Location: In Oregon between Troutdale and The Dalles
One of the most fun mornings we have ever spent on the Lewis & Clark trail was hiking a restored portion of the old Columbia Gorge Highway. This is a wonderful way to take in one of the most visually stunning sections to be found on the entire trail — or anyplace else, for that matter.
Throughout the 19th century, the Columbia River and its famous, spectacular gorge (an 85-mile-long stretch of rapids and wild sheer cliffs) posed a mighty challenge to explorers and pioneers heading for the Oregon country. Fur trappers and missionaries who following the wake of Lewis & Clark could travel pretty lightly, braving the current and the treacherous Cascades. But settlers bringing all the accoutrements of civilization on heavy, awkward Conestoga wagons faced a desperate challenge. Until railroad engineers overcame the incredible technological challenges of the land, settlers were forced to leave the Oregon Trail, disassemble their wagons, and take to the roaring waters in an expensive and perilous ordeal. (Beginning in 1846, the other–and almost equally harrowing– choice was to take the Barlow Road blazed around the south side of Mount Hood.)
By the early 20th century, a new technology called the automobile was causing engineers to take another look at road building in the Columbia Gorge. The pioneer in this arena was Sam Hill, a wealthy retired railroad attorney who had become the most prominent advocate of “Good Roads” in both Washington and Oregon. Hill had traveled extensively in Europe and seen the amazing scenic highways that were being constructed through the Alps and the Rhine River Valle. In 1913, Hill managed to persuade the state of Oregon to create a state highway department and undertake a project to build a state-of-the-art road that would rival any scenic highway in the world.
Hired to oversee the project was Samuel Lancaster, one of the engineers of Seattle’s beautiful system of streets that linked naturalistic boulevards with parks and playgrounds throughout the city. Together Hill and Lancaster conceived a utopian vision of a highway that would provide not merely a means to jump in the Model T and zip from point A to point B. They aimed for nothing less than a poetic uplift of the soul.
Lancaster began surveying and designing the highway in 1913. Using wide, graceful curves, he was able to engineer a highway with a maximum grade of 5% (compared with grades as steep as 20% in the dirt roads that ran through the area). Beautiful bridges and tunnels would not merely cross rivers and allow passage through the mountains: they would inspire as works of art. Construction began in 1915, and the first sections opened the following year in a ceremony that coincided with the famous Portland Rose Festival. President Woodrow Wilson raised the flag over the new highway by pushing a button from the White House. The early reviews were international, and ecstatic. The Illustrated London News dubbed Hill and Lancaster’s vision “The King of Roads.”
Construction was completed in 1922, a true marvel of beauty and engineeering. It was also obsolete. Hill and Lancaster had not anticipated the explosive growth in the number of automobiles on the road. From 48,000 cars in the United States in 1905, the numbers had grown to 2.4 million by 1915 and 7.5 million by 1920. And these motorists were not out for a pleasure drive, or to have their souls uplifted. As it turned out, they really did just want to get from point A to point B, and they didn’t want to tool along a curvy, scenic, artistic, two-lane highway with no passing to do it.
Hill and Lancaster also did not forsee changes in the automobile itself. Under ideal conditions, a Model T Ford traveled at a maxium speed of 45 miles per hour, and usually much less. The Model A, introduced in 1927, could travel up to 65 miles per hour, and was larger, wider, and heavier than the Model T. Travel on the Columbia Gorge Highway became a time-consuming hassle for drivers, and by the 1930s the highway had already begun to fall into disuse. In addition, many of the most breathtaking scenic features were lost when Bonneville Dam submerged the famous river rapids. By the 1960s, much of the Columbia River Highway had been paved over, abandoned, forgotten, or destroyed.
But the world turns. In the 1980s, the state of Oregon began restoration of several surviving sections of the highway as a hike and bike trail into what is still one of nature’s most thrilling marvels. Since the 1990s, this work has resulted in the opening of two large sections of the highway for pedestrian and bike traffic and the restoration of many of Hill and Lancaster’s classic features. More work is planned to open more sections of the trail for recreation, to restore more features, and to maintain the highway in good condition for its centennial in 1916.
I would love to return here and spend more time!