Historic Overview
Existing Conditions
Assessment and Analysis
Preservation Philosophy
Implementation and Management
Outreach and Education
Historic Overview & Documentation

Rehabilitation of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) relied on a comprehensive approach that addresses many factors. In 1981, a National Park Service research team inventoried and analyzed the road and designed landscapes, and offered guidance for maintenance, conservation, and reuse. This comprehensive study by experts in the fields of historic preservation, landscape architecture, and masonry restoration, established a benchmark for judging the Highway's condition and recommending methods for the rehabilitation of the road and associated designed landscape features.

The Columbia River Gorge from Portland Wmen's Forum State Park Vista House, on Crown Point, is in the foreground. (Photo courtesy Robert Hadlow, Ph.D.)

Congress established the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA), in 1986, to protect and provide for the enhancement of the scenic, cultural, natural, and recreation resources of the Columbia River Gorge. The CRGNSA Act (Public Law 99-663) required the Oregon Department of Transportation to study the HCRH. In 1987, ODOT's Parks and Highway divisions prepared A Study of the Historic Columbia River Highway, indicating its scenic, recreation, and economic development potential. Building on the 1981 project's conclusions, the 1987 report did not discuss the merits or drawbacks of preserving the HCRH. Instead, it sought to find ways to preserve, improve, and interpret the Highway for the enjoyment of present and future visitors and residents.

The study looked at ways to provide recreation connections for segments of the Highway that had been abandoned after construction of the water-grade freeway in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It explored ways for enhancing the travel experience of motorists and recreationists on drivable portions of the HCRH. The study also addressed ways to coordinate management of the drivable and trail segments of the Highway with local, state, and federal agencies that have jurisdiction within the Columbia River Gorge.

During the mid-1920s, the Oregon State Highway Department (ODOT) inventoried its major highways, including the HCRH, for all constructed features. Accurate to 1/1000 of a mile, the HCRH's 1924 "Mile Posting Data" log provided a comprehensive inventory of the route. Placement of masonry guard walls, retaining walls, culverts, bridges, and other features were methodically recorded for use by maintenance crews. Beginning in 1988, ODOT personnel compared the existing Highway with entries in the log to determine what road features were or were not part of the original construction and what historic features had been removed or lost through neglect. This work has revealed the locations of long buried concrete gutters, missing wooden guard fences, and in the case of abandoned segments, locations of missing masonry guard walls. Information gained from this effort has aided ODOT in developing an overall approach for treatment on the HCRH.

In the summer of 1990, the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) partnered with ODOT to study highway bridges from around the state, including several along the HCRH. During the summers of 1994 and 1995, ODOT contracted with HAER to complete a comprehensive study of the HCRH. The product included over a dozen historic structure reports on bridges and tunnels; a comprehensive historical overview of the Highway's construction; 27 architectural drawings; and nearly 200 black-and-white large-format photographs.

The historical research provided a context for assessing and treating the HCRH, and its many associated structures and designed landscapes. Researchers addressed the structures in terms of their role in the history of the development of modern bridge and tunnel engineering. They also assessed the HCRH for how it compared with other scenic highways primarily those constructed within national parks in the 1920s and 1930s.

The drawings, completed by architects and landscape architects, described the HCRH and its associated features, including the Columbia River Gorge's diverse climates and vegetation, variations in surrounding landscapes, and points of scenic inspiration along the Highway. They also explained the original design intent for the Highway, from paving and drainage to grading and alignment to masonry construction to railing standards. Several structural types were also delineated, including bridges, viaducts, and tunnels.

Two key historic designed landscapes, Eagle Creek Campground and Multnomah Falls Recreation Area, received special attention because of their strong historical association with the Highway. Eagle Creek Campground dates from 1915 and was the first improved Forest Service facility of its type in the United States. The Cascadian-style Multnomah Falls Lodge dates from 1925. Since then, it has served travelers as a welcome refuge from inclement weather and offering fine country dinners in front of a historic fireplace. Site plans and other drawings for the visitor complex describe spatial relationships of contributing and non-contributing elements, such as buildings, structures, and trails.

Multnomah Falls and the Benson Footbridge
Simon Benson, retired lumberman and Portland hotelier, purchased the falls and surrounding acreage adjacent to the HCRH to preserve it as a park for public enjoyment. The 620-foot falls, now part of the USDA Forest Service, is Oregon's most popular natural site. (Photo by Cross and Dimmitt, c.1920)

The photographs, taken in 1994 and 1995, provide a point-in-time reference of the Highway for future generations. Comparisons of these contemporary photographs with matched historical images, taken during the route's construction and in subsequent decades, provide much insight into changes to the Highway since its completion in 1922.

The 1996 Historic Columbia River Highway Master Plan is the culmination of several assessment and analysis projects that ODOT has sponsored or conducted since 1981. The Master Plan addresses such items as cultural resources management, traffic management, scenic resources and vista enhancement, interpretation, and funding.