Step Aboard the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler

May 8, 2015 (Updated June 25, 2015)

There are so many faces to the Columbia River Gorge; one of Oregon’s Seven Wonders and a place that’s never twice the same. It is a timeless place where light and shadow dance across ancient basalt cliffs that rise hundreds of feet above a river that takes the breath away for its size and power. It is a place where you can discover vivid scenery that fills the senses as you trek across hiking trails that lead you into new territory.

There is so much, so close and so easy to reach when you visit the heart of the gorge at Cascade Locks, home port for the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, where a whistle lets you know it’s time to get moving.

Folks come from all over to step aboard the Gorge Sternwheeler and “Capt Tom” makes sure the experience is spectacular. As he likes to say, “It’s the most important part of my job!”

“There are no propellers, no bow thrusters so it’s all about wind and current. The boat responds the way a paddlewheel boat would have in the 1800s.”

Tom Cramblett stepped aboard the Gorge Sternwheeler in 1982 just after it was built and delivered to Cascade Locks. He worked his way up the ranks to become one of two skippers to guide the Sternwheeler on daily tours. He said that sternwheelers arrived on the Columbia River in 1850 during a time when shipping goods and people on the giant waterway was the only practical means of transportation. Stevenson, Washington and Cascade Locks each got their start as gorge portage communities where the movement of freight and passengers around the “Cascade Rapids” was possible.

The Cascade Rapids was a dangerous and terrible place to run a ship with more than half a mile of frothing rapids, giant boulders and 20 foot drops. Shipwrecks were common, noted Cramblett. He added that the danger and the many wrecks eventually led to the construction of the Cascade Locks with more than 3000 feet of canal with 3 giant steel gates.

When it opened in 1896, it offered easy passage for steamboats delivering food, supplies and people through the gorge. “The area doesn’t grow without it! The ships moved all the farming goods, moved all the people and if you were going to get somewhere in the Columbia River basin, it was the paddleboat that got you there.”

These days, the Sternwheeler is all about recreation – as passengers enjoy unique sights and sounds, including bald eagles, osprey and even peregrine falcons.

Captain Tom said he is always on the lookout for ways to “wow”  his passengers no matter their age. He invited young Cameron Norton to climb aboard the captain’s chair and help steer the ship. The four year-old eagerly followed the captain’s orders and sported a big smile while he steered a straight course.

The youngster’s dad, Jeremy Norton, stood a few feet away and said, “I used to go on this when I was a kid, so to bring my own son out here is fantastic!

It is a “fantastic” way to experience the Oregon outdoors – one that invites you to sit, watch the river and the world flow by.

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.