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Salmon and the Sandy River through time

Discover the history of Chinook salmon and the Sandy River and the special connection between people and wild salmon in our region.

Chinook salmon in the Sandy River

There is a special connection between people and wild salmon stretching back before recorded history. Native American elders state that they have fished for salmon “since time immemorial.” This timeline of  salmon and the Sandy River highlights the geologic activity, early exploration and ensuing growth that have shaped the culture, economy and ecology of the Pacific Northwest.

For generations the epic journey of wild salmon has inspired people to value clean water and healthy watersheds, preserving the unique character of this place they call home.

THE ORIGINS OF SALMON

As dinosaurs roamed, salmon's ancestors thrived.

400 million years ago
The first salmon ancestor appears in the fossil record.

30 million years ago
Salmon ancestors begin swimming to the ocean to take advantage of food-filled seas, returning to rivers to spawn.

12 million years ago
Volcanic activity begins building the backbone of the present day Cascade Range, giving it much of its height.

Over 6 million years ago
The modern Pacific salmon is born.

A RIVER OF CHANGE, A RESILIENT FISH

Salmon survive millions of years of explosive geology that shapes the Sandy River basin.

2 million years ago
The modern-day Sandy River cuts its present course.

700,000 years ago
Mount Hood is born.

29,000-18,000 years ago
The Ice Age: Mt. Hood glaciers extend all the way down the Sandy River valley to the present-day town of Brightwood.

16,000-14,000 years ago
The Bretz Floods: Ice dams in Montana break and send walls of water down the Columbia River. These massive floods form the Columbia River Gorge and flood the lower Sandy River with hundreds of feet of water.

9,000 years ago
The archeological record first shows Native peoples using the Sandy for seasonal hunting, gathering and fishing.

1,500 years ago
Mount Hood erupts, sending massive mudflows down the Sandy, pushing the Columbia River north over a mile.

5,000-4,000 years ago
The climate cools in the Pacific Northwest. This maritime climate we still have today gives salmon in the Sandy the best conditions to thrive.

Early 1790s
The Lost Creek Eruption: Mt. Hood’s most recent eruption sends 10- to 30-foot boiling mudflows down the Sandy River.

1805
Lewis and Clark first see the Sandy River. They name it the Quicksand because of extensive sand flows from a recent Mount Hood eruption.

SETTLERS COME TO THE SANDY

Logging, fishing, dams and failed hatcheries cause salmon decline in the Sandy.

1850s
The mouth of the Sandy River is settled near present-day Troutdale.

1858
The first sawmill on the Sandy is built.

1873
Chinook salmon harvesting peaks in the Columbia River at 43 million pounds a year. Many of these fish were bound for the Sandy River’s pristine waters.

1887
Artificial salmon breeding on the Sandy River begins with several egg-taking stations.

1892
U.S. president Benjamin Harris declares the Bull Run watershed, part of the Sandy watershed, a national forest preserve for drinking water.

1896
To increase dwindling salmon runs, the first official hatchery opens on the Sandy. They collect 2.6 million eggs from wild salmon in the first year of operation.

1904
Floodwaters leave enormous amounts of material at the Sandy River mouth, hindering salmon passage for eight years.

1908
Lumber mills operate throughout the Sandy watershed. The operator of the Sandy River Hatchery reports, “There is so much logging on the Sandy River that I am sure the salmon are kept out of the stream.”

1912-1913
Portland General Electric builds the Marmot and Little Sandy dams for power generation. The Marmot Dam is built with a fish ladder; the Little Sandy Dam is not.

1912-1973
Marmot Dam water diversions leave an 11-mile section on the Sandy from Marmot to the Bull Run River extremely low in the summer months and wreak havoc on spring salmon populations.

1920s
The first Bull Run drinking water reservoir is built, blocking 33 miles of salmon spawning habitat.

1948
Spring floods on the Columbia River inundate the lower Sandy, covering much of Troutdale in several feet of water.

INITIAL STEPS TOWARD RECOVERY

Efforts are made to save salmon but problems abound.

