4. History‎ > ‎

100.140 Columbia River Highway

CS1. Structure: Columbia River Highway HAER No. OR-36
Location: Troutdale to The Dalles, HMP 14.2 to 88.0 
Date: 1913-22
Designer: Samuel C. Lancaster, J. A. Elliott, Roy A Klein
Owner: Oregon Department of Transportation

Progress, in the early years of this century, was not only a process, but a goal in its own right, inextricably linked with the expansion of industry, urbanization, and, especially -- the improvement of transportation.  The flying machine was still in its infancy, riverboats had long since passed their prime, and the railroad had become a sedate and predictable resident of the countryside.  But that precocious adolescent -- the Tin Lizzie -- had sprung full formed from the factory of Henry Ford and was recklessly transfiguring the American Landscape.  Like any teenager, it wanted to go places -- and it needed a way to get there.  (Reddick vii)

"To bring Oregon into the Automobile Age would indeed require some radical changes in those primitive political and economic conditions still common to the West."  (Reddick vii)

In 1911, the Oregon's legislature mandated that the state's mineral resources be inventoried, and the Oregon Bureau of Mines and Geology was established and placed under the auspices of the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University).  In addition to investigating and reporting on the mineral resources of the state, the Bureau would cooperate with other state agencies in road surveys.  During it's early years, the Bureau produced a number of bulletins, including reports on building stone in Oregon, mineral resources in several counties, and even reports on possible oil and gas reserves in Oregon.  The first bulletin published by the agency was entitled Road Materials in the Willamette Valley. (Reddick viii)

"A fine paved highway was being built up the south side of the Columbia from Portland and almost immediately it became the most talked about piece of road in the Northwest," wrote Stewart Holbrook.  (Holbrook, qtd. in Durbin 18)

On September 24, 1913, the Board of County Commissioners of Multnomah County passed the following resolution:

"Ordered—That the following resolution be adopted by the Board of County Commissioners: —

"Resolved—-That the Oregon State Highway Commission be requested to take charge of the surveys, locations and all necessary preliminary work for the construction of the Columbia Highway lying in Multnomah County, and that the Oregon State Highway Commission be authorized to draw on the fund of $75,000.00 set aside for the construction of the road known as the Columbia Highway for such work, subject to the further orders of this Board.

"Board of County Commissioners,
"By RUFUS C. HOLMAN, Chairman,
"D. V. HART, County Commissioner."

On September 25, 1913, the State Highway Commission passed the following resolution: —

"Whereas, the Oregon State Highway Commission has received a petition from the Board of County Commissioners of Multnomah County bearing date of the 24th day of September, 1913, adopted under provisions of Sec. 4, Chap. 339, Oregon Laws of 1913, requesting that the Oregon State Highway Commission take charge of the surveys, location and all preliminary work for the construction of the Columbia Highway lying in Multonomah County, and

"Whereas the said Board of County Commissioners of Multnomah
County have agreed to pay for the survey, location and all necessary preliminary work for the construction of the Columbia Highway, therefore

"Be it Resolved, by the Oregon State Highway Commission, that the State Highway Engineer is hereby directed to aid the Board of County
Commissioners of Multnomah County by taking charge of and completing
the surveys, location and all preliminary work for the construction of the
said Columbia Highway in Multnomah County.

"Adopted at Salem, Oregon, this 25th day of September, 1913.
"OSWALD WEST, Chairman,
"BEN W. OLCOTT,
"THOS. B. KAY."

(Bowlby, 1914,  46)

The CRH, however, is significant for more than engineering. John Yeon, a successful
lumberman and later “Roadmaster” of its construction, simply saw this highway as “the greatest
single asset not only in Oregon, but in the West.” Phil Townsend Hanna, editor of the Los
Angeles-based Western Highways Builder, wrote that “The hardy and honest people of Oregon
have built the greatest highway in the world . . . no matter from what angle you consider it, as a
transportation artery, as a scenic boulevard, or as an engineering feat.” United States President
Theodore Roosevelt believed that in the CRH, Oregon “had the most remarkable road
engineering in the United States, which for scenic grandeur is not equaled anywhere.” During a
drive over the CRH in 1915, Major General George Washington Goethals, builder of the Panama
Canal, said that the highway “is splendid engineering, and absolutely without equal in America
for scenic interest.” John Arthur Elliott, a locating engineer on the CRH, eloquently summed up
the entire rationale for the route’s alignment and construction. He wrote,

