A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta?

Oneonta Tunnel traffic jam at the west portal shortly after completion in 1916. The highway had not yet been paved when the tunnel opened.

In the span of just about a decade, the Oneonta Tunnel on the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) has endured a wild ride. The tunnel had been closed since the 1940s when the old highway was rerouted around the cliffs of Oneonta Bluff, and for more than half a century lived only in memories and photographs. 

Then, the tunnel was carefully restored to its original glory in 2006 as part of the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the HCRH. But within just few years, the beautiful restoration work was badly vandalized by uncontrolled mobs of thoughtless young people unleashed upon Oneonta Gorge by social media (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge). Then, in September 2017, the restored timber lining was completely burned away during the Eagle Creek Fire.

Today, the tunnel stands empty and fenced-off, waiting to be brought back to life, once again. But does it make sense to restore it as before, only to set this historic gem up for more vandalism? Or could it be restored in a different way, as part of a larger vision for protecting the history and natural beauty of both the tunnel and Oneonta Gorge, while also telling the story of the scenic highway, itself? More on that idea in a moment… 

First, a look at how we got here.

Before the dams and after the railroads…

Looking at Oneonta Tunnel today, it’s hard to understand why the original highway alignment went through Oneonta Bluff to begin with, instead of simply going around it? Why wasn’t it simply built in the current alignment of the historic highway, which curves around the bluff? The answer can be seen in this photo (below) taken before the old highway was built.

Oneonta Bluff before construction of the new highway and tunnel in 1916. The new road was squeezed on the uphill side of the railroad line in many spots in the Gorge, forcing creative solutions from the visionary road designer Samuel Lancaster.

It turns out the original railroad alignment crossed Oneonta Creek on a trestle where the current highway is located today, and was also built snug against the base of Oneonta Bluff. Why was it built this way? Because in the era before Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were completed in the 1930s (along with the many dams in the Columbia basin that followed), the Columbia River fluctuated wildly during spring runoff. So, the original rail line was built to stand above seasonal flood levels of the time.

When Samuel Lancaster assessed the situation in the 1910s, the only options for his new highway were to move the railroad or tunnel through the bluff. As with other spots in the Gorge where the railroads were an obstacle for the new highway, the second option turned out to be the most expedient, and the Oneonta Tunnel was born. 

This close-up look (below) at previous photo shows a man standing on the railroad trestle crossing Oneonta Creek, pointing to what would soon be the west portal to the new tunnel, and I believe this to be Samuel Lancaster on a survey trip — though that’s just my speculation.

Close-up view of what might be Samuel Lancaster pointing at the future west portal at the Oneonta Tunnel site

When the original alignment of the old highway opened in 1916, the new road paralleled the old railroad grade closely, especially east of the tunnel (below), where a retaining wall and wood guardrail separated the somewhat taller road grade from the railroad.

The east portal of Oneonta Tunnel shortly after completion in 1916

Sometime after the original tunnel was built, possibly in the 1930s, the railroad was moved away from the bluff, perhaps because of falling debris from the Oneonta Bluff landing on the tracks, or maybe just part of modernizing the rail line over time. The flood control provided by dams on the Columbia River beginning in the 1930s (and especially the relatively stable “pool” created behind Bonneville Dam) allowed the railroads to move several sections of their tracks in the Gorge onto extensive rock fill during this period, often well into the river, itself. 

This photo (below) from the 1930s shows the west portal of Oneonta Tunnel after the railroad had been move northward, away from Oneonta Bluff, but before the highway had been realigned to bypass the tunnel.

West approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in the late 1930s after the railroad had been moved away from the bluff, opening the door for the highway, itself, to be routed around the bluff

The tunnel at Oneonta Bluff was one of several along the old highway, though it was easily overshadowed as an attraction by the famous “tunnel with windows” at Mitchell Point, to the east and the spectacular “twin tunnels” near Mosier. What made Oneonta Tunnel famous was the view into impossibly narrow Oneonta Gorge, which suddenly appears as you approach the west portal. 

Oneonta Gorge has been a popular tourist attraction since the old highway opened in 1916. For nearly a century, adventurers have waded up the creek to the graceful 120-foot waterfall that falls into Oneonta Gorge, about a mile from the historic highway bridge. Only in recent years has overcrowding presented a serious threat to both the unique cliff ecosystem and the historic highway features here.

