Historic Columbia River Highway History

The King of Roads

The Columbia River Highway, later renamed the Historic Columbia River Highway (HRCH), was a technical and civic achievement of its time, successfully marrying ambitious engineering with sensitive treatment of the surrounding magnificent landscape. The Historic Columbia River Highway has gained national significance because it represents one of the earlier applications of cliff-face road building utilizing modern highway construction technologies. It is also the oldest scenic highway in the United States. The Historic Columbia River Highway’s design and execution were the products of two visionaries, Samuel Hill, lawyer, entrepreneur, and good road’s promoter; and Samuel C. Lancaster, engineer and landscape architect. In addition, many citizens provided strong leadership and advocacy for construction of what they called “The King of Roads.”

To make these scenic wonders more accessible to an increasingly mobile tourist population, in the late teens and early 1920s, the National Park Service began constructing well-engineered roads within parks, such as the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and the All-Year Highway in Yosemite National Park. Predating this National Park Service initiative, the Historic Columbia River Highway was constructed through county-state-federal cooperation.

Samuel Hill, once an attorney for James J. Hill and his large railroad empire, and later a Pacific Northwest investor and entrepreneur, was Washington state’s most vocal “good roads” spokesman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hill found Oregon lawmakers and Portland businessmen receptive to the idea of constructing a major highway along the Columbia River. In 1913, work began on the Historic Columbia River Highway. Surfaced with Warrenite, a patented long-wearing and smooth-riding asphaltic-concrete pavement, the Historic Columbia River Highway was completed in 1922.

Multnomah County hired Samuel C. Lancaster, an experienced engineer and landscape architect, to design the Historic Columbia River Highway. Lancaster was noted for laying out Seattle’s Lake Washington Boulevard in the early 1900s as a component of the city’s Olmsted-designed park system. He accompanied Hill and others to Paris in 1908 to attend the First International Road Congress. The group also toured Western Europe to learn about continental road-building techniques. Following the 1908 Congress Lancaster constructed experimental roads at Hill’s Maryhill Ranch, 120 miles east of Portland on the Columbia River. Seeing roads in the park-like setting of the Rhine River Valley inspired Hill to promote construction of a highway along the Columbia River Gorge. Hill recommended that Lancaster design the Columbia River Highway.

Lancaster’s Highway design emulated European style road building techniques, while also advancing American engineering standards. Throughout the Historic Columbia River Highway, he and other engineers held fast to a design protocol that included accepting grades no greater than 5 percent, nor laying out any curves with less than a 100-foot turning radius. The use of reinforced-concrete bridges, combined with masonry guard rails, guard walls, and retaining walls brought together the new and the old-the most advanced highway structures with the tried and tested. In building the Columbia River Highway, Lancaster and others artfully created an engineering achievement sympathetic to this significant natural landscape.

The relationship between the Columbia River Gorge’s natural landscape and the constructed designed landscape of the Historic Columbia River Highway is told best by Lancaster. He wrote, “There is but one Columbia River Gorge [that] God put into this comparatively short space, [with] so many beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes.” He believed that “men from all climes will wonder at its wild grandure [sic] when once it is made accessable [sic] by this great highway.”

Several benefactors purchased waterfalls and other sites lining the Gorge for parks along the Columbia River Highway. Lancaster’s Highway included designed landscapes at these locations. The masonry guard walls, retaining walls, and bridges on the pedestrian trails closely resemble those seen along the Historic Columbia River Highway itself. Lancaster strove for fluidity of design in interconnecting the Historic Columbia River Highway with its surrounding natural landscape.

The Columbia River Highway was also a lifeline connecting Portland with the many commercial and agricultural areas along the Columbia River. Some promoters saw it as part of a network of similarly constructed routes radiating out towards central Oregon and Washington and the Inland Empire of eastern Washington and northern Idaho, and meeting routes leading to other parts of the region and the nation.

More popular than its promoters ever envisioned by the 1930s, the Columbia River Highway was showing signs of early aging. The widespread use of automobiles and freight trucks throughout the country caused measurable wear the Highway. Soon the route so marveled for its advanced engineering, was deteriorating both physically and philosophically. Motorists tended to speed through beauty spots, more interested in traveling from here to there in as short a time as possible. With such an increase in motor traffic, it was no longer practical for tourists to stop their vehicles in the middle of the road to look at a falls or take in a view of the Columbia Gorge.

The Columbia River Highway had become a vital link in Oregon’s and the nation’s highway system. By the late 1930s, construction of Bonneville Dam, a New Deal project aimed at providing flood control on the Columbia River and generating electricity, caused a realignment of a portion of the Highway near Tooth Rock and Eagle Creek, in eastern Multnomah County. This marked the first major alteration of the route. It was evident to many that the Highway was outdated and unable to provide safe, efficient travel for modern motor traffic.

The Oregon State Highway Department began abandoning segments of the Columbia River Highway in the late 1930s upon completion of the new water-level route from Bonneville Dam to Cascade Locks. This work also segmented the original alignment, making it unusable even as a pedestrian trail. By the 1950s, much of the original alignment from Cascade Locks to Hood River had been sacrificed for the new water-level route. The Historic Columbia River Highway from Hood River to Mosier, including the Mosier Twin Tunnels, was also abandoned. The Tunnels, located in a rockfall zone, were filled with rubble and allowed to “melt” into the rugged landscape. Throughout abandoned segments, walls fell over and perennial weeds grew through the pavement.
By 1954, a new curvilinear water-level route, founded largely on fill material dredged from the Columbia River, bypassed the entire Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale to The Dalles. Its designers, too, envisioned this route as a scenic highway through the Gorge.

Since the early 1950s, the western third of the Historic Columbia River Highway has served tourist traffic, carrying visitors by scores of waterfalls. Other portions in the eastern two-thirds of the route became part of a local farm-to-market road network. Significant segments of the Historic Columbia River Highway were sacrificed for the new road while others were simply abandoned.

By the 1980s, public interest grew for returning drivable portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway to their 1920s appearance–based on careful documentation–and rehabilitating abandoned segments for trail use. Since then, drivable portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway, its masonry structures, bridges, and culverts have been repaired or replaced. The road is a popular tourist destination along with Multnomah Falls, the most popular natural site in Oregon, drawing over two-million visitors annually. The Falls are accessible both from the highway and nearby Interstate 84.

Several contiguous segments of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, from Moffett Creek to Cascade Locks, are open for hiking and biking. Trailheads, located intermittently along this segment, are directly accessible from Interstate 84 and offer parking and interpretive signage. The segment from Hood River to Mosier provides 6.5 miles of trail, including the Mosier Twin Tunnels. Trailheads at either end offer parking and restroom facilities. In addition, the west trailhead offers a visitor contact station.


Source: National Park Service


History of the Historic Columbia River Highway Links:

National Park Service (source of the above text)

Oregon Department of Transportation

Oregon Department of Transportation Environmental Services

Oregon State Archives

US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration


Historic American Engineering RecordĀ HAER OR-56. Columbia River Highway bridges spanning various creeks along the Columbia River Highway, Portland and The Dalles vicinities, Multnomah and Wasco CountiesOregon