Bonneville Dam – Columbia River Gorge

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam

Author: Olga Karavaeva

Despite having purely utilitarian reasons for existence, Bonneville Dam and Bonneville Dam Historic District have been a National Historic Landmark since 1987.

Named after Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville, Bonneville Dam is one of the oldest on the Columbia River. It has quite an unusual construction consisting of several dams on separate river channels divided by three islands. Out of the three, only Bradford Island, once an Indian burial site, is natural. Robins and Cascades Islands are man-made.

Bonneville Lock and Dam are located near Cascade Locks, Oregon, and North Bonneville, Washington, 40 miles (64 km) east of Portland, Oregon.


Built and managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the primary functions of Bonneville Lock and Dam are electrical power generation and river navigation.

Bonneville Dam is a concrete gravity (i.e. the Earth’s gravity is the force that holds it in place) and run-of-the-river (i.e. the dam has little to no water storage) dam with two powerhouses and a combined electrical output of over 1,000 megawatts. It is 197 feet (60 m) high and 2,690 feet (820 m) long.

The 48 mile (77 km) reservoir created by the dam is called Lake Bonneville. It stretches between the Bonneville and The Dalles dams and lies in the three Oregon counties (Multnomah, Hood River, Wasco) and two Washington counties (Skamania, Klickitat).

The level of water upstream is usually around 60 feet (18 m) higher than that of downstream, and it takes approximately 30 minutes for a vessel to transition through Bonneville Lock.


In the 1929 report, US Army Corps of Engineers recommended construction of ten dams along the Columbia River for the purposes of flood control, hydroelectricity generation, navigation, and irrigation. No action had been taken, however, until President Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a series of programs aimed at countering the consequences of the Great Depression.

Bonneville project presented quite a few engineering challenges, including water depth, unstable bottom, current velocity, weather conditions, and annual summer floods. The construction of the first powerhouse began in 1934 on the Oregon side and was finished in 1937. Growing energy needs of the Northwest resulted in the decision to build a second powerhouse. The construction started in 1974 on the Washington side and was finished in 1981.

The first lock was built at Bonneville in 1938 and could hold two barges and a tugboat. It was regarded as the world’s largest single-lift lock at that time. Later, however, the construction of new locks upriver capable of holding up to five barges, made Bonneville a Columbia River bottleneck.

In 1993, a new lock was opened to facilitate the traffic. It can now hold five barges, like all the seven locks upstream. The lockage time has been reduced from several hours to less than 30 minutes. The old lock is still there, but no longer in use.


Power production remains the primary purpose of Bonneville Dam. It is part of the series of dams that produce almost 60% of power for the Pacific Northwest and part of California.

The dam is essential for the commercial sector allowing goods to travel 465 miles inland as far as Lewiston, Idaho. Additionally, Bonneville Dam is a popular recreation site. It has three recreation areas, the oldest fish hatchery in Oregon, and trails. Lake Bonneville offers fishing, boating, swimming, and windsurfing opportunities. The powerhouse was previously open to the public, but after the events of 9/11, the access was limited to several guided tours per day.

Construction of Bonneville Dam created a number of environmental issues, including blocked fish migration routes. To address this, the Corps’ engineers and environmental scientists designed fish ladders simulating waterfalls and pools of natural streams. That helps shad,  salmon, and steelhead get past the dam on their journey upstream to spawn.


Points of Interest

  • Bonneville Dam
  • Visitor centers (Navigation Lock, Powerhouses)
  • Fish hatchery and fishing ladders
  • Counting station
  • Fort Cascades Historic Site and Trail
  • Gift shop

Things to Do

Wildlife watching, fishing, boating, picnicking, hiking.

Operation Hours

Bradford Island Visitor Center - daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. with guided tours of Powerhouse (OR) at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. from June to September.

Bradford Island Recreation Area - daily 7 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Navigation Lock Visitor Area - daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day, 1 p.m. - 4 p.m.

Robins Island Recreation Area - daily 7 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Washington Shore Visitor Complex - daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. with guided tours Powerhouse (WA) at 10 a.m., 1.30 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. from June to September.

US Army Corps of Engineers

Address: Bonneville Lock and Dam, Cascade Locks, OR

Directions: I-84 East, Exit 40

(541) 374-8820 (Oregon)
(509) 427-4281 (Washington)

Nearby Points of Interest

Multnomah FallsNo wonder that Multnomah Falls is one of the most visited natural recreation sites in Oregon. The place offers magnificent views, interesting hiking trails, and a peek into the exciting geological history of the region...

Mount HoodThe highest mountain in Oregon and the 4th highest in the Cascade Range, Mount Hood is located about 50 miles (80 km) east of the Portland metropolitan area...

Cascade LocksCascade Locks is located 40 miles east of Portland, in the middle of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Despite the name, there are no operational locks in the town today....

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