Historic Columbia River Highway (U.S. 30)
In 1911, Samuel Hill, a wealthy and eccentric railroad lawyer, began promoting an idea for an automobile route through the Columbia River Gorge. Hill found supporters in the Portland business community who were swept up in the fervor stirred up by the national Good Roads campaign of the time. This movement supported the construction of paved highways with scenic qualities to foster tourism.
As the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1913, Hill’s dream began to take form. Timber magnate and hotelier Simon Benson coordinated the project’s fiscal management and promotion, and mill owner John Yeon volunteered as road master of the work crews.
Samuel Lancaster, a visionary Tennessee engineer recruited by Hill, added the artistic inspiration for what came to be known as “a poem in stone.” Together Hill and Lancaster journeyed to Italy, Switzerland, and Germany to view European mountain roads.
Hill and Lancaster were able to convince the Oregon government to finance the Columbia River Highway, the first road linking The Dalles to Portland through the Gorge. To these idealists, the highway was not meant to be an intrusion on the wilderness; instead, the road was designed to be a part of the landscape.
This would not only be the Northwest’s first paved public road but one of the defining events in the growth of modern American tourism. Scores of middle-class Portland families in their Model Ts took to the hills above the Columbia on this architecturally aesthetic thoroughfare following the 1915 completion of this highway’s first section, from Troutdale to Hood River. After the stretch between Hood River and The Dalles was completed in 1922, it was dubbed “king of roads” by the Illustrated London News.
Service stations, roadside rest stops, motor courts (later called “motels”), and resort hotels that catered to the motorized carriage trade developed, contributing to the Gorge’s economic growth. Of the several dozen roadhouses that lined this highway 1915–1960, only a few structures remain today. A new interstate was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s that made Gorge travel faster, but the charm of the earlier era was lost. Some sections of the old highway became part of the interstate; two sections remained open to car travel as U.S. 30.
Fortunately, the “king of roads” experienced a renaissance in the 1980s. Political activists, volunteers, government agencies, and federal legislation provided the spadework for the creation of the Historic Columbia River Highway, the first federally designated scenic highway in the United States. Thanks to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (the only road on the list) as well as listings as an All-American Road, National Scenic Byway, National Heritage Road, and National Historic Landmark, the restoration has become a reality.
Currently, the old highway’s sections from Troutdale to Ainsworth State Park and Mosier to The Dalles attract millions of motorists annually. Other segments of the old road are being rebuilt with attention to architectural nuance and potential recreational and interpretive uses. The reconstructed Mosier Twin Tunnels east of Hood River as well as restored sections between Cascade Locks and Eagle Creek and in the Bonneville–Tanner Creek corridor exemplify how parts of the highway have been rededicated as hiking and biking trails.
Getting to the Historic Columbia River Highway
There are several options for getting onto U.S. 30 from Portland. If you’re in no particular hurry, head east on I-84 and take Exit 17, turning right at the outlet mall, left at the blinking light up the hill from the outlets, and onto the Historic Columbia River Highway (follow the signs to Corbett).
This route snakes up the Sandy River and through the pleasant small towns of Troutdale and Corbett before reaching the Gorge’s big attractions. The next 20 miles traverse historic bridges and stonework, lush orchard country, rain-forested slot canyons, more than a half-dozen large waterfalls, and cliff-side views of the Columbia River Gorge.
The attractions between Corbett and Horsetail Falls explain why both the American Automobile Association and Rand McNally rate the Historic Highway as one of the top 10 scenic roads in the country.
For quicker access to waterfalls and hikes from the west, take I-84 Exit 22 at Corbett, which joins U.S. 30 just before the first major viewpoints. To reach this section of U.S. 30 from the east, take Exit 35 at Ainsworth State Park.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel