Of all the engineering treasures created by Samuel Lancaster in building the (now Historic) Columbia River Highway, perhaps most iconic are the rustic stone walls that line the old road. Their graceful arches and elegant caps are a beautiful, familiar presence that has become inseparable from the surrounding natural landscape.
The walls are as functional as they are handsome: foremost, they serve as guardrails, designed to keep 1916 Ford Model T drivers on the spectacular new touring road with its perilous cliffs and winding route. But Lancaster also used them to frame the sweeping Gorge views and blend the new roadway into its rugged natural surroundings.
This article examines Lancaster’s stone walls in more detail. The drawings included in the article are from the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) program, established in 1969 by the National Park Service to document historic sites and structures.
In 1995, the HAER program worked with Robert Hadlow, historian at the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), to produce 27 pages of detailed drawings illustrating Samuel Lancaster’s amazing Columbia River Highway. This historical record continues to guide the restoration of the old highway to this day, as it transforms to become the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. The sketches in this article are the result of this work, and now reside in the Library of Congress.
Three Basic Designs
There are three major guardrail designs found along the old highway: the familiar arched stone walls with concrete cap, a lighter concrete arch found on several viaducts and bridges and the standard Oregon Highway Department wood fences of the era — painted white, and found throughout the old highway, but especially east of Hood River.
A fourth design is something less than a railing: along several sections of the road, Lancaster used vertical basalt blocks to form an irregular low wall (or tall curb?). These primarily function to mark the edge of the roadway, as even a Model T could easily jump these barriers. This design (pictured below) is found in several sections of the old road in the western Gorge.
The capped arch design was carried into some of the major pullouts and hiking trails along the old highway, including Women’s Forum Park, Crown Point, Sheperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls. More recently, capped arch walls have been added to the refurbished waysides at Latourell Falls and Mitchell Point.
In the 25 years since restoration of the old highway began in earnest, a handful of exceptionally skilled, local stonemasons are responsible for the many new or restored walls that now grace the Historic Columbia River Highway. Their work is as much art as construction, and their old-world skills are rare in this day and age.
The remainder of this article looks at how these beautiful walls are constructed.
Built by Artisans
The capped arch walls along the old highway are a labor-intensive effort, with individual basalt blocks split and trimmed to fit and mortar on site. Many of the stone workers working on the original highway were Italian immigrants whose skills and masonry secrets were passed down from generations of stonemasons.
Not much is known about these early laborers, though research by ODOT historians suggest that a series of cobble ovens near Warren Creek were built by Italian workers. These ovens may have used them to bake fresh bread by crews camped along the old highway during its construction.
You can find the stone ovens today along the Starvation Ridge Trail, just off modern-day I-84. Plans for extending the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail in this area have been carefully designed to preserve these historic features.
Building the stone walls began with cutting blocks of basalt to size using drills to create a break line, then a combination of “feathers” and wedges to split the basalt to custom shapes (Figure 1).
The walls are assembled atop a concrete footing that maintains the linear path of the wall. A close look at the capped arch walls shows two runs of cut stone. The first run consists of slightly tapered basalt blocks set over an arched form constructed of wood planks called an “arch buck” (Figures 2 and 3).
Plank forms also frame the outer face of the stone walls – these are shown as “slip form walls” in Figures 2 and 3. These forms are built up as stones are set in the wall, with wood spacers used to ensure the slip form maintains a uniform width for the masonry wall.
A second run of stone facing consists of irregular basalt pieces used to fill the spaces in the wall between the arch stones. After the stone for each section of wall has been set with a mortar grout, the space between the outer stone facing is filled with concrete (Figure 4). Once the concrete fill has set, the wood forms are removed in this initial phase of stone wall construction.
In the second phase of wall construction, the concrete cap is added The cap clearly has a decorative function, but it is also designed to protect the integrity of the wall below by shielding the interior of the stonework from the elements.
Cap construction begins with another wood form built slightly wider than the wall, itself, to provide a protective overhang. Galvanized wire is suspended inside the form, where concrete will be poured around it for reinforcement. Once the form is in place, concrete is poured into the cap form, leaving a flat concrete top (Figure 5).
In the final step, the wood form for the concrete cap is removed, and a slightly arched mortar finished is formed on top of the flat concrete cap. A curved wood “screed” is used to trim the sand mortar to the rounded top that we recognize on the caps today (Figure 6).
As always, Lancaster gave us a pleasing finish with his design, but the rounded top is also functional, discouraging water and debris from collecting on top of the walls.
Creating the iconic stone walls is slow work. But in Lancaster’s day, labor was plentiful and cheap, and he employed dozens of workers to inch their way along the new highway, building the stone walls section by section.
Today’s restored and rebuilt walls are constructed in much the same way as they were a century ago, as described in this recent article on the Sahalie Falls Bridge. While they are painstaking to build, Samuel Lancaster’s walls have survived the elements, with miles of walls in excellent condition after a century of harsh Columbia Gorge weather — a real testament to their quality and design.
More to come..!
For those who love the stonework details of the Historic Columbia River Highway, the past 30 years have been a renaissance. Since the mid-1980s, ODOT and Oregon State Parks and Recreation have partnered to restore or rebuild basalt stonework throughout the Gorge as the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail takes shape.
The good news is that more restoration and reconstruction is on the way. ODOT will soon extend the state trail west of Starvation Creek, including special stonework details at Cabin Creek, Warren Creek and Lindsey Creek.
Plans call for completing the state trail in the next few years, linking all of the remaining sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale to The Dalles. While the spectacular Gorge scenery is the main attraction along this emerging, world-class route, the stunning design of the road itself is what makes the journey so memorable.
What would Samuel Lancaster think of the renewed interest in his vision for the Columbia River Highway? Certainly, he would be thrilled to see his dream of scenic parkway being rediscovered. But given his attention to craftsmanship and blending with the Gorge environment, he would be especially pleased with the careful attention today’s designers are paying to the rustic details — including those iconic stone walls!
5 thoughts on “Stone Walls of the Columbia River Highway”
Hi Tom, Very interesting read! I sure love those old stone walls! Even the new ones that are made in the same (or at least very similar) style.
Those rocks that stick up alongside some of the retaining walls are called “guard rocks.” They were intended to make the motorist feel more secure in passing those drop-off places. They wouldn’t make me feel secure; they seem threatening to me!
And the picture below the Eagle Creek Bridge and above the Waukeena bridge is called The Eagle’s Nest. There were similar little stopping places along the way, and people also called them eagle’s nests, but this one (right past the Toothrock Viaduct) was the one that was originally given that name.
I LOVE reading your stuff! Keep up the good work!
Thanks, Peg! Interesting about the “Eagle’s Nest” – now that you mention it, I think I saw that reference in the Lancaster book..? In my folder of “someday” articles, I’ve got a note about the plan to locate the Oregon Pony in that spot — shown that way in some old maps, too.
Thanks for the kind comments! 🙂
Amazing work of research Tom. Worth printing off and keeping in the car, for those times when we have a moment to stop and admire the craftsmanship, instead of always buzzing up and down I84.
Years ago, I took a history class of the gorge. We walked in to the rock ovens near Warren Creek. The instructor said they were built by the Chinese, but even at that time, I wasn’t too sure about that and I don’t think he was either.
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Thanks for stopping by, Laurene! Glad you enjoyed the article.
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