Oral History

Narrator: Alva Stephens

Date: April 1999
Place: Umatilla, Oregon

Alva Stephens, a long term Umatilla resident, recorded his memories of Umatilla for the Umatilla Community history project based on questions provided for the oral history project. Alva Stephens recalls Umatilla before the building of dams on the Columbia, discussing among other things, changes in the landscape and loss of fishing sites.

Question: How did your family come to the area?

Okay, my name is Alva Stephens. S-T-E-P-H-E-N-S. I was born in Portland, Oregon in 1927, February 17th. My family came to Umatilla by down the railroad tracks. Starting way back in Ohio. Most of the family wound up in Pendleton; some wound up in Umatilla. My grand dad raised me and he was a railroader, an engineer, a fireman on the railroad. We lived in Portland a short time and then we lived in the Dalles for a year and then since I was in about the third grade, why we've lived the rest of our lives here in Umatilla.

How did the dams affect the physical landscape?

Well, it backed up the water [laughing]. What's really affected the physical landscape since I was a kid is the vast irrigation projects, the great circle irrigation sprinkler systems have not only changed the landscape, they've changed the climate. We used to have windstorms in the summer time caused by thermal activity, hot sun on the desert and cold air coming up the gorge, but we don't seem to have that any more. Our weather pattern seems to have changed considerably. The land around here used to be mostly the sand, the sagebrush, and jackrabbits. And those jackrabbits were extremely thick, the pheasants were fairly thick, and when I was a boy, why we used to spend our time either fishing swimming or hunting. Uh, used to have a big problem deciding everyday when I got up what I was going to do, and usually I did all three. The weather here was extremely hot and dry. It used to be that we'd get about five really hot days and then we'd get three days of wind, and as my grandmother used to say, "If the wind hadn't a blowed, we couldn't have lived here." Because usually some cooler air blew in with the wind. Geographically, this, Umatilla was a, mostly a railroad town. We did have some boat activity when they started putting the sternwheelers up in here. I remember as a boy seeing the sternwheeler Umatilla, and I remember the last trip the Beaver made. The beaver sunk down below Blalock Island on a return trip. And those days they used to come up and load the wheat onto the sternwheelers, and it was bagged wheat, and they would load it with hand trucks. Grain growers had a moveable storage shed and dock that they, was able to move up and down on the rails, down to the water, and they would load these big sacks of wheat. And later on, why I remember when the tunnel draft little tug called Mary Gail. Of course in those days we considered it a pretty big tug. When it started coming in here and uh, the pilots and the crew of the tug used to dock in Umatilla. They'd run the river during the day and dock at night and go home. But the river's changed since the dams went in because of the uh, greater depth of navigation. It used to be nothing that drew over seven foot could come up here. Now, why barges [?] thirty, forty feet, come up here. And of course the tows are much larger. Used to be a tug could handle one little, one large, probably half the size they are now, they'd haul one barge at a time. As the tug got more powerful they'd bring two, sometimes an empty and a loaded. But of course now there's, the only thing that limits how many barges they can tow is the size of the, of the lock system.

How has Umatilla changed since you came to the community?

Well, I remember when there was no paved streets in Umatilla and the only paved street we had was the highway that runs through Umatilla. Back in the, in the thirties and the forties, why it was strictly a railroad town, and most of the jobs were because of the railroad. Now I think most of the jobs are because of agricultural industries. And since the main line does not run through Umatilla anymore, we no longer have the switchyard, why railroad is no consequence at all here anymore, as most of the produce goes out by the river. Lots of container activity, both for produce in, of course, hard goods would come in and out by container.

Were you aware of any opposition to building either dam? If so, what kind?

