ODOT at 100: The King of Roads Becomes the King of Trails
ODOT began life (or at least its first incarnation) in 1913 as the Oregon State Highway Department. A century later, much has changed—from the agency’s name and focus to the way it does business. But many things—particularly ODOT’s pioneering spirit— remain the same. Over the course of the next year we will be featuring stories from the history of the agency, with a focus on those that show how far we’ve come and that point the direction for the state’s transportation future.
We start this series with a story about the “King of Roads.” Designed by Samuel Lancaster under the watchful eye of good roads advocate Sam Hill, the Columbia River Highway was the nation’s first scenic highway, offering travelers unparalleled views of the magnificent Columbia Gorge.
The creation of the Oregon State Highway Department is inextricably linked to the birth of the Columbia River Highway. In February 1913, state lawmakers created the Oregon State Highway Department after a visit to Sam Hill’s ranch in Maryhill, Washington, where they saw firsthand experimental roads that Hill and his engineer, Samuel Lancaster, had constructed to show what the future held for road building. The statewide comprehensive road plan that lawmakers crafted in 1913 also included a Columbia River highway.
Work began on the highway in 1913 and was completed in 1922. However, significant portions of the original highway were destroyed when Interstate 84 was built, and the remaining segments became disconnected. Some remained drivable; others were abandoned and fell into disrepair.
Communities along the trail see the benefits of people coming from across the nation and around the world to experience the Gorge on bike and on foot. Travel Oregon has produced a video of the Historic Columbia River Highway that discusses the economic benefits of the project and showcases the history and natural beauty of the highway and the trail.