The Columbia River region is rich with culturally and historically significant areas and artifacts. Before Wanapum Dam and other Columbia River dams became a mainstay in the early-to-mid 20th century, the Columbia River and surrounding tributaries provided early explorers and historians, such as Wenatchee’s Russell T. Congdon and his son, Russell S. Congdon, with a first-hand opportunity to view the Columbia River’s extensive archeological history.
The Congdon duo spent hundreds of days exploring the Columbia and Snake rivers and they collected thousands of arrowheads (or Clovis points) and other artifacts before the Columbia River hydro projects flooded much of the river’s history in the 1930s and 1940s.
The “Congdon Archeological Collection,” now held at the Cashmere Museum, displays hundreds of historical artifacts from the middle Columbia River and the lower Snake River, with many of the objects dating back more than 9,000 years.
In addition to Clovis points, it includes tools, personal items, and art forms such as petroglyphs and pictographs, and documents a unique historical view into the lives of the people who lived on the banks of Columbia River like we do today.
Columbia River archeological history has once again become a topic of interest for our region. The fracture discovered in the spillway at Wanapum Dam on Feb. 26, has led to the Wanapum reservoir drawdown in the Columbia River to 26 feet below normal level; a level never seen before in most of our lifetimes.
The historic low water levels provide us with a glimpse of what the Columbia River may have looked like before the water levels rose in the mid-19th century prior to large-scale hydroelectric projects.
It also has piqued the interest of those who want to discover the river’s rich cultural and archeological history. But unfortunately for historians, all of the Wanapum reservoir shoreline is closed, including public-access boat launches, recreation sites and beaches. In addition to public safety concerns, the area is culturally protected under an agreement between Grant County PUD and the Wanapum tribe, whose ancestors lived along this section of the Columbia River.
Grant County PUD signed an agreement with the Wanapum tribe in 1956 to maintain and protect the Wanapum way of life. In addition, Grant County PUD is obligated to protect the culturally sensitive areas in the Wanapum reservoir under its federal license.
In 2008, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) renewed Grant County PUD’s license to operate Wanapum Dam through 2052. As a condition of its license renewal FERC required Grant County PUD to update its agreement with the Wanapum tribe, and required Grant County PUD to work with the Wanapum tribe to identify, protect, and manage significant cultural resources, gravesites, and relics in the project area (including the Wanapum reservoir extending north to Rock Island Dam).
Therefore, Grant County PUD has teamed up with state and local law enforcement to patrol the shoreline of the Wanapum Reservoir to prevent trespassers. In addition to ensuring public safety, the officers are also required to actively protect culturally sensitive areas. Thus, you cannot legally search for artifacts or archeological history in this area.
However, for those who want to view a collection of artifacts, a trip to Cashmere Museum to view the Congdon Archeological Collection is a must-do event. For the $7 admission fee you will have the opportunity to see the most comprehensive and complete collection of artifacts documenting Columbia River history.
The collection is right here in our back yard and it is well worth an afternoon visit. Even, if like me, you are not a self-proclaimed historian, you can learn more about the artifacts on a self-guided audio tour using one of the museum’s new hand held audio devices.
Russell S. Congdon’s son, Rich Congdon, now leads an oversight committee that works with the Chelan County Historical Society to preserve the integrity of the Congdon Archaeological Collection at the Cashmere Museum. You may bump into Rich at the Museum on one of his almost weekly visits to inspect his grandfather’s collection.
If you do, be sure to ask Rich about some of his grandfather’s river adventures. He recently shared with me his grandfather’s account of a float trip down the lower section of what was then a very wild (pre-dam) Snake River; a route that was taken by Lewis and Clark in the fall of 1804.
Historical notes: Russell T. Congdon and Russell S. Congdon were physicians in Wenatchee and nearly life-long residents. Russell T. Congdon’s son, Gordon Condgon, Sr., also practiced medicine in the Congdon clinic. The east-side portion of the Apple Capital Loop Trail along the Columbia River is named the “Russell T. Congdon Memorial Section,” which is a fitting tribute to one of our valley’s first Columbia River historians.
Evan McCauley is an attorney with Jeffers, Danielson, Sonn & Aylward, P.S., a Wenatchee law firm. He practices in the areas of estate planning, tax, corporate law, and business succession planning. Russell T. Congdon is Evan’s great grandfather and Gordon Congdon Sr., is Evan’s grandfather.