Thursday, July 5, 2018

Historic Columbia River Highway

The Historic Columbia River Highway, constructed between 1913 and 1922, sought not only to make it easier to transport goods and people through the Columbia River Gorge but also to enable more people to see the scenic beauty of the area. And they did come to marvel at both the road and many waterfalls along the way.  Recently, I had the opportunity to do likewise. We traveled east on I-84 and at the Bridal Veil Falls exit drove along part of the original highway.  I noticed the stone guard rails like those in this photograph taken about the time the highway opened.

Historic Columbia River Highway
The stone retaining walls and guard rails were built by expert masons from Italy.  They often had to work dangling over the edge of the cliff. The arches and rounded tops helped keep water from standing on the road and helped preserve the stonework. 

Although the historic highway east of Bridal Veil was closed as a result of last summer's Eagle Creek fire, we were able to visit Multnomah Falls, which is close to the highway.  It looks much like it did in 1915.

June 2018
 I had traveled along more of the historical highway many years ago but one portion I never got to see was the Mitchell Point Tunnel. The Mitchell headland protruded into the path of the road and the highway engineers decided that tunneling through it was the best option. Explosives were used to break the rock but the work had to be carefully done to protect operations of the railroad below. The rock was then removed by hand, and carried away in horse-drawn cart.  Viaducts were built to access the tunnel with the holes for the concrete supporting piers dug by hand! What I would really like to have seen were the five windows created in the outer wall. 
Unfortunately, I first visited to Oregon in 1972 and the tunnel had already been closed during construction of I-84 and then demolished in 1966.

To build these enduring highway structures with the limited equipment (mostly hand tools) then available is awe-inspiring.  It’s no wonder the highway was designated as a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark.  

An illustrated Columbia River Highway map is part of the Circa 1920 exhibition at Benton County Museum in Philomath.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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