While the Columbia River and its tributaries had already been an epicenter of culture and trade for thousands of years, many European and American explorers sought the mouth of this great river of the West for years without success. James Cook, John Meares, and George Vancouver all searched for and missed it. In 1792, a U.S. fur trader and merchant sea captain, Robert Gray, became the first non-native man to sail a vessel into the river. He named it for his ship—the Columbia Rediviva. Ongoing exploration was accelerated as a result of Gray’s discovery, aided by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Lewis & Clark, Wilson Price Hunt and the Astorians, the Hudson’s Bay Company, missionaries like the Whitmans and the Spaldings, Benjamin Bonneville, and Peter Skeen Odgen all helped discover and open up the Pacific Northwest by way of the mighty Columbia. What first started out as a small smattering of explorers and traders would eventually become a flood, as thousands of Oregon Trail settlers came west seeking a new start.
The fourth largest river in the U.S. by volume and the largest in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia flows over 1,200 miles from its source in the Canadian Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Today, the main river has 14 dams, 11 in the U.S. and three in Canada as well as a number of navigational locks as far up as Lewiston to aid barges and boats in transit.