The road is surrounded by green. Bright moss covers the trees, the forest floor, the rocks. Even the cement itself has an emerald hue – as subtle as it may be. It all fuses together perfectly, creating a beautiful viridescent tunnel twisting alongside the water. The drive was short, no longer than a couple hours. However, the allure of the thruway was fascinating and unforgettable.
The Historic Columbia River Highway has been around for over 100 years. Work began in 1913, and it was completed in 1922. Championed by entrepreneur Samuel Hill and engineer Samuel C. Lancaster, the highway stretches close to 75 miles through the Columbia River Gorge (only about 40 miles are open to vehicles). It wasn’t just a means of getting from one place to another – although it did serve that purpose. The highway was created to show people the stunning beauty of the region, and allow them to more easily experience it. Today, there are many scenic drives across the country, but at that time, the concept of a roadway for tourist use was a bit foreign.
Creation of a Landmark
When I visited the Historic Columbia River Highway, it was clear a lot of thought had been put into its construction. The goal was to build a solid roadway while simultaneously preserving the scenery around it, or as Lancaster said “so as not to mar what God had put there.” As we cruised down the road, the pavement seemed like it was part of the landscape. It wasn’t invasive to the natural beauty, but somehow enhanced it. Every notable site was mere steps from our car, and that was all part of the design.
A unique project and a true feat of engineering, the highway was created by first selecting the “beauty spots,” as Lancaster called them, along the river, and constructing the road around them. The roadbed was roughly 18 feet wide and featured no grade that exceeded five percent. (Now, I’m not a civil engineer, so the reasoning for this is unclear to me.) There was a sophisticated drainage system to help carry rainwater off the road, and a number of retaining walls to keep the highway from toppling down the hill.
This was the very first planned scenic roadway in America. The calculations play a vital role in its creation and highlight the effort, time and dedication that went into building it. Not to mention, many of the engineered solutions added to the overall aesthetics.
Decorative concrete bridges dot the road, spanning rivers, waterfalls and creeks; giving visitors stunning views of these scenic features. Partial arched viaducts line pieces of the highway, aligning it against unstable cliff sides and offering protected glimpses of the river.
As the highway materialized, so did the need for traveler resources. The Vista House, erected at the top of Crown Point, acted as a rest stop for travelers and as a memorial to the Oregon pioneers. The structure was inspired by the builders of the thoroughfare, combining nature’s beauty and mankind’s architectural excellence. The vantage point 733 feet above the river gives visitors a spectacular panoramic view of the valley. Staring out at the blue and green landscape, it’s easy to understand the vision of preservation, and the harmony between nature and development.
A Gateway to Oregon’s Waterfalls
Dozens of streams fed by the melting snow of Mount Hood trickle down the mountainside and cascade into the gorge, working their way to the Columbia River. One of Lancaster’s main goals with the road was getting travelers to this large concentration of waterfalls. He viewed each one a special point of interest. As a result, the highway runs right past most of these stunning natural wonders, putting visitors a few feet or a quick hike away from the powerful falls.
Multnomah Falls is the most famous, and quite possibly the most photographed of all the waterfalls along the highway. The water drops in two steps, splitting it into an upper and lower portion. The 45-foot Benson Footbridge crosses over the top of the lower portion, allowing visitors a different viewpoint of both sections, as well as access to trails that can lead up to the top of the falls.
The rainy weather and recent snowfall resulted in the bridge being closed when we visited, but we still managed to snag some gorgeous photos of the falls. I reason that being able to cross it, is another excuse to return to Oregon. Further down the road in either direction, we stumbled upon more jewels of the gorge: Horsetail Falls, with water that drops just so that it resembles a horses tail; Wahkeena Falls, a tiered masterpiece whose name means “most beautiful”; and Latourell Falls, unique in the way it plunges straight down from a hanging basalt cliff. Granted more time, we could have ventured along one of the many hiking trails that lead further into the gorge to discover even more stunning falls. If you do have the chance to do this, I highly recommend it.
Remnants of the Original
Over the years, the highway has transformed. Within a few years of its completion, the high volume of cars and trucks using the road were causing wear, and it had succumb to early aging. Demand for a fast route between Portland and surrounding towns outweighed the desire for a leisurely drive through the cliff sides. As society changed and culture evolved, portions of the highway were abandoned or sacrificed for new routes that were more modern and could handle heavier traffic.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that people began asking for drive able portions of the road to be restored to their glory days of the 1920s. Many of the current route has been restored, but pieces of the past are still sporadically strewn about. The Oneonta Tunnel was one of four originals on the Columbia River Highway. Due to concerns of weakened walls and potential collapse, it fell victim to a re-route of the highway, which took the road around the tunnel rather than through it. The tunnel lay dormant, unused for nearly 60 years before it was opened again as a pedestrian walkway.
Hundreds of thousands of names are scribbled on the wooden walls of the tunnel, an attempt to leave a small mark on history, a proud claim of “I was here.” The true legacy, however, sits amid the green tinted road, elegant bridges and breathtaking emerald scenery. The highway’s purpose was to bring people here, to this mystical place along the Columbia River. With every signature there’s a thank you for the people who made it all possible.