Bonneville Dam is actually a series of dam and lock structures across the Columbia River, the mighty river that the Lewis and Clark Trail follows and which marks a good portion of the border between Oregon and Washington state. The Bonneville Dam Oregon is anchored in both states, and the area around it was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1987. It is named for the Army Captain, Benjamin Bonneville, who was born in France and charted much of the famous Oregon Trail in expeditions during the 1830s.
As with many other famous bridges and dams around the United States such as the Norris Dam in Tennessee and the Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington, the Bonneville Dam was constructed as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Several thousand workers who were on welfare and public assistance were paid 50 cents per hour to build the dam and the roads and other infrastructure around the facility. In addition to producing hydroelectric power, the Bonneville Dam Oregon also submerged the Cascades, a large natural rapids in the river that had been a major obstacle to navigation.
The Bonneville Dam fish ladders (or fishways) were created on both sides of the dam, and can be viewed from the Visitor Centers located in both states. Fishways are designed to provide migration routes for salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead, fish species that spend their adult lives in the ocean and migrate upstream in freshwater rivers to spawn. The Bonneville Dam fish ladders are particularly popular with children because there are indoor underwater viewing windows where they can get a close-up view of the fish as they slowly make their way up the steps. Because the water is flowing in the opposite direction, the fish are moving quite slowly, giving visitors time to really observe them. This also gives the “fish counters” accurate counts of the population of each year’s migration, helping to regulate and protect the Washington and Oregon thriving commercial and sport fishing industries.
Unfortunately, the Bonneville Dam blocked the migration of white sturgeon, which can reach lengths of nine feet. There are a few isolated pockets of white sturgeon upstream, but the healthy population that avid angler seek will be found between the dam and the city of Portland, which lies about 50 miles to the east. Another threat to the salmon population are the sea lions that come to base of the dam during the spawning season to feed on the fish congregating below and waiting their turn to ascend the ladders.
Also exciting is the fact that the species making their way up the Bonneville Dam fish ladders are very large; salmon can top 50 pounds. Sometimes, you will also see eels migrating up the fishways. Along with the spectacular scenery and wilderness around the Columbia River Gorge, these fish provide one of the state’s most popular outdoor activities—sport fishing. Bonneville Dam Oregon created the reservoir called Lake Bonneville. It is nearly 50 miles long, and is popular for vacations that take advantage of camping, boating, and hiking opportunities.
Bonneville Dam tours are available throughout the year, although April through September are the months that are best for viewing the salmon. You can set out on a self-guided tour or join an interpretive guided program. Entry is free, another plus for those on family vacations in the region.