The earliest occupants of this part of Washington State were several small tribes that collectively came to be known as Cascades Indians. In 1806, Lewis and Clark camped below the Columbia Cascades at Tanner Creek on the Oregon side of the river and noted in their journals that a small group of Indians inhabited the north shore of the river below the cascades. They identified these people as the Claheleller band of the Shahalar Nation.
In 1848 Fort Gilliam was built by the Hudson Bay Company on the north side of the river as a storage depot for company trappers and traders portaging around the cascades. In 1855 Forts Cascades and Rains were constructed by the United States Army also on the Washington side of the river. Their purpose was to support and protect travelers portaging around the lower cascades.
In March 1856, Fort Cascades was attacked by a large group of Indians and the occupants took refuge at Fort Rains further upstream at the upper end of the cascades. Deserted, Fort Cascades was burned to the ground by the Indians. Lieutenant Philip Sheridan leading a cavalry unit arrived the next day, rescued the settlers, and forced the Indians to surrender. General Winfield Scott commended Sheridan for gallant conduct in the engagement.
Fort Cascades was rebuilt and Fort Lugenbeel was added to the defense of the area. (Captain Pinckney Lugenbeel had been involved in the defense of Fort Cascades.) The military also improved a 95 mile long road from Fort Vancouver to Fort Dalles that passed through Fort Cascades. In 1861, Fort Cascades was abandoned, but the small town of Lower Cascades remained until 1894 when it and the abandoned fort were obliterated in the largest flood ever recorded on the Columbia River.
During the last half of the nineteenth century several different means were used to portage supplies around the cascades. The trail into the site from the parking area follows the original military foot path. Traces of the subsequent military road are evident as are the rails for the tramway that was used in the latter part of the century. The grave of Thomas McNatt is all that is left of the community. He and his wife had crossed the Great Plains in 1853 and they settled in Lower Cascades in 1858 where they built a hotel. Thomas died in 1861.