Historic Columbia River Highway II
Bill Long 10/8/05
In Honor of Rick and Judy Davis
We ought to pause for a second and reconsider the dates of construction of this 70 mile highway: 1913-22. This was at the beginning of the era of paved roads in America. That a paved road from Portland to the mid-Gorge would have wound in labyrinthine fashion over the cliffs and through the towns and not directly from one point to the next was arresting. The chief engineers of the project, Samuel C. Lancaster and John A. Elliott and the brains and money behind it all, Sam Hill, the eccentric son of millionaire Great Northern rail man James Hill, wanted to build what they called the "King of Roads," and they frankly subordinated economic utility to aesthetic concerns. From Elliott in 1929:
"Grades, curvatures, distance and even expense were sacrificed to reach some scenic vista or to develop a particularly interesting spot..Although the highway would have commerical value in connecting the coast with eastern areas, no consideration was given the commercial over the scenic requirements. The one prevailing idea in the location and construction was to make this highway a great scenic boulevard surpassing all other highways in the world" (from a readerboard at the top of Rowena Crest).
In order to fufill these goals, the design standards specified a maximum grade of 5%, minimum turning radii of 100 feet and a road that frequently looped back on itself. One could scarcely imagine such a highway being built today.
Problems in the 1950s
One of the most impressive features of this original highway was the stretch called the Mosier Twin Tunnels, at milepost 72 of the Highway. They were each about 100 or so yards long, blasted into the cliffs and separated from the other by about 40 yards. From the Columbia River several hundred feet below it looked as if these tunnels were almost hanging over the edge of the cliff, and indeed there were a few borings from the tunnel roadway to the tunnel edge, allowing a person to stop the car and look directly over the cliff from inside the tunnel. But, as is often the case, the drama of the view and the marvel of engineering was purchased at the price of safety. Cascading rocks would occasionally plunge down from above, and they might even hit a car or a person who was trying to enter or go between the tunnels.
Then, early in 1953 a talus bank from the cliff above the west tunnel began to loosen, and by March 1953 a sizable chunk of rock had fallen and damaged vehicles. Debris from 6" to 3' in length, and some pieces weighing up to a ton, blocked the highway. Fearing disaster, State Highway Engineer R.H. ("Sam"--does EVERYONE have to be named Sam in this saga?) Baldock decided to shut down the tunnel. However, after closing down the tunnel, he ended up getting a stretch of I-5 named for him, even though almost no one knows where the "Baldock Freeway" now is. In any case, Baldock not only ordered access to the tunnels be closed off but, in order to stabilize the tunnels, required them to be filled with debris.
Because a river-level highway was being constructed at the time (US 30, which would be replaced by the Interstate 84 a decade later), traffic was diverted from the HCRH and the latter was gradually ignored and fell into disrepair. This remained the situation until the 1980s, when citizen efforts brought about the creation of the National Scenic Area and when funds were set aside to make repairs to the tunnels, as well as to other damaged portions of the roadway.
Repairing the Tunnels
So, between 1995 and 2000 the tunnels were cleared from debris and reopened, this time only to foot and bicycle traffic. Most significant from an engineering standpoint was the construction of a huge catchment structure just west of the west tunnel, which would "catch" a rock of 5,000 pounds falling 200 feet. Walking under this structure, as I did today, not only gave me the feeling of safety, but extended the "tunnel" by another several hundred yards. The restored tunnel can be seen from I-84 below, if you look up right as you get to milepost 69 (As mentioned, milepost 72 is in the tunnel. The mileposts of 1-84 and the HCRH don't precisely correspond).
And so today I had the chance, with Judy and Rick, to walk through this wonderfully restored tunnel. We parked our car at the Senator Mark O. Hatfield trailhead (you know you are in Oregon if every few miles you find something named after the good Senator, whether it is a library, an aquarium, a trailhead or some other type of building). Joggers, bikers, hikers and others we met along the way were inordinately friendly; it seemed as if the spirit of the old highway, where wealthy Portlanders and others would meet each other high above the majestic Columbia, was with us as we walked the highway.
As I left Rick and Judy's, I was told to drive East for a few miles before getting back on the highway to return to Portland. I did and stopped at the Rowena Crest, an overlook that had been converted from a former gravel pit to one of the most commanding vistas in the Gorge. Miles to the East and West opened up for me, and the words of Samuel Lancaster, the chief engineer, were ringing in my ears:
"On starting the survey, our first business was to find the beauty spots, or those points where the most beautiful things along the line might be seen to the best advantage and, if possible, to locate the road in a such a way to reach them."
I would say that Lancaster and Elliott had done just that. And, I might add, that grants from the federal government and the state of Oregon in the 1990s had enabled the restoration of this national treasure. I was blessed, not only by Rick and Judy's hospitality and friendship but by the soul-enriching lessons and vistas of the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long