The ideals sought [for the Columbia River Highway] were not the usual economic
features and considerations given the location of a trunk highway. Grades, curvature,
distance and even expense were sacrificed to reach some scenic vista or to develop a
particularly interesting point. All the natural beauty spots were fixed as control points
and the location adjusted to include them. Although the highway would have a
commercial value in connecting the Coast country with the eastern areas, no
consideration was given the commercial over scenic requirements. The one prevailing
idea in the location and construction was to make this highway a great scenic boulevard
surpassing all other highways of the world.3

“There is but one Columbia River Gorge [that] God put into this comparatively short space,”
Samuel C. Lancaster wrote, “[with] so many beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain
domes.” “Men from all climes,” he believed “will wonder at its wild grandure [sic] when once it
is made accessable [sic] by this great highway.” But, in addition, Lancaster, Hill, and several
local promoters sought to create a route that employed the most advanced techniques available
for road construction. In reflecting on the work’s progress, Lancaster acknowledged that
because of the country’s rugged nature, with its wind and rain and winter weather, construction
had been “slow and tedious and somewhat more expensive than ordinary work.” But he saw it as 
an extremely worthwhile task, “for if the road is completed according to plans, it will rival if not
surpass anything to be found in the civilized world.” It will be the “King of Roads.”4

3Yeon also considered Hanna’s comments as very significant because “the people of California are loth to
concede superiority in road matters to any place.” Hanna is quoted in J. B. Yeon to Honorable Board of County
Commissioners, Multnomah County, 27 April 1921, in folder 01/002—“Columbia River Highway—J. B. Yeon’s
Resignation . . . ,” Clerk of the Board Road Files, Multnomah County Archives, Portland, Oregon; M. C. George,
The Columbia Highway through the Gorge of the Cascades from Portland to the Dalles (Portland: James, Kerns and
Abbott Co. [1923]), 6; Goethals is quoted both in M. C. George and in Lancaster, The Columbia: America’s Great
Highway through the Cascade Mountains to the Sea, 2d. ed. (Portland, 1916), 134; John Arthur Elliott, “The
Location and Construction of the Mitchell Point Section of the Columbia River Highway, Oregon” (C.E. thesis,
University of Washington, 1929), 2-3; Linda Flint McClelland believed that the CRH established the state of the art
for building scenic roads in mountainous areas. See her volume, Presenting Nature: The Historic Landscape Design
of the National Park Service, 1916 to 1942 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993), 103.

4Samuel C. Lancaster to Amos S. Benson, 7 February 1914, folder “Multnomah County, 1914,” box 4, RG
76A-90, Oregon State Archives, Salem; Samuel Christopher Lancaster, Romance of the Gateway through the
Cascade Range (Portland: J. K. Gill Company [1929]), 23.

Hadlow, Landmark Nomination, 46-47

The Columbia River Highway, modeled on the Axenstrasse Tunnel in the Swiss Alps, would offer the first access by paved road to Oregon's gorge waterfall zone and the country beyond.  It would launch the campaign to protect Columbia Gorge landscapes from heedless development.  (Durbin 18)

This great mountain range one mile and more in height has always 
been a barrier until now to wagon traffic. The earlier settlers used a 
trail and portage, or else crossed the range south of Mount Hood on the 
old Barlow trail. They scrambled up the east side of the mountains as 
best they could and on reaching the summit cut down a tree and tied it 
on behind the wagon to serve as a brake to hold them back when they 
slid down the western slopes.

The steamboats and the railroad improved these conditions, but the 
last barrier has now been removed and both wagons and automobiles can 
pass through this great mountain range practically at sea level with as 
much comfort as when driving on a city street. 
 (Lancaster 1914, 58)

The CRH, and its associated designed landscape, was a technical and civic achievement of its
time, successfully mixing sensitivity to the magnificent landscape with ambitious engineering.
In the CRH, Lancaster emulated the European style carriage roads in the Columbia River Gorge,
while also designing and constructing a highway to advanced engineering standards.
Throughout the route, Lancaster and subsequent locating engineers held fast to a design protocol
that he developed after years of practical engineering experience and experimentation. It
included accepting no grade greater than 5 percent, nor laying out a curve with less than a 200-
foot turning radius. The use of reinforced-concrete bridges, combined with masonry guard walls
and retaining walls, both on the road and on associated pedestrian trails, brought together the
new with the old—the most advanced highway structures with the tried and tested, and all made
by hand.1