I never was aware of any opposition to building dams. I don't recall that the fishery people had any objection to building dams, because the attitude in Oregon was, "Hey, we can supplement the fishing, the salmon run, we can supplement those with hatcheries." And I can recall when I was a boy, why you'd go to the mountains and the stream would be full of salmon spawning, and uh, every little ditch and every little tributary that run into the little, the little streams that run into the rivers all had salmon and steelhead in them, spawning. We used to, they used to plant trout for us to catch, so we caught fish, and once in a while we would have fun hooking the salmon, cause you could run your lure down through the salmon bed where the salmon would be spawning. There'd be a couple of salmon there, sometimes three or four, they'd be digging up gravel and releasing eggs, why if you could run a lure down through there to hit one of them on the nose, they'd grab it. And we'd have the fun of fish, playing them out and then we'd release them, and I noticed that when you released the salmon he went back to exactly the same hole, the same spot, the same gravel bar. And they tell me that's what salmon do, they run their ocean course and then their two to four year cycle or whenever they come back, why they come back to the exact same gravel bar. I can tell you from experience that there hasn't been any salmon on most of those gravel bars in all of our tributaries and rivers for the last fifty years. And I remember fifty years ago arguing with a cousin about how many salmon they were releasing up here to spawn, I said, "you don't have enough, there ain't no spawners up there."

And they said, "Oh yeah we're gonna, we got plenty of salmon, we're gonna supplement 'em with fish hatcheries." Well, for years fish hatcheries on the lower river I guess worked. But now there's something wrong out there in the ocean, they've over fished everything commercially for so long that they're not even getting their hatchery fish back any more. So now why the big. . . is, we're gonna blame it on the dams. Well you can pull all the dams out and you're not going to get the salmon back. They'll have to go out there in the ocean and fix it. Those salmon are fished commercially, overfished commercially, clear from the Aleutians, clear down the coast of Alaska, clear through all the inner waterways of Alaska and the inner waterways of Canada and, and we finally get a few of them back down here in the mouth of the Columbia River on the coast of Oregon, and of course the commercial gillnetters'll go wild and go out there and seine them out. Then you wonder why we don't have any fish. Well, these spawning beds up here haven't had any fish on them for fifty years, and until you guys can come up with a sensible way of harvesting fish rather than gillnetting them out of the mainstream of the Columbia, you're never gonna have fish. And that's just common sense.

How has John Day impacted the community?

Well, uh, the only way it impacted my community is I have to change the way I fish.

Do you remember Blalock Island?

I remember it very well. Used to fish off of Blalock Island, alongside of Blalock Island. My neighbor family when I was a boy, they picked up and moved to Blalock Island, and went down there to goldmine. They had some big boys and I guess they had to decided something for the boys to do, and decided well, hey, do a little gold mining. Because back in those days fifty cents a day was pretty good wages.

How did the people on the island get to the mainland?

Well, they went by boat. How else do you get to an island? My wife used to visit the family down there, and she went back and forth by boat when they went out to Blalock to visit. Uh, there were salmon that spawned all along Blalock. In fact, there were salmon that spawned in every gravel bar in this river. And I can remember the salmon that used to spawn in the Columbia River here on the gravel that came from the mouth of the Umatilla River. Actually, it was called the Umatilla River shoals. But the salmon used to cover that bar and spawn. I talked to some fishery people that were doing an aircraft survey, that stopped in for gas at the marina one time, and they said they could see those salmon on all the gravel bars. From up in the air they were very visible on all the gravel bars. So evidently they spawned pretty extensively in the mainstream in the Columbia. Now we haven't had any spawning in the Umatilla River, of course, since way back in the early 1900s when they built the Three Mile Irrigation Dam, and they took all the water out. My granddad told me one time that he saw salmon so thick in the Umatilla River, you could walk across the river on their backs, but that was back in the late 1800s. And the irrigation project changed all that. [pause]

Did you work on the McNary Dam or Umatilla Basin Project or related Industries?

