“The people of Oregon country have built this great highway for agricultural and
commercial pursuits, as well as for the enjoyment of the beautiful and grand in nature.”
Samuel C. Lancaster, The Columbia: America’s Great Highway through the Cascade Mountains to the Sea
Vista House at Crown Point
History of the Historic Columbia River Highway
Imagine crafting a national treasure on a landscape so revered that each viewpoint is protected, the design and materials in complete harmony with the natural elements, and the creation so good that people come from all over the world to marvel at its perfection. This is the Historic Columbia River Highway the King of Roads a pathway along the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.
Construction 1913 to 1922
The Historic Columbia River Highway is a tale of visionaries, civic leaders, skilled engineers and talented craftsmen. Without benefit of modern construction equipment and computer-aided design, they laid down the first major paved road in the Pacific Northwest along what could have been considered an impossible route. They did it with men, horses, and innovative machinery. And they did it with elegance, reconciling the beauty of nature with the needs of civilization. Lawyer, “good roads” advocate and entrepreneur Sam Hill envisioned more than a route through the Columbia River Gorge. He inspired the construction of a highway to rival the great roads of Europe. Together with engineer Samuel Lancaster, Hill championed his vision for a road winding high above the Columbia to Portland civic leaders John B. Yeon, Simon Benson, Julius Meier, Henry L. Pittock, C.S. Jackson and others. In 1913 construction began, and by 1922 Portland was connected to The Dalles by a paved road.
Construction Workers with Horses at the Toothrock Viaduct
Multnomah County Commissioners agreed to pay for the construction of the highway within their county and hired Samuel Lancaster to locate the highway. Lancaster set out very high standards for the highway, including maximum 5% grades, minimum 100-foot radius curves, an 18 to 24-foot width, two-rail wooden guardrail that became a national standard in 1920 and patented Warrenite pavement. But first, he looked for the “beauty spots” in the Columbia River Gorge and found ways to take users to these waterfalls and scenic vistas.
A little more than ten years after the Historic Highway was finished, the face of the Gorge began to change dramatically. Bonneville Dam was started in 1933 and when it was completed, it raised the level of the water to a point four miles east of The Dalles, submerging many of the river’s natural and scenic sites forever. While the Northwest gained a powerful supply of electricity and flood control, it also lost significant historical resources and traditional Native American fishing sites so much a part of their culture and lifeways. Fishing platforms can still be seen, as can the remnants of the restored Toothrock and Eagle Creek viaducts if you are traveling westbound on Interstate 84. Completed in 1937, Toothrock Tunnel was constructed as part of a realignment of the Historic Highway from Bonneville Dam to Cascade Locks. Today it ably handles higher speed traffic and wide trucks eastbound on Interstate 84.
View of the River and Interstate 84 from the Mosier Twin Tunnels
The growing economy that followed World War II and the increased demand to move goods across Oregon challenged the future of the two-lane Historic Highway. By 1949, a new water-level route was under construction, much of it built on fill but also using some of the original highway. By 1969, a four-lane Interstate highway to The Dalles was built. Much of the section of the Historic Highway between Ainsworth and Mosier was paved over or bypassed and the Highway itself lost prominence and identity in the minds of the traveling public. Today it is WaNaPa Street and Forest Lane through the city of Cascade Locks and Cascade Avenue and Oak Street in the City of Hood River.
Large portions of the historic highway were abandoned or destroyed between Dodson and Mosier, including the Mosier Twin Tunnels (filled with rock). Other major lost features included the Mitchell Point Tunnel the Tunnel of Many Vistas and the Hood River Bridge the longest bridge on the Highway.
Restoration and Reconnection
In 1981 the National Park Service surveyed the highway and proposed Options for Conservation and Reuse. Many concrete and stone features had deteriorated from the severe weather in the Gorge. The study proposed to reuse sections of the Highway that had not been open for motor vehicle traffic for decades as a hiking and biking trail.
Restoration work began almost immediately on the portions that remained open to motor vehicle traffic, with the hiring of a Master Mason at Oregon Department of Transportation. Over about a decade, concrete spindles were replaced on most of the bridges and rock walls were repaired. A two-rail, steel-backed wooden guardrail was crash-tested and installed, replacing multiple more-recent guardrail types.
