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Historic Columbia River Parkway

Project Abstract

The first paved highway in the northwestern United States, the Columbia River Highway was conceived, designed, and constructed as both a scenic attraction and as a means of facilitating economic development along the Columbia River corridor between the Pacific Ocean and the areas to the east of the Cascade Mountains. The history of the development, decline, and continuing rebirth of the Columbia River Highway is particularly instructive to the highway engineering community as we approach the beginning of a new century and a future of increasing reliance on the rehabilitation and restoration of existing infrastructure instead of the construction of new highways. This study also illustrates the manner in which state and local governments can preserve and enhance existing highways that possess unique scenic and historic qualities within the framework of modern design criteria.



FLEXIBILITY  COLUMBIA  GORGE: The Columbia River Gorge.
The Columbia River Gorge.
Background/Purpose When the 121km-long (75mile) Columbia River Highway between Troutdale and The Dalles was officially completed on June 27, 1922, it was hailed as one of the engineering marvels of its age. The first paved highway in the Northwestern United States, the Columbia River Highway was conceived, designed, and constructed as both a scenic attraction and as a means of facilitating economic development along the Columbia River corridor between the Pacific Ocean and the areas to the east of the Cascade Mountains. It was heralded as one of the greatest engineering feats of its day, not only for its technological accomplishments but also for its sensitivity to one of the most dramatic and diverse landscapes on the North American Continent. The history of the development, decline, and continuing rebirth of the Columbia River Highway is particularly instructive to the highway engineering community as we approach the beginning of a new century and a future of increasing reliance on the rehabilitation and restoration of existing infrastructure instead of the construction of new highways. This study also illustrates the manner in which state and local governments can preserve and enhance existing highways that possess unique scenic and historic qualities within the framework of modern design criteria. Much of the discussion of the background and history of the highway has been excerpted from the Historic Preservation League of Oregon's publication Oregon Routes of Exploration Discover the Historic Columbia River Highway' and A Traveler's Guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.' Creation of the Columbia River Highway Samuel C. Lancaster was the designer of the Columbia River Highway. His romantic and deeply spiritual attitudes toward the environment and mankind's relationship to nature framed subsequent discussions of the Historic Columbia River Highway for all time. Looking back from the vantage point of 80 years after its dedication, one cannot help but marvel at how well Sam Lancaster accomplished his task. Highway building in the United States was in its infancy. The automobile had not yet become the dominant mode of transportation that it is today. The human foot, the horse and wagon, the riverboat, and the railroads were the means of popular transportation. Travel conditions before the highway was built were grim. What roads existed were crude and unstable dirt wagon trails. Pioneers trying to get to the Willamette Valley from The Dalles during the early 1800's had essentially three choices: (1) build a raft and risk the dangers of the rapids near Cascade Locks, (2) pick their way along the Columbia River Gorge, where they encountered mudflows, rockslides, canyons, and sheer rock walls, or (3) follow the Barlow Trail over the southern flank of Mt. Hood. Each of these routes was hazardous and slow. Oregon Routes of Exploration Discover the Historic Columbia River Highway, Historic Preservation League of Oregon, PO. Box 40053, Portland, OR 97240. `A Traveler's Guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway, M&A Tour Books, 3951 SE El Camino Drive, Gresham, OR 97080. By the late 1800's, steamboats and railroads served some locations along the Columbia Gorge, but a good road was needed for general traffic. Early road building efforts, such as the Wagon Road from the Sandy River to The Danes of the 1870's, were largely unsuccessful. Serious attention to building a road through the Columbia Gorge grew with the advent of the automobile. In 1908, Samuel C. Hill, often referred to as the "Father of the Columbia River Highway" and a Good Roads Advocate in Washington and Oregon, invited Sam Lancaster, already known for his pioneering road building efforts in Tennessee, to the Pacific Northwest to share in Hill's vision of creating a highway through the Columbia Gorge. In 1908, Hill, Lancaster, and Major H.L. Bowlby (who was soon to become the Oregon State Highway Department's first State Highway Engineer) traveled to Europe to attend the First International Roads Conference. They traveled extensively in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland to view and study European road building techniques and designs. The Vision Becomes a Reality Upon their return from Europe, Hill and Lancaster began designing and building a prototype paved road system on the grounds of Hill's 28.3km (7,000acre) estate at Maryhill, WA. In February 1913, the Oregon State Legislature viewed the results of this effort and went away sufficiently impressed to create the Oregon State Highway Department and Commission the next month. Major H.L. Bowlby was subsequently appointed the first State Highway Engineer; later Sam Lancaster was named Assistant State Highway Engineer and Charles Purcell was named State Bridge Engineer. On August 27, 1913, the Multnomah County Commissioners met with Hill and the backers of the highway project at the Chanticleer Inn overlooking the western end of the Gorge. The next day, Sam Lancaster, attending as a guest of Hill's, was appointed Multnomah County Engineer for the highway. (One year later the Columbia River Highway was designated a State highway, setting the stage for future State involvement.) Lancaster went to work immediately, beginning the survey and route location from Chanticleer Point to Multnomah Falls in September 1913. From the very beginning, this was to be both a scenic and a modern highway.
Further Reading:
PDF Icon    Historic Columbia River Parkway


The Columbia River Gorge.
    
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The Columbia River Gorge.
Early days of the Columbia River Highway.
    
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Early days of the Columbia River Highway.
Typical curvilinear alinement.
    
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Typical curvilinear alinement.
Typical overlook area along the highway.
    
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Typical overlook area along the highway.
Spindle railing after restoriation on the Young's Creek Bridge.
    
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Spindle railing after restoriation on the Young's Creek Bridge.
After restoration.
    
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After restoration.
One of the many waterfall along the route.
    
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One of the many waterfall along the route.
Newly installed steel-backed wooden guardrail.
    
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Newly installed steel-backed wooden guardrail.


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