Mighty Falls of the Snake River

By mid-August the emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1840s had passed Fort Hall. They rode for 300 miles along the cliffs on the south side of the Snake River until they reached Three Island Crossing, where they forded the river to the north.

Temperatures were often over 90 degrees along this stretch of the Snake River.  The river could be seen, but the travelers had to clamber down dangerous cliffs to reach the water.  And the river fell in wild cascades, most of which can no longer be seen because of the dams built in the twentieth century.  There was barely enough grass on the sandy, sage-covered plateau to keep the oxen and mules alive, and little game to replenish provisions for the human travelers.  The volcanic rock bit into hooves and shoes alike. “Sage, sage, nothing but sage,” wrote one emigrant. Another wrote that the country was the “most desolate in the world, no soil on the ground, just six inches of dust.”

Just to the west of Fort Hall came the American Falls, where the Snake dropped fifty feet in several ten-foot steps over huge rocks. The broad valley narrowed into a deep canyon. Above the river, the trail crossed ravines that required braking the wagons on the downside, then hauling them back up the other.

The American Falls are no longer visible, because the American Falls Reservoir now covers them.  But at the time, the emigrants bathed in pools beneath the falls, and heard the rushing water as they drifted off to sleep.

Next came Cauldron Linn, a lovely name for a wild cascade.  “Linn” is the Scottish word for “waterfall,” and this fall was named by Robert Stuart in 1811. Stuart later wrote:

“…we again struck the main River, at the Caldron Linn, where one of the unfortunate Canoes were lodged among the Rocks, but although we wished on several accounts to see what state she was, the Bluffs intimated that to gratify our wish we must risk our necks, so we of course declined it….at the Caldron Linn the whole body of the River is confined between 2 ledges of Rock somewhat less than 40 feet apart, and here indeed is terrific appearance beggars all description… .” The Discovery of the Oregon Trail–Robert Stuart’s Narrative, 1812-1813.

Think of the huge Snake River captured between cliffs just forty feet apart. Here’s a post from Southern Idaho Treasures that tells more about Cauldron Linn.

For a photo of Cauldron Linn, see here.

Shoshone Falls, 1874 photograph

Shoshone Falls were five miles from the main Oregon Trail, but could be heard from the trail, and many emigrants took “day trips” to see it.  Shoshone Falls was called the “Niagara of the West.” The falls are thirty feet higher than Niagara and are 900 feet wide.  They are still visible, though reduced much of the year by irrigation and dams.

Shoshone Falls stopped all fish migration upriver, and Native Americans fished for salmon below the falls, spearing the fish with elk horn points tied to willow boughs. The emigrants traded with the native Shoshone tribe for fish, which was a welcome addition to their meager diet at this point in the journey.

(For a current picture of Shoshone Falls, see here. For 1869 pictures of Shoshone Falls, Kansas City area readers should go to the Nelson Atkins Museum and see the collection of photographs by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, available until September 2.)

Finally along this stretch of the Snake came Salmon Falls. The Salmon Falls were really a series of rapids, rather than a perpendicular cascade, but the river dropped 25 feet in a 300-foot stretch, and was surrounded by rock bluffs, with more boulders projecting above the water’s surface. Here some Native Americans caught fish with their hands, though others used spears with hooks tied to lines that allowed the fish to run like with modern fishing poles.

In 1845, Joel Palmer described trading with the Indians at Salmon Falls as follows:

We traveled about nine miles, reaching the Salmon Falls. Here are eighteen or twenty Indian huts. Salmon came up to these falls: the Indians have an abundance of them, which they very readily dispose of for hooks, powder, balls, clothing, calico and knives, and in fact for almost anything we have at our disposal.” Palmer, Journals of Travels.

All through this stretch of the journey, the emigrants commented both on the harsh land around them and on the beauty and majesty of the scenery. They must have wondered whether their final destination would be as wild as the land along the Snake.

The novel I’m working on about the Oregon Trail tries to capture the awe and despair the emigrants must have felt as they journeyed through this strange and magnificent land.

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  1. I can visualize what you are expertly capturing and some of it I have seen first hand. The salmon with their twenty-five mile upstream journey to deposit their eggs, particularly, which give the grizzly and brown bears easy hunting. Can’t wait to read your book, Theresa. Good work, you are on a roll.

  2. Pingback: Three Island Crossing on the Snake River | Story & History

  3. Pingback: Three Island Crossing on the Snake River | Story & History

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