Building the Road
Built at the height of the “Good Roads” movement in the early 20th century, the Historic Columbia River Highway was as unlikely as it is gorgeous. The plan to build a highway east from Portland came, surprisingly, from the Washington side of the river. Sam Hill, a wealthy entrepreneur who had enjoyed the pleasures of European highways at the first International Road Congress in Paris, returned to America and lobbied in Washington for a road to be built along the Columbia. Failing to receive a favorable response, the aristocrat turned to Oregon where his ideas struck a chord.
Engineer Samuel Lancaster, who had accompanied Hill to the International Road Congress, surveyed the land and found the Gorge so beautiful he wanted the highway built around its stunning vistas, not merely through it. He wrote that the highway would be built so “not one tree was felled, not one fern crushed unnecessarily”.* This incredible appreciation of the land’s natural beauty marked Lancaster’s work on the highway and can be seen in the highway today.
Innovation didn’t stop with landscaping. In construction, a newly created mixture of crushed rock and asphalt was picked to pave the road, setting a new standard. The actual building of the road surface was largely handled by local farmers and country folk who worked alongside the Italian stone masons and the Warren Company’s asphalt layers.
The Road’s Legacy
When the highway opened in 1916 it became clear that the whole affair had been worth it. Soon the Columbia River Highway was world famous. Frederick Villiers of the Illustrated London News announced loudly to the world, “It possesses the best of the great highways of the world… It is the King of Roads”.* Today it is ranked among the greatest engineering marvels in the country alongside the Golden Gate Bridge, the Panama Canal, Grand Coulee Dam, Machu Pichu, and many others.
Time, however was not kind to the highway. By the 1950s automobile technology and society’s wishes had sped past the highway’s limitations. Built for slow contemplative travel, the road was not deemed adequate for modern, fast-moving industry. The public was assured that the highway would be maintained as construction of a newer highway began, but by 1953 many pieces of road had been carelessly destroyed to make way for the new. Suddenly, with both its utility and beauty in danger, the highway was in danger of slipping from its national throne.
Its original grandeur was never forgotten, and in the 1980s local activists and political leaders took measures to restore and preserve sections of the highway. In 1984 it was named a National Historical Landmark by the National Park Service. Today 63 of the original 73 miles are once again accessible by automobile, foot, or bicycle, and the remaining ten miles are slated for future restoration.
* The Columbia River Highway – From the Sea to the Wheat Fields of Eastern Oregon
Clarence E. Mershon, 2006, Guardian Peaks Enterprises