Bridge of the Gods

Sometimes you see the story of how the natural rock bridge spanning the Columbia River at the “Cascades” came to be destroyed (or created, and then destroyed) abbreviated on cafe placemats, misrepresented on postcards, or romanticized by local chamber of commerce publications. The most common of all starts, “Once upon a time there was this beautiful mountain named Loowit, (the spelling is in dispute) otherwise known today as Mount St. Helens.”

According to what may be the authentic legend without the unembellished editing by those raised with Walt Disney animated classics, Tah-one-lat-clah , or “fire mountain” was inhabited by an old crone named Loowit. Long before Europeans appeared on the scene, native tribes could cross the Columbia dry-shod. But when the tribes became greedy and quarrelsome, “Coyote” took steps that eventually led to the bridges destruction.

First he caused all the fires in lodges to go out. Only the fire maintained by Loowit remained burning so that all her neighbors came to her to re-light their campfires. When the Great Spirit asked Loowit to name her reward for peaceful sharing, she coyly suggested her transformation to, “youth and beauty.”

And so it came to be. But, once the transformation was complete, she inadvertently rekindled the fires of war. This now lovely young lady attracted the attention of two great chiefs –Pahtoe who ruled over the north side of the Columbia, and Wyeast, who led the Multnomah people south of the river. Mind you this was many years before the rivalry created by being an Oregon Beaver, or a Washington Cougar.

Pahtoe and Wyeast fought for beautiful Loowits’ favor, causing the earth to rumble by hurling molten rock at each other. Angered at the great chiefs destructiveness, Creator separated the rivals by causing the bridge to fall.

The most popular version of the tale is that Great Spirit changed the principals of the love triangle into mountains. Wyeast became the lofty symbol of Portland, Oregon, Mount Hood, and Pahtoe became Adams, the hidden-one, often mistaken for St. Helens, or Rainier when viewed from afar. The young and beautiful Loowit became St. Helens.

The winner differs according to what tribe the legend comes through. If you are not of the Cowlitz tribe, living in the shadow of Loowit, but say Klickatat tribe, then the ending has a different twist. It goes like this from the eastern tribes: They (Pahtoe and Wyeast are brothers in this version), continued to fight until Pahato, the larger of the two defeated Wyeast. It was decided that Squaw Mountain (Loowit) should take her place by the side of the victor. Because it was Wyeast she truly loved, her heart was broken. She laid herself down by the feet of Pahtoe, falling into a deep sleep from which she has never awakened. (Maybe she awoke in May of 1980?) She is now known as the Sleeping Beauty (near Trout Lake), and she lies where she fell. It is said that Pahtoe once had a straight head like Wyeast, but when he realized the fate of his bride, he dropped his head in shame, never to raise it again.

In the destruction of the Bridge of the Gods its fragments created a great rapid called by Europeans the Cascades (thus also giving name to the mountain range the river cut through on its way to reach the Pacific), that required a lock to navigate by steamboats -at where else but?- Cascade Locks.

Perhaps as additional punishment, for the younger, more incautious Wyeast and Loowit, they got stuck with names of British dignitaries! Admiral Hood was a favorite of Captain Vancouver. It is interesting to Americans to note that the only blot on Lord Samuel Hood record was his failure in 1781 to relieve land troops under General Conwallis at Yorktown. The St. Helens link is a bit more bizarre. Baron St. Helens was Englands ambassador to Spain in 1790 when the Nootka affair erupted ( Spain and England squabbling over what is now Vancouver Island, B.C.) prompted England to prepare for war. An english ship had been seized, but St Helens alone backed Spain down. Vancouver on H.M.S. Discovery upon sighting a snowcapped mountain from sea, to honor the diplomatic hero, named it Mt. St. Helens.

Pahtoe was tagged to be the first of the “Presidential Range.” It is not know for sure which President Adams, either, though son John Quincy’s diplomatic efforts for the area suggest the later. Just as Lewis and Clark mistook Pahtoe for St. Helens, a Boston schoolmaster turned map maker first applied the name Adams to Mt. Hood.

For these and asundered reasons, many local residents feel the names should revert back to the Indian ones, just as Mt. McKinley park was recently renamed Denali, for the native “Great One”.

There is another question to be disputed. Did the 1980 eruption of Loowit have something to do with a sequel in a never ending drama? A curious fact is that a US Geological Survey Bulletin issued in the years before St. Helens eruption that blasted 2,300 feet off the summit, considered Mt. Hood to be to most likely to have volcanic activity in the near future. The still-steaming lava dome of Crater Rock on Hood was created only 250 years ago, and light gray pumice fragments where being scattered by intermittent eruptions up until the 1860’s.

Underlying the legends lie an impressive number of geologic features that confirm that there actually was a bridge that fell down. No, not something carved out of sandstone as in Arches National Monument in Moab Utah. It really was more of a rock dam, that kept being undercut by the current sweeping through.

The Columbia River Gorge walls are made up of basalt flows 1,500 feet thick, laying on top or an older, more easily eroded layers, which itself are tilted to the south. Possibly triggered by an earthquake during the Holocene time ( 10,000 to 12,000 years ago) there was a series of events that led to an ice age flood racing through the river canyon. When the softer strata on Table Mountain and Greenleaf Peak was washed away, the top heavy basalt came sliding down to create a dam over 200 feet high, until this too was destroyed by huge earthquakes associated with the volcanoes eruptions in circa 1500 -1650 AD. That was the “Bridge of the Gods.”

Being that 300 plus years in geologic time is just seconds in the history of the world, perhaps you had better visit “Our Lady” before she decides that being a “sleeping beauty” is boring. In this age of female liberation, who knows what could happen next? The End?