We have spent a lot of time in the Gorge in the past, but we tend to stick to the Oregon side to see the waterfalls and for hikes. We headed to the Washington side during a recent trip to the Gorge we decided to check out the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson, WA. The museum is full of wonderful things that the entire family will find interesting.
When you walk in you will see the front desk where you pay your entry fee (Adults: $10, Children (6-12): $6, Seniors (60+) / Students: $8, Family Rate (4): $30) and the friendly hosts explain what is available to look at and which way to go. In the lobby they have different antique items to look at like old cash registers and there is a fun crayon rubbing station for kids to use.
When you go through the door you will enter into the area that talks about the first people of the area. We have several Tribes that have called the Columbia Basin home for over 15,000 years. They have a rich history and you can see this portrayed in the videos telling stories, the baskets they have woven, the canoe, and the beads and clothing that are all on display. When the British Explorers and Fur traders started arriving on the coast
the Tribes lives were forever changed. At first the explorers relied heavily on the First People and their populations started to blend. Lewis and Clark are also highlighted in the Museum and they also relied heavily on various people like Sacagewea to survive the West. She was a valued member of the Corp of Discovery and helped with negotiations and interactions with various Tribes. The group was not seen as a war group since war groups did not travel with women, and she was carrying a baby with her as well. You will see nods to Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery sprinkled throughout the museum. In later years the First People of our state were treated very poorly by the pioneers and the Indians Wars started up across the country. The museum doesn’t go into such detail, but they do discuss the first peoples who lived here: The Columbia Chinook Tribe. They were our earliest hunters and gatherers and used many of the natural resources of the area which takes the visitor into a hall featuring the use of our natural resources.
Upon entering the hall you will see a massive and very impressive piece of machinery. This turned out to be one of our favorite things in the museum. The Corliss Steam Engine that was originally used to power a couple of lumber mills in Washington. If you are lucky there will be a man there that explains the whole thing to you and then will turn it on so you can see it in action. It no longer runs on steam and operates at 1/5 the speed it would have originally but here is a little video of it after being started up.
The Corliss draws our attention to the lumber industry and the massive replica fish wheel takes our attention to the fishing industry. The Columbia River is most famously home to salmon and sturgeon and our Native Tribes and Average Joes still pull gorgeous fish from it’s waters. The fish wheel is based on the McCord wheel which was originally built in 1882 and was a marvel of engineering. After the first one went in and was successful, more than 70 others were built along the river between the The Dalles and North Bonneville. It is interesting to compare this technique to the Native techniques that were used and are
shown next to this. Below they talk about the fish processing industry and about the racism of the day and the fact the owners wanted to put the Chinese immigrants out of work as quickly as they could as they were some of the main workers in fish processing. This dark spot on the Northwest’s history might be an interesting topic to discuss with the kids. When you look above the fish wheel you will see a 1917 Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” Bi-plane which was how mail was typical of the first airplanes that delivered air mail in the Gorge.
Upstairs there is a theater with a short video explaining the geology of the area and how the Gorge formed over thousands and thousands of years. It also talks about the volcanoes we live in the shadows of. The film was fun and our son enjoyed it. From here you can continue up the stairs and see exhibits about the “community” of the Gorge. This includes artifacts from old schools, the Japanese pieces showing the various cultures that the gorge was built on the backs of, and a area of “Spiritual Quest” which houses the largest collection of Rosaries in the world.
Outside visitors can wander around and explore lots of tools, tractors, a locomotive and different pieces of machinery. There is a “fake, imitaion, replica” gold mine that you can have a look at too.
It was a fun day and since the weather was so wet, this was a great option to stay dry. We really loved our visit and would highly recommend it to others who are visiting the area. It will take you between 1-2 hours to go through if you read signs and spend time out with the machinery. Make sure you stop by when you are in Stevenson!