A Transportation Barrier
The Columbia River Gorge, with its beautiful but rugged terrain, had been a difficult transportation corridor for early travelers and settlers heading west to the Willamette Valley. A primitive wagon road was cut through the Gorge in the 1850s, but was effectively destroyed when railroad tracks were laid in the 1880s.
But railroad tycoon Sam Hill and engineer Sam Lancaster toured the scenic highways of Europe, and formed a vision of creating a similar route through the Gorge.
Making the Vision a Reality
Hill asked Lancaster to construct an experimental roadway at Hill's Maryhill Estate, on the Washington side of the Columbia. This roadway was used to demonstrate what could be accomplished through careful engineering. State and county officials, as well as private entrepreneurs, were impressed enough to provide support and backing to begin the grand project.
Constructing a Highway
Sam Lancaster was determined to maximize the scenic effect of the highway by charting the alignment close to as many of the Gorge's signature waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes as possible. Much of the work on the CRH was done by hand, and with horse-drawn wagons and equipment. Some larger equipment was also used, including steam shovels and early dump trucks. While Lancaster served as the consulting engineer, surveying and overseeing the construction in Multnomah County, a former student of his, John Arthur Elliot, was hired to do the same in Hood River and Wasco Counties. One of the challenges he faced in Hood River was to site a tunnel in order to eliminate steep grades in the area of Mitchell Point. The result was the multi-windowed Mitchell Point Tunnel, based on the Axenstrasse tunnel in Switzerland. He discussed the logistics of planning the tunnel in his 1914 report. Elliot also designed the Mosier Twin Tunnels in Wasco County.
Skilled Italian stonemasons were hired to create many of the stunning rock walls, bridges and barriers found throughout the length of the highway.
The Columbia River Highway was dedicated on June 7, 1916, and was considered to be the first scenic highway in the United States. Lancaster's engineering standards had resulted in five percent grades, and curves with a minimum of 24-foot widths and 100 foot radiuses. This allowed for safe, easy travel as visitors flocked to take in the beauty of the Gorge.
As automobiles evolved, and traffic volumes and speeds increased, the Columbia River Highway became impractical and obsolete. Large portions fell into disuse following the construction of the lower water-level highway. However, efforts to restore the highway in recent years have opened most of the original route, either as roadways or as bicycle and pedestrian trails.
Friend, E. M., & Hardham, J. (2016). King of roads. The Dalles, OR: Wasco County Historical Museum Press.
Mershon, C. E. (2006). The Columbia River Highway: from the sea to the wheat fields of eastern Oregon. Portland, OR: Guardian Peaks Enterprises.
State of Oregon, Office of State Highway Engineer (1914). First Annual Report of the Highway Engineer, Salem, OR: State Printing Department.
Historic Columbia River Highway: one hundred years of the poem in stone, from the Oregon State Archives
A Poem in Stone: Celebrating the Historic Columbia River Highway, from the Oregon State Library
Historic Columbia River Highway