Grand Coulee

Map of the Columbia district, HBC

Map, Fort Vancouver to Fort Colvile. The lower end of what the HBC men called the Grand/Grande Coulee began just north of Priest’s Rapids, and led across country to a place east of Fort Okanogan. The men coming downriver often noted the north end of the Coulee, but never traveled through it. The brigades used it on their way north, but never on their way south. A.C. Anderson traveled through the Grand Coulee in 1835, and later in 1855. 

In 1848 Thomas Lowe’s York Factory Express went out by the Grand Coulee. No other express had taken that out of the way route, as far as I am aware, but there was very good reason for Lowe to use it that year. It was the year of the Cayuse Wars, and even for the HBC men it was dangerous to travel up and down the Columbia River. They could not use their normal route across the plateau on horseback: that would almost certainly lead to a confrontation with the Cayuse Indians and their allies. 

Yet, in spite of all the dangers, the York Factory Express had to go out: it was an essential part of the transportation systems of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Columbia district, and they had no other route.

From my book, The Pathfinder, a description of the Grand Coulee in Alexander Caulfield Anderson’s words. The year is 1835, and Anderson is riding into New Caledonia with Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden and the brigades. We begin at Fort Nez Perces [Walla Walla], where they traded for horses:

In early July, the men [of the brigades] pulled their boats onto the beach in front of Fort Nez Perces, where the gentlemen attended the horse races at the Native village outside the fort. A horse cost a blanket, and as there was always a shortage of horses, Ogden traded for as many as he could afford. Then, while the voyageurs worked their way upriver in the boats, the gentlemen herded the unbroken horses up the east bank of the Columbia River.

The horse trail between Fort Nez Perces and Fort Okanogan passed Priest’s Rapids and entered red-rocked Grand Coulee, “an extraordinary ravine, the origin of which has been a matter of much speculation,” Anderson wrote. “The bottom of this ravine is very smooth, and affords excellent traveling; good encampments are found at regular intervals. After following it for about sixty miles, the trail strokes off for the Columbia [River], at a point a few miles beyond a small lake, called by the voyageurs Le Lac a L’Eau Bleue.” Once out of the coulee, the Company men took a northwest route, swimming their horses across the Columbia River and arriving at Fort Okanogan a few days before the boats.

 You will see by the map above where the Grand Coulee cut off the wanderings of the Columbia River. The coulee was formed during the last ice age, when the waters of an enormous lake covering modern-day Montana burst their glacier dam and carved deep valleys into the basalt rock of what is now central Washington. From Jack Nisbet’s book, Singing Grass, Burning Sage, I find the HBC’s Grand Coulee might be made up of two coulees: Moses Coulee to the west, and Grand Coulee to the east. I also learned that the “Stark cathedral walls within the Grand Coulee hide caves layered with relics of ancient dwellers” — I hadn’t known that before. He also has a very good description of the creation of the coulee itself:  

About two million years ago, a change in climate ushered in a long Ice Ace. Tongues of great glaciers licked down across Canada, reaching far enough south to block the Columbia’s channel through the Grand Coulee, altering the course of the big river yet again…. Around twenty thousand years ago, one finger of this great ice sheet descended across the mouth of the Clark Fork River in northern Idaho. The lobe dammed the river, creating an immense body of water known as glacial Lake Missoula. When that lake reached a critical depth, it breached the ice dam, unleashing a flood of Biblical proportions. A gigantic wall of water rushed from northern Idaho across eastern Washington at speeds up to fifty miles an hour. The deluge overwhelmed existing watercourses, stripping away tons of topsoil and scouring coulees deep into ancient basalt. The force of the water carved huge waterfalls and gnawed out pothole lakes. Icebergs carrying Montana bounders rammed into horizons of volcanic rock. Violent currents sculpted mesas shaped like steamboats and fancy hats. Swirling eddies laid down enormous islands of gravel, and standing waves left giant ripple marks undulating over the plains. When the flood reached the narrow bottleneck of Wallula Gap, water backed up into an enormous lake that filled the Pasco and Quincy basins. The pressurized torrent shot through the gap, shearing the walls of the Columbia Gorge and flooding the lower Willamette Valley before finally expiring at sea. [Jack Nisbet, Singing Grass, Burning Sage: A Nature Conservancy of Washington Book] 

So there we are. I wonder which NWC or HBC man first rode through this place. The incoming brigades to New Caledonia used this coulee: the boats went upriver in the hands of the voyageurs under one clerk, but the gentlemen rode through the Grand Coulee — at least in later years. The York Factory express men never used it, at least not before it was necessary to do so in 1848.