Early visitors to Oneonta Gorge in the 1920s

In the 1930 and 1940s, the Oregon Highway Department began a series of projects in the Gorge aimed at “modernizing” the old highway as the dawn of the 1950s freeway-building loomed. A new river-level route was built to bypass the steep climb the original route takes over Crown Point, with the new route following what is today’s I-84 alignment. 

At Tooth Rock (above Bonneville Dam) a new tunnel was blasted through the cliffs to bypass the intricate viaducts built atop the cliffs by Samuel Lancaster. That tunnel still serves eastbound I-84 today, and has become a historic feature in its own right. And at Oneonta Bluff, a new bridge and tunnel bypass (below) took advantage of the relocated railroad, and was completed in 1948.

The (then) new highway bypass bridge under construction in 1948; the original bridge is to the left, and still remains today

When the new bridge and realigned highway section opened, the original bridge Samuel Lancaster built at Oneonta Creek was left in place, thankfully, and it survives today as a elegant viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge and gateway to the tunnel. The Oneonta Tunnel was also decommissioned at the time, with fill at both entrances (below). The tunnel remained this way for the next half-century, as a curiosity for history buffs but forgotten by most.

The realigned historic highway after 1948, with the tunnel (on the right) decommissioned with rock fill at both ends

The rebirth of Oneonta Tunnel began with a bold vision for restoring and reconnecting the surviving sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as part of the landmark 1986 Columbia River National Scenic Area act, with this simple language: 

16 U.S.C. 544j Section 12. Old Columbia River Highway: The Oregon Department of Transportation shall, in consultation with the Secretary and the Commission, the State of Oregon and the counties and cities in which the Old Columbia River Highway is located, prepare a program and undertake efforts to preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity of the remaining segments of the Old Columbia River Highway for public use as a Historic Road, including recreation trails to connect intact and usable segments.

And so began what will eventually be a four-decade effort to restore the old highway to its original grandeur, with many beautiful new segments designed as if Samuel Lancaster were still here overseeing the project. Work began elsewhere on the old route in the 1980s, but eventually came to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (below). 

Restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel begins in 2006 (ODOT)

The restoration began with simply excavating the old tunnel, and later rebuilding the stone portals at both ends and installing cedar sheathing to line the interior. A new visitor’s parking area was created outside the east portal and the original white, wooden guardrails were also recreated.

Restored interior wood lining nearly complete in the Oneonta Tunnel in 2006 (ODOT)

For the next few years, the restored tunnel stood as a remarkable tribute to the work of Samuel Lancaster and our commitment to preserving the history of the Gorge. It was a popular stop for visitors and also served as fun part of a hiking loop linking the Horsetail and Oneonta trails.

Vandalism & Oneonta Gorge

Every new technology brings unintended consequences, and the advent of social media over the past two decades has been undeniably hard on our public lands. Where visitors once studied printed field guides and maps to plan their adventures, today’s decisions are more often based on a photo posted in some Facebook group or on Instagram, where hundreds will see it as the place to be right now. 

This has resulted in the “Instagram Effect”, where huge surges in visits follow social media posts, both in the immediate near-term for a given place, and in the long-term interest in hiking and the outdoors. According to a 2017 study by Nielsen Scarborough, hiking in the Pacific Northwest has nearly doubled in popularity the past ten years, with Portland and Seattle ranking second and third (in that order) in the nation for number of hiking enthusiasts — Salt Lake City took the top spot. 

Overall, that’s very good news for our society because hiking and spending time outdoors are good for all of us, and we live in a part of the world where we have some of the most spectacular places to be found anywhere in our own backyard. But the immediate effect of social media can often spell bad news when hordes of ill-equipped and ill-informed people descend upon a place that is trending on their phone.

Social media conga-line waiting to enter Oneonta Gorge in 2016 (Photo: John Speth)
Traffic jam at the Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Traffic jam at the second Oneonta log jam in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)
Cattle call at Oneonta Gorge in 2015 (Photo: TJ Thorne)

Oneonta Gorge is one of the special places that fell victim to the Instagram Effect, with huge crowds of young people overwhelming the canyon on summer days over the past decade. Sadly, the Forest Service did absolutely nothing to curb the invasion, despite the obvious threat to the rare ecosystem here, and hazardous conditions presented by the infamous log-jam that has blocked the entrance to the canyon since the late 1990s (see “Let’s Clear the Logjam at Oneonta Gorge).

