Taylor Rose Resident Scholar talk: Engineering Roads, Envisioning Nature: the Columbia River Highway and Mount Hood Loop, through Maps and Postcards, 1913-1931

Taylor-Rose_0In his time as a resident scholar at Oregon State, Taylor Rose conducted research into the history of several state roads that most Oregonians will be familiar with. A master’s degree candidate at Portland State University, Rose spent his time at OSU utilizing maps, postcards and other materials from the OSU archives. In his Resident Scholar presentation, titled “Engineering Roads, Envisioning Nature: the Columbia River Highway and Mount Hood Loop, through Maps and Postcards, 1913-1931,” Rose examined how these roads were created, what inspiration shaped them and how public sentiment and reaction functioned in vital debates about accessibility to nature.

Rose’s talk touched upon several events and debates that were occurring over land use and accessibility that ultimately led to Congress passing the Wilderness Act in 1964. The speech looked at the fledgling government services of forests and parks and how their roles were shaped by contemporary debates. In particular, Rose looked at the explosion of road construction that occurred in the 1910’s and how automobiles were slowly replacing trains as the primary means of transportation. This transition was largely occurring among the upper classes who could afford these vehicles.

columbia-river-highway-2The Columbia River Highway was the work of Samuel Hill, an entrepreneur who hired Samuel Lancaster to design it. The pair toured Europe, attending a conference on road construction, as well as looking at scenic roads in countries like Germany and Switzerland among others and drawing inspiration from their design. Although Hill and Lancaster were the two men who completed this undertaking, they were not the first to attempt such a project, as philanthropist Simon Benson had tried the same idea just a year earlier. Lancaster viewed the natural landscape as a gift from God and thought that everyone should be able to enjoy it. The finished product of the highway was a splendid combination of European styles and cutting edge American technology. His vision was shown by the vista house at Crown Point along the road, that offered a view of the river.

Lancaster and Hill broke ground in 1913 and by 1915 the road was open to the public. A key issue in the construction of the road was the land around the road. The investors purchased land out from under people along the road if they felt it was necessary to prevent unsightly development. Simon Benson had made similar efforts as well, going so far as to purchase the land around Multnomah Falls. Hill himself was invested in the scenery and wanted to prevent logging, so he talked to the Chief Forester of the Department of Forest Services and was able to secure over 14,000 acres of timber land around the highway. At this time the Forest Service still felt it best to use the land for production and their ideas and goals changed over time in response to public views as well as projects like the Columbia River Gorge Highway.

columbia-river-highway-1Auto-tourism was exploding in the years following World War I and the federal government soon required all states to have a highway commission to oversee road building and repairs – duties that had previously belonged to the individual counties. The increasing ownership of vehicles meant that the traffic, both commercial and private, skyrocketed and the scenic highway stops became crowded and noisy. By 1926 it was simply entitled US Route 30, marking the completion of it from a scenic getaway into a main thoroughfare of transportation.

In 1919 the south road around Mt. Hood was very rough and began to lose all appeal as trains to Portland rendered the road obsolete. Hotels that existed along the road tried to appeal to affluent Portlanders who wanted to get away into the mountains. E. Henry Wemme – who had tried to facilitate construction of the Columbia River Highway, before either Hill or Benson – bought the road in 1912 to develop it into a more reliable path for automobiles. Wemme imagined the road as a potential scenic trip, with hotels and restaurants along the way. Both the Oregon Highway Commission and US Forest Service were sympathetic to his vision, but were ambivalent about the plan still. Constant pressure however from the constituents in Multnomah County, and the relatively cheap cost to repair the road, finally convinced the OHC to relent.

By 1925, over 200 miles had been graded and oiled and visitors began flocking to Mt. Hood. In 1926 the secretary of Agriculture signed off on a plan by members of the US Forest Service to establish the Mt. Hood Recreation Area. Tensions were raised though when a conglomeration of private investors got involved in the building and proposed a tramway that would go from the highway up to the very summit of the mountain. The idea fell through during the Great Depression, even though it had received the go ahead, but it had created much discussion about how far roads should extend towards “untrammeled” natural areas. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program led to a great increase in road building towards natural areas and government involvement, that contrasted with the private enterprise and lobbying that had characterized road-building in prior decades.

In his lecture, Rose explained that much of the debate over road building and usage had roots in class conflict, although it was never clean cut. To emphasize the point, Rose expanded on the involvement of the Mazamas, a mountaineering club, in the Trammelway proposal. They adopted what some people called an elitist attitude towards people who would use such a device to reach the top of the mountain.

Rose concluded by speaking of the power of technology being linked with imagination and illustrated that by showing how roads and cars offered the freedom to connect with nature in a way that trains could not. The freedom and opportunity connected with driving was lost though as they became more commonplace, leading to these drives becoming something akin to a chore. This led to a backlash against machines and technology and roads took the blame.

Thanks to SCARC volunteer Chris Russell for this post!

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