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Columbia River Highway: Wonder Road of the West

Jeffrey Syken

“Tourists want three things; a good road to drive on, something worthwhile to see, and something worthwhile to eat. We will cash in, year-after-year, on our crop of scenic beauty, without depleting it in any way.”
Samuel Hill

“On starting the surveys, our first business was to find the beauty spots, or those points where the most beautiful things along the line might be seen in the best advantage, and if possible to locate the road in such a way as to reach them . . . There is but one Columbia River Gorge, God put into this comparatively short space, so many beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes that men from all climes will wonder at its wild grandeur when once it is made accessible by this great highway.”
S.C. Lancaster

The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Highway (CRH) was constructed between 1914 and 1922. One of the oldest scenic highways in the continental U.S. Its design and execution were the products of two visionaries: Samuel Hill; Lawyer, Entrepreneur and “Good Roads” advocate and Samuel C. Lancaster; Engineer and Landscape Architect, with the assistance of several top road and bridge designers of the era (i.e. Conde B. McCullough, bridge designer).

Scenic highways are best described as those roads constructed to provide motorists with the opportunity to see up-close the landscape’s natural beauty. Many of the scenic highways in the U.S. are associated with the National Park System and were built in the years following WWI. Starting in the 1910s and early 1920s, the National Park Service (NPS) began construction of well-engineered paved roads with permanent concrete and masonry bridges and viaducts to make its park sites more accessible to an increasingly mobile population. These included roads such as “Going-to-the-Sun Road,” in Glacier National Park, and “All-Year Highway,” in Yosemite National Park.

By the early 1900s, the need for an improved road system in Oregon was all too apparent. Few roads existed to connect the small communities along the coast; the expansion of the railroad had eliminated large portions of the primitive wagon road providing access through the Columbia River Gorge and roadways in the western portions of the state became a sea of mud when the winter rains came. The introduction of the automobile, bicycle groups and the “Good Roads” movement increased pressure on the Oregon State Legislature to find solutions. In 1913, the legislature formed the Oregon State Highway Commission (OSHC), giving them the mandate to, “Get Oregon out of the mud!” Thus was America’s most beautiful scenic highway made manifest.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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