And another unfortunate casualty of this unmanaged overcrowding was the Oneonta Tunnel, itself, when the Oneonta Gorge mobs stopped by to record themselves for posterity in the soft, brand-new cedar walls of the restored tunnel (below). While the vandalism was maddening, the lack of any sort of public response from the Forest Service or ODOT to stem the tide was equally frustrating.

The massive defacing of the restored Oneonta Tunnel interior…
…coincided with the explosive, unmanaged crowds that descended…
…upon Oneonta Gorge in the era of social media…

The vandalism didn’t stop with the destruction of the tunnel walls, however. The unmanaged crowds also tagged spots throughout the area with graffiti, and damaged some of the priceless historic features (below) left for us by Samuel Lancaster.

Damage to historic highway features like this staircase came with the disrespectful mobs of young people coming to Oneonta Gorge over the past decade

As discouraging as the damage at Oneonta was, it was also completely predictable. The idea of limiting access to popular spots in the Gorge is one that the public land managers at the state and federal level have been loath to consider, even when overuse is clearly harming the land and our recreation infrastructure. The problem is made worse by the crazy quilt of intertwined state and federal lands in the Gorge, complicating efforts to manage access, even if the will existed.

Then the fire happened in September 2017, changing everything…

The Fire

When the Eagle Creek Fire was ignited on Labor Day weekend in 2017 by a careless firework tossed from a cliff, few imagined that it would ultimately spread to burn a 25-mile swath of the Oregon side of the Gorge, from Shepperd’s Dell on the west to the slopes of Mount Defiance on the east. In the aftermath, the entire burn zone was closed to the public, and much of it still is. While the fire closure put enormous pressure on the few trails that remained open, it also opened the door to rethinking how we access to trails within the burn zone when they are reopened. How and when that happens remains to be seen.

At Oneonta Bluff, the images of the fire were dramatic and unexpected: the inferno spread to the interior of the restored tunnel and lit up the wood lining, completely burning it away like lit fuse. Local news affiliate KPTV published these views (below) taken by fire crews as the tunnel burned.

East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)
West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel burning in September 2017 (KPTV)

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spent the weeks after the fire in 2017 assessing the damage to the historic highway, including these photos of the burned-out tunnel (below).

West portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)
East portal view of the Oneonta Tunnel after the fire in 2017 (ODOT)

Today, the scene at Oneonta Tunnel hasn’t changed that much. ODOT eventually stripped the remaining, charred timbers from the tunnel and fenced off both portals to the public (below), though vandals have since pushed the fencing aside. The area remains closed indefinitely.

Charred reminders of the fire in 2020 at Oneonta Tunnel
East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
East portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020
Gated east portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2020, opened by vandals

Though it might be heresy to admit, my immediate reaction when I saw the images of the burning tunnel in 2017 was relief. There was no end in sight to the social-media driven vandalism, and the interior had pretty much been ruined at that point, so the fire presented an unexpected opportunity for a redo, someday. Quite literally, it’s an opportunity for Oneonta Tunnel to rise from the ashes, but perhaps in a new way this time.

Remembering what we lost

A new vision for restoring Oneonta Tunnel — and protecting Oneonta Gorge — begins with remembering the fine restoration work completed in 2006. What follows is a look back at what that looked like, before social media took its toll.

At the west portal to the tunnel (where the original Oneonta Bridge, with its graceful arched railings, still stands), the restoration included a gateway sign, restored, painted guardrails built in the style of the original highway and an interpretive display near the tunnel entrance (below). The design functioned as a wide, paved trail, with the idea that cyclists touring the historic highway would pull off the main road and ride through the short tunnel section on a path closed to cars.

West portal of the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008, shortly after the renovation

From the original highway bridge over Oneonta Creek, the view extended into Oneonta Gorge, but also down to this fanciful stairway (below) right out of a Tolkien novel. This feature of the original historic highway continues to take visitors down to the banks of Oneonta Creek (the landing Newell in the bottom center of the photo, at the base of the stairs, is the one broken by vandals in an earlier photo). Just out of view at the top of the stairs is a picturesque bench built into the mossy cliff.

