It is one beautiful road to travel when the weather is fine, and a treacherous one to drive when the weather brings heavy snow and freezing conditions or storm-whipped gales. Either way, you definitely know you are traveling on a highway with a great history. Below is part of that history of the highway described by
Teddy Roosevelt as "the most remarkable road engineering in the United States, which for scenic grandeur is not equaled anywhere."
Upon reading about the history I feel safe in assuming that the portion of highway in this old postcard (and the other 19 in the set) are on the original highway, predating the rerouting done in 1954. I wondered about the lovely area carved out for sightseers, complete with bench, without a parking area....who would have guessed that they parked in the middle of the road?! (see highlighted text):
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. . .
. . .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 via Historic Columbia River Highway]
This Google map shows the scope of the highway (I-84) as it appears today. The reconstructed original sections, including hiking trails, etc. are not visible here.
This Google map shows a portion of the Columbia River Highway (I-84) as it appears today, with the reconstructed original sections shown in blue.
I have only traveled I-84 and have never been on the old highway section shown in blue in the map above, nor have I visited Crown Point State Park and the famous Vista House. As I worked up this post for OPW my husband and I decided that the trip is on our list for this year.