Our Northwest

Dam crack unveils old Columbia riverbank

Thursday, March 6, 2014by  Jon Osterberg

Dang, I missed my chance. I’m now prohibited from exploring the newly exposed Columbia River shoreline.
      A large crack was found last week in Wanapum Dam near Vantage, so operators opened the spillway to lower the impounded water by 26 feet and lessen the danger of a catastrophic burst. The drawdown offered an opportunity to step back in time.
   However, Grant County Public Utility District closed the riverbank Thursday after a woman sank up to her waist in wet sand.
   Perhaps the woman, like me, wanted to look for newly exposed remnants of building and roads from before Wanapum dammed the Columbia. Until 1963, the river flowed freely past Vantage through a much-narrower channel than today. (See photos below.) Homes, orchards, and roads lined the river until newly created Lake Wanapum flooded the gorge.
   In April 1962, when I was 8, our family drove east from Bellevue to take my sister to Whitworth College in Spokane. We stopped in Vantage at Gingko Petrified Forest State Park and enjoyed a picnic lunch outside the museum. Several signs warned “Watch for snakes,” raising my anxiety and attentiveness a notch.
   We ambled to the rim of a basalt bluff where we looked down on homes, barns, and orchards, and a woman riding her horse alongside a road. Farther in the distance, the Columbia rolled south toward Wanapum Dam, nearing completion.
   That entire vista was flooded in the following months, disappearing from view. Until now, perhaps.
   We left Gingko that day long ago and drove east over the river on the old, steel cantilever, two-lane U.S. 10 Vantage Bridge. Two miles south a longer replacement span was under construction, the current I-90 bridge that opened Oct. 4, 1962. (Amazingly, the old bridge was disassembled and then rebuilt in 1968 over the Snake River at Lyons Ferry, 113 miles to the southeast.)
   We motored east through Moses Lake, Ritzville, Sprague, and Cheney to Spokane, gawking at the view from Garden Springs where the Sunset Highway angled down into the Lilac City (see postcard, right). We dropped my sister off at Whitworth and then headed home, crossing the original Vantage Bridge for the last time.
   In September 1979 my wife and I retraced the route of former U.S. 10, the Old Vantage Highway, from Silica Road down into Frenchman Coulee, bottoming out in the Columbia River gorge. The ribbon of old two-lane highway led southward until, suddenly, it entered the river and vanished.
   I’d love to see that area today. I suspect there’s “new” old highway to drive.

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