So here is Thomas Lowe’s journal of his voyage upriver and through the Grand Coulee on his way to Fort Okanogan. As you can see from the map above, this post stood on the east bank of the Okanogan/Okanagan River where it flowed from the north into the Columbia. We begin at his campsite at the head of Priest’s Rapids, just south of the entrance of the coulee. 

6, Thursday… Encamped at the head of the Priests Rapid.

7, Friday. Had a strong aft wind before breakfast, which carried us a good distance, but afterwards it changed and came right ahead, with a little rain. Got to the Traverse below the Rocher de Bois [today’s Mad River], and crossed the horses there to the South [East] side of the River. There I left the boats to proceed overland to Okanagan with the horses, in company with Mr. [Henry Newsham] Peers and two men, having placed Mr. Robert Logan in charge of the Boats during my absence. The boats started immediately after we had crossed, but we only went about 5 miles, as there was no other place for the horses [no water and grass beyond].

April 8, Saturday. Fine warm weather. Travelled over rough rocky ground during the fore part of the day, but in the afternoon had a much better road. Made a good distance, and encamped where the road falls into the Grand Coulee.

9. Sunday… The road led through the Grand Coulee most of the day, but in the afternoon we struck out towards the River, after having followed the Coulee until abreast of the Fort. Encamped a good distance above Okanogan, near the bank of the Columbia.

10, Monday. Beautiful day. Arrived at Okanagan before noon, but did not cross the horses. Mr. Peers and his two men are to remain here until the Boats arrive. Having been about two hours at the Fort, and transacted what little business I had to settle with [Joachim] Lafleur, I started on horseback for Colvile…

No journals of the incoming brigades exist, that talk of their journey through the Grand Coulee, and no other York Factory Express journals indicate the Grand Coulee route was ever used again. 

Many years later, Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote of the Grand Coulee once more, when he addressed a letter to William H. Dall, or someone else who had something to do with the Western Union Telegraph Expedition in 1865. He must be starting this description from the area around Priests Rapids, I presume, either that or the first pages of the document are lost. This is what he has to say:

From this point to [Fort?] Okanogan the shortest and best route for travelling with horses is by starting off from the Columbia some 6 or 7 miles above the rapids to the “Grande Coulee,” a natural ravine which cuts across the bend of the Columbia and again approaches close to the river below the Spokan Forks.

To reach Okanogan the trail leaves the Coulee a short distance below a small lake called the Lac a l’eau Bleue, one of the few watering stations in that extensive ravine. This trail (the ordinary traveled road) striking the Columbia a few miles above Okinagan. 

The “Grande Coulee” presents the appearance of what might be imagined to be the dried up bed of a river; say of the Columbia diverted by some extraordinary convulsion of nature at some long by gone period. It furnishes an excellent line of communication entirely free from obstacles for ordinary purposes. For a telegraph line it is however not suitable from the entire absence of wood for posts. Water is only found in several spots along long intervals. [Western Union Telegraph Expedition: includes report from A.C. Anderson on the country between the Fraser River and Stuart Lake, 1865. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC]

I don’t know if anyone else has any good description of the Grand Coulee — I know there a few images that do not describe the vastness and beauty of the place. It is a shame we can no longer go to explore it. The Grand Coulee is now buried underneath the waters of the Grand Coulee Dam, which supplied water to an intricate web of irrigation canals instead of generating electricity. On page 37 of Jack Nisbet’s book, mentioned above, he has a photograph of the Grand Coulee, with cowboys driving cattle through. This is how the coulee would have appeared to the HBC men who were driving their horses ahead of them to Fort Okinogan.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.