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River History
River History
Get a historical perspective on salmon and steelhead runs on the Clackamas River, from the 1800s to present.
River History
PGE commissioned a local writer, Barbara Taylor, to document the rich history of the Clackamas basin. The resulting book, Salmon and Steelhead Runs and Related Events in the Clackamas River Basin — A Historical Perspective, is available in PDF form, both as a book-length document and as individual chapters. See the executive summary below.
Clackamas River Basin history — individual chapters:

Executive Summary
“I have lived! The American continent may now sink under the sea, for I have taken the best of it, and the best was neither dollars, love, nor real estate (Kipling 1889).”

The famous author Rudyard Kipling made this claim after spending a day steelhead fishing on the Clackamas in 1889. Many people have shared Kipling’s feelings over the years after a good day on the river. One avid fisherman, Charles Mack, clearly recalls a particular fishing season in the late 1930s when he caught 68 spring chinook, weighing an average of 19 pounds each. Others value a memory of watching salmon spawn or seeing a winter steelhead jump for a fly on a warm spring day.

Today, native salmon and steelhead runs to the Clackamas River have fallen far below historic levels. In many ways, the decline of these runs has been linked to steady, rapid growth of human activity in the area over the last 150 years and a subsequent demand for more timber, power, salmon, and other resources. This growth dramatically changed the pristine Clackamas basin landscape that once supported abundant runs of spring chinook, fall chinook, coho salmon, winter steelhead and several resident trout populations. For centuries these runs had flourished in an environment containing majestic forests with a dense understory and clear, cold rivers with tumbling rapids and long, shallow gravel beds that filled each year with salmon.

In the early and middle 1800s, the Clackamas River was recognized for its salmon and steelhead runs. Livingston Stone, employed by the U.S. Fish Commission to explore potential hatchery sites throughout the Columbia River Basin, professed in 1877 that “probably no tributary of the Columbia has abounded so profusely with salmon in past years as this river (the Clackamas)” (US Commission of Fish and Fisheries 1877).

The runs began declining in the mid-1800s, primarily due to overharvest in the Columbia River and on the lower Clackamas. By the late 1870s the spring chinook run to the Columbia River had already dropped below historic levels. This drop led cannery personnel in the Pacific Northwest to start experimenting with fish culture as a means to improve the runs. The first hatchery in the Columbia River Basin (also the second in the United States) began operating on the Clackamas River in 1877. Hatchery propagators immediately began placing racks across the Clackamas to collect all possible adult salmon as brood stock for the hatcheries. In 1897, for example, hatchery operators collected 1,672,275 chinook eggs from the lower Clackamas near Clear Creek and another 5,045,000 eggs from the upper river. Heavy fishing continued through the 1800s with annual harvests reaching as high as 12,000 spring chinook in the late 1890s.

Destruction of habitat conditions in the lower basin contributed to the decline of Clackamas River salmon and steelhead runs as a steady stream of settlers moved into the area during the middle and late 1800s. The settlers altered habitat along the lower river and tributaries by harvesting pristine forests, driving logs downriver and mining stream channels. Developments in the basin also restricted fish migration. Records show that upstream salmon migration was restricted as early as 1868 after a dam was built on the Clackamas River near Gladstone. This dam, or another near it, continued to impede passage until a fish ladder was provided in 1895. Dams also existed on Clear Creek and probably other tributaries.

The resilience of the runs was further tested after the turn of the century. Activities in the basin — including timber harvest, road building, agriculture and other uses — escalated in the lower basin and slowly began to spread into the upper basin. The building and operating of the Cazadero (later named Faraday) and River Mill hydroelectric projects on the Clackamas River in the early 1900s also affected the basin’s anadromous fish runs. While the dams were equipped with ladders, they were usually blocked to capture fish for eggs. The ladders also suffered repeated damage from high flows and needed regular repair. These factors limited fish migration to the upper basin. In 1917 the ladder at Cazadero Dam washed out and was not reconstructed until 1939. Hatchery egg collections immediately below River Mill Dam until 1940 further reduced natural production. Clackamas River salmon and steelhead runs also suffered from relentless fishing pressure during their journey to and from the ocean and from pollution in the Willamette River. As a result, the runs continued to fall through the early 1900s. By 1936 the basin’s spring chinook run averaged between 1,500 and 2,000 spawners.

Events in 1939 and 1940 allowed native salmon and steelhead runs in the upper basin to begin rebuilding. In 1939 the fish ladders at Cazadero and River Mill dams were rebuilt, restoring passage to historic spawning and rearing habitat in the upper Clackamas River Basin. At the same time, fish propagators reduced their egg-taking operations on the Clackamas River considerably. Together, these events ended a long period of near denial of fish to upriver spawning and rearing grounds. Native salmon and steelhead returned to the upper basin after 1939 and the runs began to rebuild.

Several developments within the basin after 1940 influenced efforts to rebuild the runs. Developments, such as better techniques for rearing and releasing hatchery fish, improved fish passage at the dams, and regulations on fish harvest enhanced salmon and steelhead production and survival. Other developments such as escalating road construction and timber harvest in the upper basin and gravel mining in the Clackamas River caused new hardship. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, fish managers also started releasing large numbers of hatchery produced fish in the basin annually.

Today, Clackamas River salmon and steelhead runs continue to persevere despite enduring increasing hardships over much of the last 150 years. The basin supports the last remaining substantial run of wild coho in the Columbia River Basin — though natural production of all native Clackamas River salmon and steelhead remains far below historic levels. Presently, the river’s native winter steelhead population appears to be declining and the status of the native spring chinook is unknown.

Still, there is good reason to believe the runs will improve. Fish production and habitat managers are continuously adjusting practices to eliminate factors that affect natural salmon and steelhead production. They are constantly revising timber harvest practices, angling regulations, and hatchery operations and release strategies to reduce impacts on native salmon and steelhead. They are also monitoring and updating conditions to improve fish passage around the dams. Because of such actions, the Clackamas basin is expected to remain an important producer of salmon, steelhead and resident fish in years to come.

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