The Historic Columbia River Highway
Bill Long 10/8/05
A Day Away; A Life Renewed
In the last twenty-four hours I renewed a friendship with Rick and Judy Davis which had suffered a long hiatus for no particular reason other than the different directions our lives had taken for more than a decade. I reconnected with them about seven weeks ago in Portland at the home of mutual friends, and Rick and Judy casually told me they had built a home for themselves, after taking early retirement, in the scenic Columbia Gorge about an hour or so East of Portland. A subsequent email from Rick mentioning that it was great to see me emboldened me to invite myself over to their place. I am past the point of worrying about the etiquette of initiating a self-invitation if I think I want to connect with people. We quickly arranged a visit, and I drove out to their place late yesterday afternoon, spent an evening with them in conversation and eating, and then, this morning, took a brisk hike with them on a restored part of Historic Columbia River Highway ("HCRH"). In fact, where we hiked today is officially now a section of the Historic Columbia River Highway Trail, a several mile stretch of the original highway now converted into a walking/bike path between Hood River and Mosier, OR.
Both Rick and Judy are keeping busy with their time. Rick is employing his extensive management training and experience in giving leadership to a liberal Christian congregation a few miles from their home, while Judy's main occupation is to chair the bi-state Columbia River Gorge Commission, a creature of federal law (signed by President Reagan in 1986), funded by Oregon and Washington, and a unique partnership among federal, state, county and tribal agencies to "protect and provide for the enhancement of the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources of the Gorge" (from the statute itself). The Gorge, for those not familiar with it, stretches from Troutdale, about 17 miles East of Portland, to the Dalles, 70 miles further East, and consists of dramatic cliffs and rock formations created when the Columbia River carved out its wide channel thousands of years ago. It is, in my judgment, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Rediscovering the HCRH
Meandering through a handful of towns and up and down the steep cliffs and along the dramatic vistas on the Oregon side of the Gorge is the HCRH. Though the highway itself really only consists of about 70 miles between Troutdate and the Dalles, its counts its (85 or so) miles from the intersection of SW Washington and Broadway in downtown Portland. It is one of about 20 All-American Roads recognized by the US Transportation Secretary under the "America's Byways" program. The program enables a distinguished roadway to be named either as a National Scenic Byway (an easier designation to attain, though there are only about 80 of these) or an All-American Road. To receive the latter designation,
"a road must possess multiple intrinsic qualities that are nationally significant and have one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere. The road or highway must also be considered a 'destination unto itself.' That is, the road must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip."
To illustrate the kind of company that the HCRH keeps, some other All-American Roads are the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Big Sur Coast Highway, the Acadia Byway (ME) and the Selma to Montgomery March Byway (AL).
But the HCRH is much more than that. It was entered in 1983 into the National Register of Historic Places and then, in 2000, attained National Historic Landmark status. There are approximately 2,300 of the latter and they constitute about 3% of the approximately 70,000 National Register of Historic Place sites. In addition, 11 miles of the HCRH (more below) has been converted into a trail for bikes and walking, and this trail was added to the National Recreational Trail system in 2002, a designation made under the National Trails System Act of 1968. Finally, if this was not enough, the HCRH wends itself through the Columbia Gorge, which became the nation's first National Scenic Area in 1986. This area consists of more than 200,000 acres of private and public land, and is overseen by the Commission which Judy chairs.
More on the Highway
The HCRH was built over a period of a decade from 1913-1922. In the highway tunnel I visited today just West of Mosier was carved the names of two tunnel workers, who said they were snowbound in the tunnel from Nov. 19-27, 1921. I mentioned casually to Rick that the carving had to be authentic because the lettering was clear and easy-to-read. Since clarity of American penmanship had fully declined by the 1950s, there is no question that these two stranded men, who had mastered the art of epigraphy, had carved their names far before this time.
The next essay describes more of the HCRH's history and tells about our hike along it today.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long