Most of the Suburban Times’ readers probably know that Steilacoom is “the Town of Firsts” in Washington. And you might have been there at one or the other time if you are not as lucky as to be living there anyway. But there is another town I need to tell you about today, also well worth a visit. Apart from a road trip that might last you a lifetime if you take on the Columbia River Gorge, the town of Stevenson in Skamania County has more than just one unique story to tell.
To be honest, when I booked a hotel there, I was utterly unaware that Stevenson is the county seat of Skamania; Skamania means “swift waters” in Cascades Chinook, by the way. And Stevenson is located on the northern banks of the mighty Columbia River, facing steep mountains across in Oregon. The town has pretty much everything for one’s daily needs, including a supermarket, gas stations, restaurants, DIY stores, and even a book store. There are parks for recreation and a huge court house for legal matters. In short, after having traveled past a lot of places on westbound SR 14 which were boasting only a name and not even homes, Stevenson was a nice surprise and a place to stretch one’s legs.
We took a stroll along Second Street (which is the main thorough fare), crossed a bridge over Rock Creek, which was teeming with salmon, and ended up at a huge modern building which is the home of the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum. As we had nothing else on our agenda, we paid the ten dollars per person admittance fee – and never rued it. For the museum makes you look at the town with entirely new eyes …
Of course, a large part of the museum is dedicated to the native tribes who have been living in the Gorge for thousands of years; there are also exhibits that show the gear that “cultivated” the area – fishing wheels that almost depleted the area of salmon, logging devices, trains. But the most stunning items are the ones you have to read up on.
Maybe, one of the core stories is that Baron Eugene Alandrovich Fersen, an illustrious Russian aristocrat, who had left his mother country before the Bolsheviks took over and who finally ended up in Seattle in the early 1900s, had fallen in love with the Gorge. He wanted to build a center of learning there. He had founded a society called “The Lightbearers” to support this plan. Unfortunately, his financier passed away, then he did. But his organization donated some of his items to the museum and is mentioned as still one of its supporters.
Another story is that of Captain A. J. Geer who was running his steam boat “Bailey Gatzert” between Portland, OR, and Stevenson, WA, twice a day. You see what a popular destination Stevenson must have been in the late 1800s. At one point he found that the Cascade Locks were closed because of flooding; but he needed to get back to Portland. So, he offered to carry everybody who wanted to stay onboard across the two-mile-stretch of rapids instead. 125 passengers stayed on for the 3-minute-ride of their lives …
Another story is that Stevenson once was kind of the Gretna Green of Washington State. Young couples traveled there in droves because they were able to get their marriage license AND get married on the same day. Now, that probably is the stuff that novels are made of.
One of Hollywood’s finest was also one of Stevenson’s residents at one time. Roy Craft had promoted Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes and been Marilyn Monroe’s press agent from 1952 through 1957; and he was the photographer of the famous shot from “The Seven Year Itch”. Well, in Stevenson, he sure was on top of the news with the Skamania County Pioneer, which exists to this day.
Last but not least, there exists an ordinance in Skamania County as of April 1, 1969 (not intended as an April Fools’ Day joke, by the way), according to which the Sasquatch is an endangered subspecies of the “Homo Sapian” [sic!], and it is prohibited to shoot it. Cameras excluded. The ordinance was amended in 1984 and in 1991, and Skamania is, to this day, a Sasquatch refuge!
Quite unique for a place with barely 1,500 inhabitants, right? But just as I was taught as a child: It’s not numbers that count, but quality. The tales and people connected to Stevenson certainly are memorable. So, here’s to uniques in a unique little Town on the River!
Raymond Egan says
I enjoyed Suzanne’s article about Stevenson which is unique also for being the home of Margaret Windsor Iman (1834-1894.) Margaret ran away at 18 from the proverbial wicked step-mother and joined a wagon train heading to the Oregon Country. About 500 miles out – or a month and a half from their destination (I think perhaps somewhere along the Snake River valley) she was given an orphaned baby to take care of. She wrote that at every even encampment she would look for a nursing mother to feed the baby and she said none ever turned her down. At where Stevenson WA now lies, she became to ill to travel further and was cared for in a cabin/hospital until she recovered. She met her future husband, Felix Iman, there and never left.
It is my – and only my – conjecture that carrying that baby left a significant imprint on Margaret. She gave birth to sixteen children. And adopted a seventeenth.
Susanne Bacon says
Oh my, what a unique story indeed! Thank you for sharing this, Raymond!
Jaynie Jones says
Wow! And double-wow!!!
Jaynie Jones says
Susanne, I thoroughly enjoy your fresh perspective as you explore the state of Washington. Having been born here and living all of my life here — except from age five to 13, in Oregon — It is a delight to rediscover the towns and sights you and your husband are seeing for the first time. I greatly enjoy the vicarious journeys with you!
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you so much, Jaynie! Indeed, traveling is story-time if one wants to “listen”. Washington State has amazing things to offer that are not obvious at first sight. When we walked away from the museum, the astonishing little town had become a conglomerate of buildings whispering stories …