The Historic Columbia River Highway

ACROSS OUR STATE by Jerri Honeyford

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Jerri Honeyford

Because of snow and avalanche control, the east-west passes are shut down as I write today. We are accustomed to coming and going in our own time frame, so this has been an inconvenience for many. I hope all the 4-H “Know Your Government” students and leaders arrived home safely after their weekend meeting in Olympia. They were truly a great group of high-schoolers.

I’ve written before of the hardships of travel in earlier times—of the hardy pioneers who came to the Northwest over the Oregon Trail; of the treacherous journeys by land and by water for the delegates to our state’s constitutional convention; of the hard-working men who built the railroads to move goods and people; and of the Good Roads Movement. Today’s article is about one special road, the Columbia River Highway.

It’s hard for me to imagine cart paths as an effective means of travel, but that’s what there was at the turn of the century. There was little trade in the interior of the Northwest unless it was close to a railroad or a dock.

The Washington State Good Roads Association was formed in 1899 by a few men spearheaded by Sam Hill who served as its president until 1910. Hill lobbied the Congress for years for a highway system both to get goods to market and mail to homes. Finally he turned to the State to accomplish his dream. In 1907 Sam persuaded the University of Washington regents to establish the first in the nation chair of highway engineering.

Sam Hill was doing his own highway engineering in his planned town of Maryhill. He set up a rock crusher and brought in horses, wagons, rock rollers and screens to experiment with the best hard surface. Heavy oil was shipped to the Maryhill dock from California. He put different mixtures of rock and hot oil (asphalt) on seven 10-mile sections on the north side of the Columbia River, part of them on what we know as the Maryhill Loops which were used until 1948.

Because of the difficulty of the terrain and the cost of the roadway, Governor Lister and the legislature refused to fund the rest of the highway although Hill had completed it from the top of the hill at Goldendale almost to Lyle. So Sam turned his attention to Oregon.

Early in 1913 the entire Oregon legislature was invited to Maryhill, Sam’s home above the Columbia. They met in Portland and traveled in a special train, complete with food and drink. They examined the roadway Hill had built and watched his glass slides of the Columbia River scenery. It wasn’t long before Sam had not only the money for the Columbia River Highway, but also for Oregon’s part of the Pacific Highway, Hill’s visionary plan was to unite Canada and Mexico along the Pacific Coast.

The two-lane road along the Columbia was built in just two years, a short period of time considering the terrain difficulties and the lack of road-building equipment. Samuel Lancaster was named consulting engineer in August 1913. Herbert Nunn was asked to begin surveying the roadway immediately and construction was begun in October. The 17 arched bridges and viaducts were built of reinforced concrete, the retaining walls of dry masonry. Just east of Multnomah Falls there was no room between the water, the cliffs, and the railroad to build a road, so an 860-foot viaduct was built which tourists still drive over today.

One of the more beautiful places in the world is Crown Point, the highest point of the highway at 725 feet above the river. The Vista House there is a rest stop designed by Edgar Lazarus and on the National Register of Historic Places. The view is breathtaking and the building is very beautiful as well.

From Crown Point there was a drop of 600 feet to the bottom of the hill. Engineer Lancaster designed a series of figure 8’s to wind through the Cascade forest in a gentle drop with wide curves. It is a favorite road for bicyclists today.

The final section of road from Portland to The Dalles to be completed was the tunnel at Mitchell Point, just east of Hood River. The 390-foot tunnel with five “windows” through the rock wall was finished in November 1915. The Mitchell tunnel is now closed, but most of the rest of Hill’s highway that wasn’t enlarged in the 1949 building of a larger, faster I-84 is still open.

  • Jerri Honeyford, wife of Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her “Across our State” column while the couple is in Olympia during legislative sessions.

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