For a long time, Hells Canyon was in the record books as the deepest and narrowest river gorge in North America. The Snake River flows north through the canyon and forms the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. The canyon walls are as high as 7900 feet in places, with the average depth about 5500 feet. The canyon didn't get its name from the depth of the canyon walls, however. It had more to do with the wild journey the river afforded a boat.
In the 1880s, copper and gold were discovered in the Seven Devils Mining District, on the Idaho side of Snake River. The ore was high in the mountains, the terrain rugged, the climate harsh. A man named Albert Kleinschmidt thought these problems could be managed if he could haul the ore somehow down to the river. He could load a boat and sail it to the nearest railroad, which at the time was upstream at Huntington, Oregon.
First, he built a 22-mile road to get the ore down to the river. This steep road still is used (although not for hauling ore) and still known as the Kleinschmidt Grade. He arranged to have a boat built in Huntington--the "Norma," named after his daughter.
When it came time to test the boat and sail her toward the Kleinschmidt Grade, the pilot found the rapids more than rough going, which isn't surprising considering the river loses about ten feet in elevation every mile. The legend has it that the boat pilot's name was Haller. Either from what Haller said as he tried to steer the boat, or because of inaccurate repetition of his name in the phrase "Haller's Canyon," this stretch of river is known as Hells Canyon.
Sadly, later research revealed the names of the "Norma" crew. The pilot's name was Gray, and no Haller was aboard. Another legend bit the dust when someone discovered that a river gorge somewhere in California is deeper than Hells Canyon. Sadly, it lacks a memorable name.
During the 1950s the U.S. Department of the Interior planned to build a very high dam on Snake River which would have flooded Hells Canyon and created a reservoir 93 miles long. It was part of a plan to supply hydroelectric power and irrigation throughout the Columbia River Basin. However, the Idaho Power Company, a private company, had a different plan to build three "low" dams and market the power commercially.
The struggle between the government and the Idaho Power Company became a bitterly divisive national issue pitting "public power" against "private power." The whole country took sides. The hearing transcript of one Federal Power Commission hearing is 19,215 pages long. An observer at the time remarked that the issue might not have risen to such a pitch or been given so much publicity "if the canyon were named `Smith's Canyon,' `White Canyon,' or `Joe's Canyon.'"
In the end, Idaho Power won the struggle and built its three dams in the Snake River: Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon. The dams flooded a good part of Hells Canyon, but below Hells Canyon Dam, which was completed in October 1967, is a stretch of free-flowing (although regulated) river.
More power dam sites were proposed downstream, but the 1970s environmental movement took hold, concerned about the fate of ocean-going salmon confronted by another dam. In 1975 Congress created the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and a Hells Canyon Wilderness within it. Parts of Snake River were designated as wild or scenic. Which indeed they always have been and still are.