The truth is, not
many people ever had stayed in Skamania County, let alone North Bonneville.
About 85% of the county's 1,676 square miles was in national forest, and in
1970 the census showed only 5,845 inhabitants, not counting elk and deer. Most
of them were strung along the riverbank, in Stevenson (the county seat,
population 916) and North Bonneville, Skamania and Carson. If the engineers
knew about the trouble Eastern cities had had in trying to disperse slum
neighborhoods, it must not have concerned them. After all, they were engineers,
not sociologists. And if someone had told them North Bonneville, tacky as it
looked, was no slum, they might have laughed. People in Stevenson thought it
was, and the editor of the Skamania County Pioneer lightheartedly observed that
while Rome was burned and Sodom destroyed by fire from heaven, North Bonneville
would be the first city in history to be flushed.
What the Corps
needed at that point was to trade one good draftsman for one clairvoyant. Such
a soothsayer could have warned that while some people undoubtedly looked
forward to leaving, many were there by choice and might fight back—with
stubbornness and dedication and, if it came to that, with brooms and shovels.
The seer might even have been able to tell the engineers that eventually a
32-year-old student intern would arrive on the scene, disguised as a
long-haired, blue-jeaned hippie. And this hippie, Pollard R. Dickson, would
establish a close relationship with the Corps, the kind of relationship the
Irish Republican Army has with Belfast. Atlas probably would have shrugged.
In the absence of
this sort of psychic advice, the engineers equated North Bonneville with any
other shacktown, and quite possibly felt they were doing the residents a favor
in helping them escape the Gorge's God-awful winters. If so, they had a point.
The winters start early and last a long time. The prevailing west wind funnels
icy marine air loaded with chilling rain up the river. That's the good news.
The bad news comes when the wind shifts east and sends howlers down from the
high desert, substituting snow and sleet for rain. Sometimes the sun is absent
for weeks at a time.
But in the spring
the chinook and silver salmon and the steelhead and the shad begin to run. The
great shoulders of the Cascades, which even in winter are cloaked in evergreen,
burst into flower. Rhododendrons vie with the yellow blaze of Scotch broom.
Pink peas compete with morning glories. You can almost walk across the mountain
lakes on trout and bass.
The summers turn
everything green and gold. Giant chinquapins alternate with red alder and maple
and cottonwood. The red bolls of madronas punctuate the coniferous stands, and
lilacs turn whole sections blue and white. The valleys are lush with
thimbleberries and blackberries, and vast fields of huckleberries cover the
approaches to Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, both in Skamania County—O.K.,
Mount Adams is shared with Yakima. Cranberries flourish in upland pockets. Most
of the Gorge Indians are long gone, but kinni-kinnick, the Indian tobacco, is
everywhere. The hospitable waters of Bonneville's long lake are speckled with
summer visitors—Canadian honkers and mallard ducks—and backpackers push up into
the high Cascades.
Even though it
brings the Gorge closer to winter, fall is the best season for many people.
Then Table Mountain and Greenleaf and Hamilton peaks, on the Washington side,
and the cliffs under the rimrock of the Benson plateau on the Oregon side flame
with the reds and yellows of turning leaves. A new run of salmon and steelhead
comes up the river, mingling with the huge sturgeon that are always present.
Blacktail deer and majestic elk can be had for the stalking. Bear and cougar
move down from their alpine summer chalets, and blue grouse and native
pheasants rise to hunters' guns.
Even if you don't
do anything about all this, just being there can be a pleasure. That's what the
engineers failed to understand in assessing North Bonneville's prospective
behavior. Not that engineers don't fish and hunt and backpack, but most of them
are short-term trippers, and they do have trouble looking at a tree without
figuring what it would take to uproot it. It didn't occur to many of them
(maybe not to any) that while North Bonneville's residents might have moss on
their roofs and peeling paint on their walls, outside they had the kind of
thing Eastern millionaires spend fortunes to get in Canadian hunting and
fishing lodges. And they had it six months of the year. Better than money? You
bet! Just ask.
The Corps didn't
ask, but it got an answer, anyway. Mayor Bob Holcomb told the engineers his
constituents did not aim to be dispersed, and would expect financial, planning
and engineering help in relocating the town to a nearby site. That started the
four-year war. The Corps said the Uniform Relocation Act gave it no authority
to do any of these things (maybe it did and maybe it didn't, but it did not
compel the Corps to do them). As soon as the fall hunting and fishing
permitted, the town council met to decide what to do next. The mayor and the
council made up a pretty good cross section of the town. Holcomb wasn't rich,
but during his 20 years as boss of the U.S. Wildlife Service's Bonneville Fish
Lab he had bought up 40 acres in lakes and timber at the east end of the town
and built the nearest thing to a mansion in North Bonneville. The council
included one small businessman, a construction worker, the proprietor of a beer
tavern and two truck drivers. "I found something here I'd dreamed of all my
life, and I wanted to keep it," Holcomb said. The council agreed, and
deliberately thumbed its collective nose at the Corps by picking the engineers'
designated spoils area—Hamilton Island—and some adjacent acreage as the new
townsite. Actually, it was not mere defiance. In an area that is mostly
vertical, Hamilton was the only flat place big enough to give a new town a
chance to grow.
Instead of just
ignoring this impertinence, the Corps opened the door a little bit, never
guessing it would eventually be flung wide. The engineers offered to help the
town design a master plan "in relation to other project facilities."
The town saw the carrot, but it also saw the stick. "They're gonna plan us
right off our site," one councilman guessed, and in April of 1972 North
Bonneville not only rejected the Corps offer but ordered the engineers to
"refrain from planning the townsite through their offices or any
engineering or consulting firm retained directly by them." That
declaration—by a town with no control over the Corps, no assurance that the law
was on its side, no money to buy a site and no money to hire planners—was sheer
If the engineers'
plans had gone according to schedule, the town's defiance might have proved
futile, but Congress chose that moment to cut back on the Corps' North
Bonneville appropriation. In a way this reprieve had a demoralizing effect on
the town. For 25 years, sensing the ax would fall someday, the residents hadn't
bothered much with beautification. Now, with the beheading delayed but
apparently inevitable, they really let things go. "I had 300 buckets
catchin' drip from the ceiling in my saloon," recalls Mike Almasi, the
former proprietor of the Evergreen Tavern. Even Bob Holcomb was discouraged,
but a survey showed that 72% of North Bonneville's citizens were still willing
to hang tough. Holcomb set out to find help. He tried federal and regional
governments. What he got was a great deal of sympathy, and no money. Nobody
wanted to invest in a doomed town.