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Snake River Looking West – Glenns Ferry, ID

About two miles to the east (or upriver or to left in this image) is the area, where in 1869, Gustavus “Gus” Glenn established a ferry that saved about 20 miles of travel and the need for the pioneers on the Oregon Trail to ford the Snake River.

One thing that caught my attention here is the compressed view of how transportation developed: by foot, by water, by steam train, and by internal combustion vehicles. What I find interesting is how persistent our route choices are over time. In the American West this is a pattern that is consistently repeated.

The other item that vied for my attention was the Snake River itself. There are a number of different ways one can define the Pacific Northwest but I find using the major rivers in the region useful. When setting these boundaries, and I am using this “good enough” definition, I use the river systems that roughly empty in the Columbia and Fraser Rivers. The Snake, some 1,078 miles (1,735 km) in length empties into the Columbia is the primary water route into Idaho and beyond.

There is a historical rationale for the definition. In the 18th century the European powers and the budding upstarts, the future United States, were greatly concerned with finding the most efficient routes to the Far East.

Based on some rather fanciful geographic speculation and seemingly corroborating reports from Native Americans a great deal of energy was spent trying to locate a water route across North America. As the great voyages and expeditions of discovery to this region would prove by the early 19th century the Northwest Passage, Straits of Anian and the Great River of the West – the Oregan were myths.

What they did discover is that Pacific Northwest was very much not a myth with a vast untapped resource of furs, timber, fish, and land. The first persistent organization to exploit this wealth was the Hudson Bay Company that in a matter of a few decades nearly stripped this entire region naked of fur bearing animals, mostly otter and beaver. This rather ruthless fur mining operation set the stage for the next phase – the United States coming to dominate the continent, mostly through the restless American spirit that Horace Greeley acknowledged and summarized beautifully as “Go west young man.”

Those young men and woman that did heed his advice often followed the rivers on land as they made their way towards the promise of California and the end of the Oregon Trail in the Pacific Northwest.

Whether it was greed, ambition, or something else that pushed them West, if we today, listen carefully to the echo of their experiences we can hear one of the great hallmarks that defined and sustained the American people over the last several centuries: optimism.

Later, that same sense of optimism, in the face of Jim Crow laws, often backed up with KKK enforced lynchings, would explode forth on the world in the form of the Blues and Jazz given to us by those spectacular and profound African American musical geniuses that changed the entire course of the western musical river.

Today, in a sense, the Northwest Passage has been found and is in full use. All one needs to do is wait near any of the highways across the continent and you will you see a seemingly endless river of freight coming from China that implicitly says “go east young man, go east.”

Copyright 2012 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved.