Preservation Magazine, Winter 2020

Oregon's King of Roads Takes the Scenic Route to Revival

The Historic Columbia River Highway.

photo by: Oregon DOT Photo/Video Services

In addition to its status as a National Historic Landmark, the Historic Columbia River Highway has also been designated as an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration.

On June 7, 1916, the Columbia River Highway in Oregon was dedicated as the nation’s first planned scenic roadway. Known then as the King of Roads, it became a forerunner for the All-Year Highway in Yosemite National Park and for Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The 73-mile highway was a destination for the nation’s touring motorists. Engineer Samuel C. Lancaster designed it specifically for their viewing pleasure by showcasing carefully identified “beauty spots” along the route. Winding down forested cliffs and passing alongside the river, the route skirted several waterfalls, and revealed one gorgeous vista after another. The road itself, stretching from Troutdale to The Dalles, was a work of art, linked by graceful bridges and lined with low, arched walls handcrafted by Italian stonemasons.

But barely 35 years later the picturesque route lay partly in ruins, with some segments abandoned or destroyed to make way for a replacement road—one that could accommodate the larger and faster vehicles of the 1950s. That road, now Interstate 84, stretches 771 miles from Portland, Oregon, to Echo, Utah.

It took the 1982 destruction of the highway’s elegant Hood River Bridge to jar Oregonians’ memory of their pride in the dethroned King of Roads and get them working on its preservation. Now, more than a century after its opening, the restoration of the historic highway is almost complete. About 51 miles of the road are open to vehicular traffic. The remaining 22-mile stretch is being rebuilt, in segments, as a paved, 12-foot-wide biking and hiking path. The latest segment, over 3 miles of trail between Wyeth and Lindsey Creek, cost about $25 million and was paid for by a combination of federal and state funding and private donations. It opened on August 3, 2019.

Construction of the final 5 miles, which entails the re-creation of the Mitchell Point Tunnel, once a crown jewel of the historic highway, will begin in the spring of 2021. The tunnel was also known as the “Tunnel of Many Vistas” because of its five windows, each with a view of the Columbia River.

On a recent sunny afternoon, my dog, Matilda, and I enjoyed exploring the newest trail segment on a 6-mile round-trip hike. We noted the bicycle repair station situated at the trailhead, and the water station further along the trail. Concrete benches provided our peaceful pauses in the woods. It has been a long road, so to speak, but the future of the Historic Columbia River Highway/Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail looks bright.

Susan G. Hauser writes about food, drink, and travel, among other topics. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Sunset.

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