Since high water levels made it impossible for us to visit The Dalles in Oregon, the revised itinerary had the American Empress visiting just Richland, Stevenson, and Astoria, before ending up in Vancouver, Washington. The following (in two parts) are the highlights of those cities as well as our river cruising in between.
At the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers, the American Empress stopped in Richland, one of the tri-cities in the southeastern part of Washington. Richland is home of the Hanford nuclear site, the once-secret plant that was part of the Manhattan Project. During World War II, the U.S. Army had bought up 640 miles of land along the river, evicted Richland’s 300 residents as well as residents from nearby White Bluffs and Hanford, and then built a community for the workers they had hired to build and run this top-secret plant. It was so secret that the workers there didn’t even know what they were building. The town swelled from 300 to over 25,000 between 1943 and the end of the war in 1945, when the workers finally learned they had built the nation’s first nuclear reactor.
In Richland, the highlight on the hop on-hop off bus route was The Reach Museum, where we saw a fascinating exhibit about the Manhattan Project and what life was like for the workers and families in this government-built town where it was forbidden to speculate with others about the nature of their work.
After leaving Richland, we went through the locks of McNary Dam, which is 1.4 miles long and spans the Columbia River. It was interesting to see the fish ladders that were built on each side of the dam for salmon and steelhead passage, allowing the fish to follow their natural migration as babies to the Pacific Ocean and back as adults. The flow of water is regulated, so that the velocity flowing over the steps is fast enough to attract the fish to the ladder, but not too fast to exhaust the fish and wash them back downstream.
As we headed west during our scheduled day of cruising the Columbia River Gorge, the topography became much more lush and green. The gorge stretches for over 80 miles and is up to 4,000 feet deep with a wide range of elevation and precipitation. In the westernmost region of the gorge, temperate rainforests get up to 100 inches of rainfall each year! Compare that to the 6-7 inches of rain in the desert of Richland, and it’s understandable why it is so much prettier on the western parts of the Columbia River.
Upon our arrival to Stevenson, the hop on-hop off buses drove American Empress’s passengers out to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum. Originally, it was scheduled to be a premium tour out of The Dalles; however, the cancellation of that port meant having to get bused there an hour each way from Stevenson. As a nice concession by American Queen Steamboat Company, they refunded the tour fee to the passengers booked for that tour and made it available to everybody for free.
Along the way, we could see evidence of the horrible Eagle Creek fire from last fall. Taking three months to extinguish, the fire scorched 76 square miles of forest and destroyed eight buildings. The area was still beautiful, though, thanks to the tremendous amount of rain and regrowth since the fire.
When we arrived at the museum, which has the largest collection (325) of still-flying antique planes, cars, motorcycles, and tractors in the country; we were treated to a beautiful view of Mt. Hood behind the exhibits. There, visitors had the opportunity to catch a ride in a vintage auto,
Inside the huge hangars, there were rows of beautiful antiques, everything from a 1909 Franklin Model D to a WWII glider. Check out their website for details, and you will be amazed at what they have displayed in their huge museum!
In the afternoon, for a belated birthday celebration, we treated Adam (the bartender/cocktail waiter we had met on the American Duchess) to a beer at Walking Man Brewing, a nice place to hang out and relax.
Next up: AMERICAN EMPRESS: PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, PART 2