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CAUGHT STANDING IN THE WAY OF PROGRESS
Richard W. Johnston
November 24, 1975
North Bonneville was just another trapped town as bulldozers of the Corps of Engineers approached. But for once—and maybe forever—the bogeymen were set back
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November 24, 1975

Caught Standing In The Way Of Progress

North Bonneville was just another trapped town as bulldozers of the Corps of Engineers approached. But for once—and maybe forever—the bogeymen were set back

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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 bravado.

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.

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