The air is brisk. The sky grey. We pull on our fluffy socks and zip up our winter jackets and prepare to venture through the white snow that blankets the ground.

This photo of a newspaper article from the Clark County Historical Museum shows the towns enthusiasm for the frozen over river. Photo credit: Skyler Mueller

When it snows here in the Pacific Northwest, the city seems to panic. Shops close early. Citizens leave hastily in order to get home before the snow piles up. But if we look back into the early 20th century, we see that it used to get a lot colder here. So cold in fact, that the border of Washington and Oregon, we know as the Columbia River, would actually freeze.

A River You Can Walk On

The beautiful Columbia River calmly flows underneath the I-5 Bridge, followed by the Glenn L. Jackson Bridge and continues on as the border between both states. The river provides a home to many species including trout and steelhead – making it a very popular place to fish.

Today, temperatures of the river average around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. A perfect temperature for not only fish, but for those who enjoy water sports as well. But that didn’t always used to be the case. The river used to run much colder than it does today, so cold that it would actually freeze over. In the book Columbia Gorge: A Unique American Treasure, written by Michael S. Spranger, we see five recorded reports of the river freezing over. The first recorded incident was back in 1916. The frozen river imprisoned all water traffic. One sternwheeler ship was reported to be frozen in the ice encased river for five weeks.

History of Columbia River Frozen Columbia River Newspaper Article
This photo of a newspaper article (written in the early 1900s) from the Clark County Historical Museum, talks about the Columbia River starting to freeze, meanwhile citizens are enjoying the already frozen Willamette River. Photo courtesy: Skyler Mueller

While river traffic came to a complete stop, many citizens made unique use of the frozen wonderland. In 1917, four couples reportedly walked from Stevenson to Cascade Locks, danced the night away, and walked back home – all on the iced over river.

After these two reports, three more accounts of the river freezing were recorded from the span of 1919-1930. In 1930 the river froze almost completely solid. So solid, in fact, that citizens took their cars out and drove on it. On January 31, 1930 a man by the name of Clarence Murray used the river as a temporary runway to land his small two man plane on.

It’s Dam Freezing

In order for the river to freeze, temperatures of the water have to drop to near 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Ice crystals will then form in the water and clump together forming bigger pallets of ice. The sudden drop in temperature will then be enough to push the river into freezing solid, as it did in 1930.

So what’s to say this won’t happen again?

History of Columbia River Frozen
The icy Columbia River freezing over in the early 1900’s. Photo courtesy: Washington State Archives

Well, as the Columbia River snakes down from Canada and makes its way towards the Pacific Ocean, 11 dams maintain its water flow. These dams, among other things, keep the river flowing at a pace that won’t allow ice to form. Unlike back then, when the river flow was low and calm.

Frozen Before but Nevermore

Although we still get freezing cold temperatures, it doesn’t come close to the temperatures we saw in the early 1900s.

In 1919 the record low for Clark County was -10 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2017, our record low was 12 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a whopping 22 degree difference.

History of Columbia River Clark County Historical Museum
For more information about the freezing of the Columbia River, visit the Clark County Historical Museum and their vast knowledge about all things history. Photo credit: Skyler Mueller

In the past 10 years the average annual snowfall for Portland barely hit 2 inches. Compare that to 1871 when the annual snowfall was 50 inches. That’s enough snow to ski on. In fact in 1892, after an annual snowfall of 61 inches, a tow rope was erected on Mount Tabor that lifted skiers to ski down the north side of the humble mountain.

So as you snuggle up next to the fire, sipping on your favorite hot beverage, pat yourself on the back for braving the freezing wind and the dusting of snow. But be thankful that these modern day temperatures don’t reach the treacherous temperatures we used to see during the 20th century.

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