Columbia River Highway

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By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River Highway (CRH) is a familiar route providing access to the many attractions of the Columbia River Gorge, including majestic Multnomah Falls, Crown Point, and some of the most picturesque hiking in the country.

Have you ever wondered how this marvel of engineering came about? It all traces back to Henry Ford’s invention of the Model T and America’s love of the automobile. The revolution in transportation created by the automobile also sparked in Americans a voracious appetite for exploration, which prior to the advent of the automobile had simply been unfeasible. Hand-in-hand with the rise of automobiles in society came the demand for good roads by which to travel. The spectacular natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge was well known to many, yet access to this breathtaking region of the country was woefully limited, consisting primarily of the dirt roads established by early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

In response to the demand for new and better roads, Oregon formed the State Highway Commission in 1913 to coordinate the construction of a system of roads throughout the state. Spearheading the effort to build a highway through the Columbia River Gorge was Samuel Hill, an entrepreneur with dreams of a scenic east-west byway that would not only provide a safe and efficient route through the gorge to Portland, but also showcase the unique beauty of the area along the way. Sharing Hill’s vision was Samuel C. Lancaster; a friend of Hill’s, a talented engineer, and landscape architect by trade, who had served as a consultant for Seattle’s Olmstead Boulevard System in preparation for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition.

In 1908, the two men had traveled to Europe for the first International Road Congress at which Hill represented the state of Washington. Hill was inspired by Switzerland’s Axenstrasse, a road built along the shores of Lake Lucerne in 1865 that featured a windowed tunnel, leading him to envision a similar such highway in the Columbia River Gorge. As an experiment, Hill (with Lancaster’s assistance) constructed on the Washington side of the river in an area which became known as the Maryhill Loops Road, which snaked up from the river through the Columbia Hills to his planned utopian Quaker community at Maryhill. The Maryhill Loops Road was the first asphalt road in the state of Washington. When Washington State refused to approve Hill’s project, undeterred he crossed the river to Oregon and convinced the newly formed State Highway Commission to back his project. Having secured the funding and authorization for the ambitious undertaking, Hill turned to his partner, Lancaster, to design and construct the actual highway.

Lancaster began surveying the project near the Chanticleer Inn (today’s Crown Point), in the area of Larch Mountain, where the existing Multnomah County roads began scaling the hills of the gorge. He continued eastward to the Hood River County line, just west of Cascade Locks. Utilizing the most advanced building methods at the time, the engineers routed the highway past the most picturesque waterfalls and river vistas, creating what Hill and Lancaster felt was an artful integration of both human ingenuity and nature. So passionate was Lancaster about the new highway that he asserted, “If the road be completed according to plans, it will rival if not surpass anything to be found in the civilized world.” While Lancaster’s enthusiasm was a bit melodramatic, the new road was indeed a marvel of early 20th century highway design. The project also drew support from notable members of Portland’s business elite, including the retired lumber baron, Simon Benson (of the Benson Hotel), who purchased numerous scenic spots along the highway’s path including Multnomah Falls and donated them back to the state for future preservation. Lumberman John B. Yeon (like Yeon Avenue in Portland), as Multnomah County Roadmaster, oversaw construction of the project which was funded by both federal highway funds and Oregon fuel-tax proceeds. Yeon also managed construction of the Vista House at Crown Point in 1918. Constructed from 1913 to 1922, the CRH was touted as the “King of Roads” by Lancaster upon its completion.

By the 1930s, the popularity of the highway had outgrown its capacity to bear the increase in traffic. Engineers were forced to bypass much of the old highway with a new highway at water-level, which was completed in 1953 and extended all the way to The Dalles. Fortunately, the western section of the old highway was preserved—from the Sandy River to Ainsworth—in order to allow access to the waterfalls, hiking trails, and scenic vistas. By 1970, the new highway included two additional lanes, interchanges, and had evolved into a modern freeway originally designated as 80N but was later renamed Interstate 84.

During the 1980s, local, state, and federal agencies, as well as concerned citizens, came together to initiate a study on how best to preserve and maintain the CRH. By 1983, the old highway, along with all the supporting landscapes and designed features, were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Oregon Department of Transportation took on responsibility for both the preservation and restoration of the highway’s historic features, as well as performing maintenance and repair on the drivable sections of road still in use. Certain sections of the highway that had been abandoned were reopened for pedestrian and bicycle use, and renamed as the historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

In 1999, the CRH was designated a National Scenic Byway and All American Road. In 2000, the CRH received its highest honor when selected as a National Historic Landmark. This distinguished designation by the National Parks Service recognized Lancaster’s design as epitomizing its ideal of “Lying lightly on the land,” a standard it strives to uphold for all national park trails and roads, now and in the future. Today, the Columbia River Highway still delights visitors with its thundering waterfalls, pristine forested glens, and panoramic vistas of the mighty Columbia River.