When the Celilo Canal was opened in the spring of 1915, it opened the Pacific Northwest to river shipping from the Pacific Ocean to Spokane, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho. Prior to the building of the 8.6-mile-long canal and locks, movement of passengers and goods from points east of The Dalles on the Columbia and Snake rivers to Portland was difficult and dangerous, requiring passage over two sets of rapids and Celilo Falls or a tedious portage around them. And any large boat that traversed the dangerous narrows toward the sea had no way to return upstream.
The first steam ships traversed the new passage on April 28, 1915. The “Inland Empire” headed downstream carrying a cargo of 15,000 pounds of wool and the “J.N. Teal” steamed upstream with a load of chartered guests — the first ship ever to navigate that portion of the Columbia from west to east. The two ships passed in the lower lock amid pandemonium as the ships’ passengers and hundreds of others who had arrived by auto and the Portage railway celebrated the momentous occasion.
The steamer “Undine,” which had left April 29 to make the first continuous trip from Portland to Lewiston, arrived there on May 3 for a celebration that included the governors of Oregon, Idaho and Washington, a number of U.S. senators and representatives and many mayors and other local notables. On the return trip the “Undine” stopped at many communities to participate in festivities celebrating the opening of river shipping throughout the Inland Empire.
Pasco and Kennewick, Washington, combined for a celebration on May 4 that included an “allegorical wedding” of the Columbia and Snake rivers, complete with a bride (Kate Williams of Kennewick as “Miss Columbia”), a groom (Frank A. Jones as “Mr. Snake”), bridesmaids and groomsmen representing Spokane, Pendleton, Walla Walla and North Yakima, and Washington Sen. Wesley L. Jones to perform the ceremony. Following a parade in Pasco, the “wedding” was performed in a grove of trees on the Kennewick side of the confluence of the rivers.
Umatilla threw a huge party attended by hundreds of locals including most of the populations of Hermiston, Echo and Stanfield and 200 people who arrived from Pendleton and points east by special train. In addition to an inspection of the “Undine” and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ steamship “Asotin,” the celebration included a recreation of an attack by Indians on Fort Umatilla and an outdoor dance. Every home in Umatilla opened its doors to give beds to strangers attending the festivities. The “Undine” and “Asotin” continued downstream at 5:30 a.m. the next morning on the way to Big Eddy and the Celilo Canal ceremonies.
A highlight of the official opening ceremonies on May 5, attended by a reported 10,000 people, was the christening of the canal with water from cities on the Columbia River and each of its tributaries, including Astoria (Pacific Ocean); Lewiston (Snake); Pasco-Kennewick (Columbia); Pateros, Wash. (Methow); Okanogan, Wash. (Okanogan); Spokane, Wash. (Spokane); Kooskia, Idaho (Clearwater); Whitebird, Idaho (Salmon); Palouse, Wash. (Palouse); Walla Walla (Walla Walla); Pendleton (Umatilla); Bend (Deschutes); Hood River (Hood); Underwood, Wash. (White Salmon); Claskanie, Wash. (Claskanie); Kalama, Wash. (Kalama); Vale (Malheur); Kelso, Wash. (Cowlitz); Owyhee, Ore. (Owyhee); Warrenton (Youngs); Thompson, Mont. (Flathead); Portland (Willamette); John Day (John Day); Eugene (Mackenzie); Corvallis (Mary’s); Albany (Calapooia); Lebanon (Santiam); McMinnville (Yamhill); Oregon City (Clackamas); Willamette (Tualatin); Troutdale (Sandy); Washougal, Wash. (Washougal); Sand Point, Idaho (Pend d’Oreille); Bonners Ferry, Idaho (Kootenai); Buena Vista, Ore. (Luckiamute); and Lyle, Wash. (Klickitat).