More than a decade passed before work began on reusing the pieces of the road that were not open to motor vehicles. The section at Toothrock, that had been discussed as a future trail in 1936, was the first portion to receive funding and in 1996 was open as the first section of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Between Tanner Creek and Eagle Creek, two historic viaducts were repaired and a new bridge constructed over the east portal of the Toothrock Tunnel.
Damaged Eagle Creek Viaduct
Restored Eagle Creek Viaduct
Restored Toothrock Viaduct
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act provided the initial funds for the highest priority project, reopening the section between Hood River and Mosier as part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail (“HCRH State Trail”), including the Mosier Twin Tunnels.
Bycyclists at Inspiration Point - Hood River to Mosier Section - HCRH State Trail
Two other projects of the HCRH State Trail are now open, extending the trail west from Tanner Creek to Moffett Creek and east from Eagle Creek to Cascade Locks. A small section at Starvation Creek State Park is also open, though the Viento end is not paved or wheelchair accessible.
Vista House is an observatory, memorial to the Oregon pioneers and a “comfort station” (rest area) first opened in 1918. Crown Point is a very harsh environment; at times 60-gallons per day of water was removed from the inside of Vista House. Many partners joined the effort to restore Vista House to its original glory an effort that took 4 years and $4 million. First the exterior “weather envelope” was repaired, including reopening drains, removing the copper roof and restoring the original tile roof, repointing the stones and repairing the windows. Then efforts turned to the interior, where water damage required extensive repair of marble surfaces. New exhibits were designed and installed. The last changes were a ramp and “lift” making Vista House wheelchair accessible for the first time. The project was completed and a grand re-opening ceremony held on May 5, 2006.
Vista House Interior Before Restoration.
Vista House After Restoration - Note the New Tile Roof!
Over the years, pavement overlays increased the drop-off from the pavement into the concrete gutters, which were then filled in with gravel. Runoff was no longer being directed away from the pavement and rock retaining walls as originally designed. During 2006 a project uncovered and repaired the concrete gutters. Pavement was ground down to the original Warrenite and a new, smooth surface added. Several dry masonry retaining walls were repaired. Guard rocks were replaced and the rock sign post near Wahkeena was reconstructed.
Restored Concrete Gutters
Left: Dry Masonry Wall Restoration | Right: Tunnel Restoration at Oneonta Gorge - Summer 2006
Oneonta Tunnel was filled with rock after the relocation of the highway in 1948. In 2006 the tunnel was reopened and strengthened and a new parking area developed to the east of the tunnel. Still to be installed is the timber lining and the portals.
For more information on restoration and reconnection of the Historic Columbia River Highway, read the Historic Columbia River Highway Master Plan, “Progress on Restoration and Reuse of the HCRH 1987-2005” at:
Also see the links to the Restoration Needs and the Reconnection Needs.
Information on Designations and Awards
National Register of Historic Places
The Historic Columbia River Highway is a district on the National Register of Historic Places. The boundaries are from the west end of the two bridges crossing the Sandy River in Troutdale to the east end of the Chenoweth Creek Bridge near The Dalles. The district includes all portions of the highway, including pieces of pavement and rock walls in the middle section that have not been open to traffic since they were bypassed by the construction of Interstate 84.
National Historic Landmark
Portions of the Historic Columbia River Highway historic district have enough integrity and are of nationwide significance to be designated as a National Historic Landmark. Only 3 percent of sites on the National Register have enough integrity and significance to be designated Landmarks. The boundaries of the Landmark district are from the Sandy River to Warrendale, Tanner Creek to Cascade Locks and Hood River to The Dalles.
For more information on the designation of the highway as a National Historic Landmark go to this link:
All American Road, National Scenic Byway
The HCRH was constructed, in part, as a tourist facility, with Sam Hill stating: “We will cash in, year after year, on our crop of scenic beauty, without depleting it in any way.” The HCRH became, first an Oregon Scenic Byway, and then an All-American Road, the higher level of National Scenic Byway, because it has four intrinsic qualities that are significant at the national level (scenic, historic, natural and recreational qualities).
National Recreational Trail
The Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail is designated as a National Recreational Trail.
Oregon’s Millennium Legacy Trail
In 2000, the Historic Columbia River Highway was designated as Oregon’s Millennium Legacy Trail. Through this designation, an art project, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, was constructed at the Senator Mark O. Hatfield West Trailhead.
Substantial portions of this history were extracted from the Historic Columbia River Highway brochure with permission from the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Millennium Legacy Trail Signs