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The Fabulous River

July 2024
3min read

Ross covers one little segment of the story. A bird’s-eye view of the whole business, touching on everything from the arrival of the first Yankee sailing vessel at the mouth of the Columbia in 1792 down to the June night in 1942 when a Japanese submarine lay offshore and lobbed shells in at Fort Stevens, is provided in Stewart Holbrook’s The Columbia , which is a fine book to read after Ross’s book.

Mr. Holbrook undertakes to tell what happened along the Columbia River, which means that he gets pretty much all across the Oregon Country before he is finished; and he tells his story with an unpretentious ease which somehow disguises the fact that at the ancient art of spinning a good yarn he is a superbly competent craftsman.

What happened along the Columbia included a good many things, some of which of course are described in The Fur Hunters of the Far West . An American trader entered the mouth of the river in 1792, a British naval officer came in very shortly thereafter, Lewis and Clark encountered the stream at its junction with the Snake River in 1805 and the American-born Canadian Simon Fraser came down from British Columbia a bit later, and in 1807 David Thompson followed the river upstream to its source.

Thompson was one of history’s lucky men. He was in his canoe going down an unknown river; he was in a bewitched land where a man could either lose his life quickly or see things straight out of fable and the left-hand side of the Gate of Horn, and going down the Columbia in 1807 was like knowing the morning and the evening of the Seventh Day. Thompson stitched together a 25-foot canoe out of split cedar and the roots of various trees, slept in the snow while the job was being done, and finally cruised where no man had cruised before; he got to the river mouth at last, claimed everything in sight for the British Crown, and waited to watch John Jacob Astor’s boys come in and get into trouble with one another.

This sort of thing, perhaps, is the small change of history. But somehow it is interesting; somehow, through it one sees history as a moving story of people rather than as a cut and dried procession of names, dates, and mural paintings. The great events are not always world-famous men posing, hand in vest, in front of full-color canvasses; they can be men in dirty buck-skins floating down an unknown river, or tired pork-eaters trudging a wilderness road with eighty-pound packs on their shoulders, or weary businessmen in a board room trying to decide, from imperfect knowledge, whether to risk the last of a company’s capital in a dubious venture on some far-off river none of them has ever seen.

All of which is something Mr. Holbrook understands perfectly. So he writes a history of the Northwest (for that is what this book really is) and he never bothers to think of it as history; rather, it is simply a succession of interesting stories, chosen and told by an expert. He tells, for instance, about the Hudson’s Bay Company and what it did in the Oregon Country; about Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, two of the most appealing of all American pioneers, who were butchered by Indians in a senseless, meaningless massacre, and who left their names and the memory of their noble lives as something for all the rest of us to live up to; of the gaudy steamboat era on the Columbia, when river transportation was a vital part of the great tale of the empire builders, and when steamboat captains, hard-eyed men who wanted to make an extra dollar, and settlers who hoped that the boom would finally come true worked together to create a colorful chapter in the history of getting goods to market; of the great trees of the Northwest, and how men hewed them down, brought them to the mills, and helped open a wilderness to settlement; and, finally, of the great Columbia itself, with its pulsing, turbulent flow, and the men who tamed it and laid the base for an industrial kingdom.

The Columbia , by Stewart H. Holbrook. Rinehart & Co. 393 pp. $5.

This is a great story; a yarn in which the prevalence of forest fires in the Columbia basin takes, quite properly, as much emphasis as the doings of the men who thought they were in charge of things, and in which Mr. Holbrook is quite willing to go out of his way to explain that that part of a logging-country town which caters to the needs of lumberjacks, fishermen, harvest hands, and Wobblies is properly called “Skidroad” rather than the “Skidrow” of the Sunday supplement writers. Salmon fishers, Jim Hill, and the Bonneville Dam all have their place here. Out of it all Mr. Holbrook draws a moving and coherent story of a mighty land that was finally tamed for settlement but that continues to put its mark on the people who live in it.

The Columbia is a fine book—one of the best in the notable “Rivers of America” series.

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