1Lancaster’s design protocol included the exception that he would include curve radii of 100 feet in
roadway designs. For each 50-foot reduction in curve radii, however, he dropped the grade by 1 percent. See Henry
L. Bowlby, “The Columbia Highway in Oregon,” special edition of Contracting, entitled “Columbia River
Highway,” 1. Dwight A. Smith, “Columbia River Highway Historic District: Nomination of the Old Columbia
River Highway in the Columbia Gorge to the National Register of Historic Places, Multnomah, Hood River, and
Wasco Counties, Oregon” (Salem, OR: Oregon Department of Transportation, Highway Division, Technical
Services Branch, Environmental Section, 1984), 3; Henry L. Bowlby, “The Columbia Highway in Oregon,”
Engineering News 73, no. 2 (14 January 1915): 62. See also, Rufus Holman’s quote in, “Highway Up Gorge Sam
Hill’s Dream,” Portland Oregonian, 24 April 1932, s. 1, p. 16.

Hadlow, Landmark Nomination, 45

In the year A. D. 1915, great progress was made on the Pacific Coast of North America. No event was of greater importance than the construction of the Columbia River Highway in the State of Oregon. The last barrier between the "Inland Empire" and the Pacific Ocean has been removed. A broad thoroughfare almost two hundred miles in length now passes through two mountain ranges. All grades are easy, the maximum being five per cent. The curves are graceful; the shortest radius is one hundred feet, and there is always a good sight ahead. The road is everywhere twenty-four feet in width. Beautiful concrete bridges and strong protection railings make is safe and comfortable. 

Samuel C. Lancaster. The Columbia: America's Great Highway. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1915. Reprinted 2004.


On 6 July 1915, the highway was officially opened to traffic in time for San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition.  But the dedication was planned for a year later -- when paving was completed -- and timed to coincide with the annual Portland Rose Festival.  (Reddick ix)


The Columbia: America's Great Highway Through the Cascade Mountains to the Sea

Four-color reproduction of panoramic painting by Fred H. Routledge of Portland, Oregon. Awarded first prize Panama-Pacific Exposition, California. Copyright 1915, Samuel C. Lancaster
Samuel C. Lancaster. The Columbia: America's Great Highway. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 1915. Reprinted 2004.

On June 7, 1916, Portland society was treated to two ceremonies.  Multnomah Falls was the scene of an elaborate and idealized pageant commemorating the history and love of the Columbia Gorge and dedicating the highway itself.  Late in the afternoon, a ground-breaking and dedication ceremony was held at the inspirational Vista House site on Crown Point, high above the river.  Here Lancaster and most of the other promoters and politicians gave short addresses, congratulating each other on their generous services.  Rose petals and loganberry juice (Oregon's "temperance" beverage) were scattered freely over the site by festival royalty.  Then, at 5 P. M., President Wilson touched an electric button in the White House which "unfurled the flag of freedom to the breezes" on Crown Point.  Cannons roared their approval 48 times, and satisfied citizens returned to Portland in their auto caravan.  (Fahl 123, qtd. in Reddick ix) 

I should interject here that the role of President Wilson in this ceremony is being questioned at this point.  Robert Hadlow from ODOT is currently researching whether or not Wilson was even in D. C. on the day of the unfurling.  (AFL, 11/21/14)

Retrospectively, it seems that the scenic highway and its grand debut belonged more to the nineteenth than the twentieth century.  ...  It was a time of promise, a time of change, and, in spite of abundant domestic worries and the pending "war to end all wars," the national economy was booming and hope for the Future lay ripe in the hands of Science, Technology, and Progress.  There were challenges, indeed, but in Oregon. there was also an abiding conviction that with hard work and an honorable goal, Americans -- particularly Oregonians -- could find a solution to any problem. (Reddick ix-x)

With the completion in 1916 of the original Columbia River Highway, motorists flocked to the Gorge to "re-create" themselves by doing a bit of driving, picnicking and camping.  The Forest Service opened America's first Forest Service campground in 1916 at Eagle Creek after commissioning the building of the Eagle Creek trail.  People flocked to it.  Soon, scattered along the length of the Scenic Highway there were picnic stops, campgrounds, roadhouses, service stations, etc, etc to entertain and serve the newly-mobile NW public.  Everyday-people tourism was born -- now people had someplace really special to drive with their new cars.  The Roaring Twenties were hopping and spirits were high in the post-WWI era.  What better way to celebrate life than to take your new jalopy on a sightseeing tour of America's most scenic highway -- the much-touted "King of Roads", the so-called "Poem in Stone" through the legendary beauty of the Columbia River Gorge!  (Cook, Gorge 238)