I never worked on the dam. I operated a ferry, I was a pilot on the ferry that operated here that hauled workers back and forth across the Columbia River to the dam. I worked on that ferry for seven and a half years, and uh, sometimes we used a tug and barge in some aspect of the construction, hauling cement trucks and the like, to pour on different pores of the dam. The uh, chemical depot in our community had no effect at all that I know of. But of course, when I was a kid it wasn't a chemical depot. In fact, I don't remember ever hearing any announcement when the chemicals arrived at the depot. I didn't know they had them there until somebody decided, well hey we have to do something about it. Well, the logical thing is put the things on a barge and haul them out to Johnson Atoll, but that's too simple. We've decided we have to build a, burning plant out here of some kind to burn up these chemicals. Well uh, you know when you're young I suppose you can worry about whether this chemical's gonna get away and kill somebody, but at our age, why, it's not really that great concern.

Uh, Hanford had some effect on the community. Of course, the ordnance depot, when it was first built was jobs for a lot of us. I worked out there when I was a kid in high school. I have a neighbor up here that worked on Hanford. In fact, they couldn't have built it uh, his dad said they couldn't have built it without him because he knows, because the fella told him. They obviously didn't know what they were doing over there, so they had to have a local carpenter helps them figure it out [laughing].

How do you feel about recent economic developments? The men's prison? Building a women's prison?

I don't know what this has got to do with history. I don't know whether anybody cares what I think about it. But hey, a prison is a prison, and I guess it provides jobs, and as far as I can see, why all this really means to me is that developers are making money and, my quality of life seems to be going downhill due to the mass of people and added taxes for schools, and waterlines and sewer services and all that. And my taxes go up and the traffic gets thicker so I can't get around too well. So, in the long run, why my quality of life goes down because it costs me more money to live and I gotta keep wading over people to do anything. So.

How do you feel about recent environmental developments? Are you familiar with the Umatilla Basin Project?

Well yes, I'm quite familiar with the Umatilla Basin Project, and uh, it's a fascinating example of the political power that the Indians have, and I say the more power to 'em, because they have been able to do what nobody else seems to be able to do, and that's to get the federal government to get interested in providing some money to provide the irrigation and the fish both. I talked to a fishery man up there, some time ago when they were first starting this project, and he said, "Boy you guys are lucky, you're going to have fabulous fishing." Well, we've had some pretty good fishing, but nothing fabulous, and we seem to have it because the Indians have decided to share with us. But how long that's going to last, who knows? I suspect that one of these days they'll flex their political power and that'll be the end of that. . .

What is your view on the breaching of dams on the Snake River?

Well, I think it's too little too late. I am absolutely against it. I don't see any reason why you want to start raising my electric bill along with all my other bills, for a lost cause. Now there's a lot of other ways to fix this situation concerning fish running up and down the river. There doesn't seem to be any problem with them going over the dams. They've been doing it for years, and I, I can remember in the good old days when we had Celilo to go fishing, I used to go down there as a young man and fish. And we just watched the fish down at the dams, when they'd get over fifty thousand, why we'd say hey, it's time to go to Celilo, in two weeks they'll be there. So we'd go over Bonneville, and two weeks later they're in Celilo and two weeks later they're at John Day and another two weeks later they'd be up at McNary. So we'd just follow the fish up, fish for 'em. I notice that the Indians do that now. You'll see the nets down below Bonneville, and then when the fish move up the river, they move the nets up the river and then when the fish move up above John Day or up above the Dalles, they've got their nets up there, and then when they move up above John Day, they move their nets up there. And I can't remember until about 1950 or so, ever seeing a net in Umatilla, never was any gillnets here. But the Indians decided to come up here and net 'em because of some treaty, ancient treaty regulations. So they came up here and netted and they were pretty black and soft, and they're very low quality. I see the cannery trucks come in and pick them up. Pay the Indians some pitiful sum, and for some reason or other, why somebody decided it's better to lose those spawners for a nickel a pound than it is to let them go up and spawn somewhere. As you can see, I'm rather [?] with fish management. I think fish have been mismanaged [noise of something being moved around] so long, especially by the State of Oregon, that it's an absolute joke at this date to try to come along and say, well hey if we pull some dams out we'll have fish. Ha-ha.

