow to the Columbia, and to Portland. The value of water will be better understood. The railroad as an agent for transportation has been exaggerated somewhat out of its natural proportions. Its great speed will always commend it to travelers, but in the movement of such heavy articles as grain and minerals, rocks and wood, the slower but less expensive water will play a very important part. As population increases in the continental areas, there will spring up a class of hydraulic engineers and inland navigators bringing our numberless rivers to their highest use as generators of power, as means of irrigation and of transportation.

As was noticed in reference to the waters of the Willamette Valley these streams of the Columbia Basin will have a high value in restraining railroads from extortionate charges. This will make the people of the upper country independent, and they will naturally look to the city which they reach at minimum expenditure for supplies and make it their commercial center.

It is clear beyond all contradiction that, with the Columbia river and its tributaries open to navigation, Portland commands the interior as no other city on tide water. By no possibility can any port on Puget Sound have two thousand miles of river navigation, laying open the continent as far as Idaho, Montana and British Columbia. By choice of rail or river, and, by the judicious use of each, Portland and her inland customers will be brought into communication at the greatest possible economy of both time and money, and the business between them will therefore flourish at the least possible expense.

It is sound policy, therefore, for the people of Portland to push vigorously for the opening of the upper Columbia. The work at the Cascades, however, is progressing, and no doubt within ten years the two thousand miles of inland navigation will no longer be locked up by rocks and shoals.

By the foregoing examination it appears that while Portland sits at the cross roads of the great North, South, East and West tracks of commerce, her avenues of approach from every quarter are perfect, or certainly capable of being made so. If this does not enable her to do a wider, more expeditious, more direct and comprehensive business than any other place on the North Pacific Coast, there is nothing in position. Such are her commercial advantages.

While noting these advantages as pre-eminent, it will not be contended that there is no room for other great cities on the Coast. Puget Sound will certainly have three or four; the Inland Empire, half a dozen. At the mouth of the Columbia there will be a large lumbering, coaling, and shipping city. At Yaquina, at Coos nay, and in Southern Oregon there will be large towns. But the larger and more active these surrounding places, the more populous and energetic will be the center, for through it can they all most readily reach each other, and the business which is common to the whole section must be transacted here.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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