Sunset Magazine’s Howard O. Rogers wrote that he had seen Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon,
Pike’s Peak, and Yellowstone Park, which he marveled at and became awestruck, but after
driving the CRH through the Columbia River Gorge, in 1917, he believed that the highway was
“a grand achievement in the science of modern road-building—nothing short of a national asset.”
In 1920, the periodical Excavating Engineer, believed that the CRH “stands today as
undoubtedly the greatest monument to the road building industry in the West.” “That most
modern of roads,” was Walter Winston Crosby’s estimation of the CRH in his 1928 textbook
entitled Highway Location and Surveying.” Harriet Salt stated in her 1937 volume entitled
Mighty Engineering Feats: Clear and Concise Descriptions of Ten of the Greatest American
Engineering Feats that the CRH was “one of the world’s greatest examples of highway
engineering.”2

2Howard O. Rogers, “A Day on the Columbia Highway,” Sunset, the Pacific Monthly 38 (May 1917): 80;
“The Columbia River Highway,” Excavating Engineer 14, no. 7 (September 1920): 222; W. W. Crosby and George
E. Goodwin, Highway Location and Surveying (Chicago: Gillette Publishing Co., 1928), 115; “The Columbia River
Highway in Oregon, Good Roads, 1 January 1916, 3; Harriet Salt, Mighty Engineering Feats: Clear and Concise
Descriptions of Ten of the Greatest American Engineering Feats (Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Co., 1937),
198, see also 181-201.

Hadlow, Landmark Nomination 45 - 46



This Web tour is based on the publication, Oregon: End of the Trail, which was written and compiled by the Writers' Program of the Works Projects Administration in Oregon. The WPA, established as part of the New Deal during Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, employed many of the nation's writers and intellectuals to record the history of the country.

The Writers' Program used the talents of mostly Oregon-based academics to publish Oregon: End of the Trail in 1940. The work includes comprehensive accounts of Oregon's history, culture, and attractions. "A 1940 Journey Across Oregon" represents just one of the tours that can be found in the WPA volume. The images used to supplement the tour are mostly from the Oregon Highway Department tourism photo collection at the Oregon State Archives.

Oregon State Archives - A 1940 Journey Across Oregon:
http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/across/overview.html

US 30 in Oregon closely follows the old Oregon Trail. Lewis and Clark used boats in the Columbia to reach the coast though later travelers followed the south bank of the river to The Dalles, where they transferred.

Oregon State Archives - A 1940 Journey Across Oregon:
When the road was constructed, much of the
Gorge had recently been logged of all large trees for timber and small, riparian zone trees for
steamboat fuel. Dense ground cover and fast-growing trees soon took over the landscape. But
originally, minimal vegetation framed the beautiful vistas seen from the highway. In more recent
years, particularly in the waterfall section, trees and ground cover had grown so thick in places
that the views were completely obscured. 

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
(CRGNSA) Management Plan has vegetation management along the CRH as an objective in its
“Scenic Resources Enhancement Strategies.” ODOT and other agencies developed a “Corridor
Visual Inventory” in 1990 that addresses vegetation removal and management strategies for the
CRH (Historic Columbia River Highway), Interstate 84, and Washington State Route 14 (following the Columbia’s north shore), to recapture the majestic views possible from these
highways when they were constructed. Some of the vistas, obscured for decades, have been
reclaimed along the highway. (Hadlow, Landmark Nomination 15)

(photo to be replaced)
Oregon State Highway Commission - 4th Biennial Report of the Oregon State Highway Commission Covering the Period December 1st, 1918 to November 30th, 1920
http://digital.lib.pdx.edu/oscdl/files/odot/pdx005t0003.pdf

(Photo to be replaced)
Oregon State Highway Commission - 4th Biennial Report of the Oregon State Highway Commission Covering the Period December 1st, 1918 to November 30th, 1920
http://digital.lib.pdx.edu/oscdl/files/odot/pdx005t0003.pdf


CLICK HERE to continue exploring the highway.