Questions specific to Native Americans, Irrigation Districts, Army. . .

[reads a question about the 1855 treaty]

I don't know what treaty you're talking about, but I can tell you that when I was a kid, why uh, Indian kids went to school with us. Their uh, we went to the same, we played sports against each other, with each other. They frequented the same doctor's offices, hospitals, grocery stores, what have you. They've been among us, been citizens among us of no difference than any other citizen. The only thing that I can see that's happened in the last few years is the, some Indians have went to law school and they decided to dig up all these old treaties and do some advantageous things for people of Indian culture and blood. I'm not impressed with all this. But hey, more power to 'em. I don't resent their political power. I'm just a little bit leery that one of these days it'll turn against me.

[reads a question about the Umatilla Basin Project]

. . . One time here we had a, a state of Washington run a spawning channel here below the dam on the Oregon side of the river. I was very good friends with the people that were running it, so I was able to, I have a little knowledge of how it was run and all the water that came into the channel was filtered through gravel, and they planted eggs, established a run there. The experiment was to see how many salmon per square foot of spawning gravel was optimum. How much was too much, how much was not enough. They planted eggs in the boxes I remember, and they planted eggs up to eight feet deep, and then they went in after the spawning season and when they lowered the water in the stream and they carefully reported how many eggs hatched at all the different levels. They had real good patches of uh, of eggs clear down to the four foot level. I know that from watching the salmon there that the eggs are not in the holes. We always call 'em [reds?] or holes. The eggs aren't in the holes, the eggs are in the big mound of gravel that's behind the hole. The fish work on their site and pull that gravel up and release eggs and it gets buried in that gravel. We know that there's a high percentage of hatchery, of the fish that hatch, the little ones that hatch there, we know there's a high percentage of them clear down to four feet deep. The percentage keeps going down the deeper they are, but they uh, them little rascals hatch and they're able to work their ways up to that gravel and they spawned. Now there's been a lot of research. I remember at the time Washington State was doing the research because Oregon wasn't interested in that type of research. All that Oregon was interested in was hatcheries, and that's no doubt because of the political pull of the commercial fishery. The commercial fishery put all their money into politics, and all the people that the governor appoints on the fishery councils are commercial people. So sport fishermen have no particularly, power, in Oregon government. So most of the philosophy in the state of Washington at that time seems to be more related to including the fishing in eastern Washington. However, I think the political climate has changed there some and, and the commercial fishermen are exerting more and more influence all the time over Washington State politics.

I think I've exhausted most all. . . What have we got here?

What do you see as the most critical issues affecting river management?

I would say the most critical issue is common sense.

What is your view of the possible drawdown of the John Day Dam?

I think it's a waste of time. I think you've gotta come up with some other way to influence fish to travel down the river, and I think drawing the dam down is not going to affect the fish, as I said before. The real problem with the fishery is way out there in the ocean somewhere. If you don't believe that, why look at all the streams that used to be teeming with silver salmon down along the coast of Oregon, that don't have any dams, and the salmon aren't there. So evidently the dams aren't its problem.

How do you think the drawdown would affect the community?

Well if it affects irrigation, it's going to bankrupt the communities. Because that's what we have out here. We have miles and miles and miles of irrigated circles. If we have drawdowns, why the biggest thing probably will be the migration of Mexican workers back to Mexico because there wouldn't be any work for them here.

What is your view of the potential breaching of dams on the Snake?

I think it's a waste of money and just defies common sense. I see no reason to give up the potential of electrical production and flood control, and navigation improvement. All these things I think should have equal say in what happens to the dams on the Snake or the Columbia or anywhere else.

How would breaching affect the community?

Who knows? It would be major.

What role does the town of Umatilla play in river management?

I think small town governments don't play much role at all. I think they're too busy fighting over whose going to run the town. [laughs] That's all up and down the river, that's not just Umatilla.

What do you see as the best way to manage the river?

It's very simple. Common sense.

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