1950s-1970s
As wild salmon numbers continue to plummet, Sandy River hatcheries attempt to fill in for the losses.

1951
Fish screens are added at Marmot Dam to prevent young salmon from washing into power tubes.

1955
Egg taking from wild salmon at Marmot Dam stops completely, allowing wild fish entrance into the upper Sandy.

1962
Multnomah County purchases 221 acres of land in the Sandy River Gorge that eventually becomes 1,200-acre Oxbow Regional Park, managed today by Metro.

1964
Floods ravage the Sandy River and destroy 155 homes along its banks. To reduce future flood damage, large amounts of wood and boulders are removed from the river, which unintentionally devastates salmon habitat.

1971
The first forest protection laws in Oregon are enacted. Among other things, they attempt to limit logging next to streams.

1973
Portland General Electric begins releasing more water below Marmot Dam to help salmon survive in the dry summer months.

1976
The last year that Fall Chinook are stocked in the Sandy. The “Tule” Chinook that return in early fall to Oxbow are the remnants of these hatchery fish, while the larger portion of the run called the “Brights” are all wild.

Early 1980s
Poachers snag, spear and shoot spawning Fall Chinook at Oxbow Park.

1980s
The late run of Fall Chinook, often called the Winter Run, dwindles to zero. It is unclear whether any of these fish still exist.

1987
The largest run of wild Fall Chinook since counting began returns with over 2,200 fish in Oxbow Park and the lower Sandy. Historically, Fall Chinook runs in the Sandy were around 10,000 fish.

1988
58.4 miles of the Sandy are designated as a federal Wild and Scenic River.

NEW FOCUS ON RECOVERY

As wild Sandy River salmon numbers drop further, action to save them accelerates.

1990
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife closes off six areas in Oxbow Park to fishing to protect spawning Fall Chinook.

1995-2007
Communities, nonprofits, business and government acquire and protect an additional 7,000 acres in the Sandy River basin.

1996
Enormous floods swamp the Sandy River, wiping out spawning gravel while building new spawning habitat at the same time.

1999
Lower Columbia Chinook, including Sandy River fall Chinook, are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Sandy River run is one of only two stable runs of wild Fall Chinook left in the lower Columbia basin.

1999
Only wild fish are allowed above Marmot Dam. Combined with the gradual end of hatchery releases above the dam in prior decades, the upper Sandy becomes a wild fish sanctuary.

2000
The Sandy River Basin Partners form. Made up of over 17 organizations, they commit to restoring the wild salmon and steelhead runs of the Sandy River.

2005
Helicopters spread 49 tons of dead salmon from hatcheries in the Sandy to improve the health of young salmon.

Oct. 19, 2007
Marmot Dam is breached. The Sandy River runs free for the first time since 1912.

Oct. 22, 2007
Salmon are seen swimming past the former site of the Marmot Dam, just three days after it is removed.

September 2008
The Little Sandy Dam, the last dam in the Sandy River basin, is removed. Salmon move freely from the Pacific Ocean to Mt. Hood for the first time in almost 100 years.

Need assistance?

Metro sustainability
503-797-1650
metroparks@oregonmetro.gov

Related Links

Oxbow Regional Park

Discover Oxbow Regional Park, a 1,000-acre natural area park nestled in the wild and scenic Sandy River Gorge.

25 things you can do to protect salmon

Salmon need cold, clean and clear water to thrive – and so do humans. Find out what you can do at home, at work, at school and in your community to protect wild salmon habitat.

Sandy River Gorge

Learn about the goals and objectives for habitat and water quality protection in the Sandy River Gorge target area. View maps illustrating the Metro Council's priorities in this area and learn more about the importance of the area to our region.

Did you know?

Salmon need cold, clean and clear water to thrive -- and so do humans. Find out what you can do at home, at work, at school and in your community to protect wild salmon habitat.

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