Historic Oneonta Stairwell in 2008

The west portal restoration included new stonework around the timber frame that closely matched the original design (below). 

West portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Inside, the restored tunnel was lined with cedar plank walls and ceiling, supported by arched beams (below).

Wood interior of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

The east portal was similar to the west end of the tunnel, with stone masonry trim supporting the portal timbers (below).

East portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

Like the west side, the east entrance approach (below) was designed for cyclists to leave the highway and tour the tunnel and historic bridge before returning to the main road. 

East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

In practice, most of the traffic in the tunnel before the fire came from hikers and curious visitors parking on the east and west sides and walking the path to the viewpoint into Oneonta Gorge. This is partly because bicycle touring in the Gorge focuses on the extensive car-free-sections of the historic highway, though the shared-road portions of the old highway are expected to see continued growth in cycling as the entirety of the old route is fully restored.

A Fresh Start (and Vision)

Oneonta Gorge in about 1900, more than a decade before the first automobiles would travel through the Columbia River Gorge

The 2006 restoration of Oneonta Tunnel and its approaches was based on the idea of it simply serving as a bicycle and pedestrian path as part of the larger historic highway restoration project. But the tragic defacing of the newly restored tunnel is a painful reminder that it’s simply not safe to assume it will be respected if left open to the public, unprotected, as it was before. Even gates are not enough, as vandals have since demonstrated by tearing open the temporary fencing on the burned-out tunnel.

But what if we considered the tunnel and its paved approaches, including the historic highway bridge, as a useful space instead of a path? The tunnel is surprisingly wide, at 20 feet, and 125 feet long. That’s 2,500 feet of interior space! What if the tunnel were restored this time with the idea of using this as interior space? As a history museum, in fact? With the paved approaches as plazas with outdoor seating, tables and bike parking?

Though it’s not a perfect comparison, there is an excellent model to look to in southern Utah, just east of the town of Kanab, where the privately operated Moqui Cave Natural History Museum is built inside a sandstone cave. The cave was once a speakeasy, then a dance hall in the 1930s, before it was finally converted to become a museum in the 1040s.

Moqui Cave Museum near Kanab, Utah (Wikipedia)

While passing through Kanab on a recent road trip, the stonework blending with the standstone cave entrance at Moqui Cave (below) reminded me of the restored stonework at Oneonta tunnel portals, and how the entrances to the tunnel might be enclosed to create a museum space at Oneonta.

Moqui Cave Museum entrance (TripAdvisor)

Like our Oneonta Tunnel, Moqai Cave is mostly linear in shape (below), with displays of ancient Puebloan artifacts and fossil dinosaur tracks displayed along its sandstone walls.

Moqui Cave Museum interior (TripAdvisor)

These section of the Moqui Cave are roughly the same width and height of the Oneonta Tunnel, with plenty of room for both displays and walking space.

Other solutions for enclosing the entrance at Oneonta Tunnel could draw from our own Timberline Lodge, on Mount Hood. While the stone foundation for the lodge is man-made, it’s not unlike the basalt portals at Oneonta. This is the familiar main entrance on the south side of the lodge (below), showing how the massive wood entry doors are built into the arched stone lodge foundation.

Historic Timberline Lodge entrance door (Wikipedia)

About ten years ago, another entrance to Timberline Lodge was handsomely renovated (below) to become barrier-free, yet still the massive, rugged lodge style that was pioneered here. This updated design shows how modern accessibility requirements could be met at an enclosed Oneonta Tunnel.

Restored Timberline Lodge side entry door (Versatile Wood Products)

There are other examples for enclosing Oneonta Tunnel as a museum space, too. While it would be a departure from Samuel Lancaster original purpose and design to enclose the tunnel, I suspect he would approve, given how the Gorge has changed in the century since he built the original highway.

There are logistics questions, of course. Is the Oneonta Tunnel weatherproof? If the dry floors during winter the months after the 2006 renovation are any indication, than yes, having 150 feet of solid basalt above you provides good weather proofing! Does the tunnel have power? Not yet, but a power source is just across the highway along the railroad corridor. These are among the questions that would have to be answered before the tunnel could be used as a museum, but the potential is promising!

Getting a handle on parking…

One of the most vexing problems along the busy westerly section of the Historic Columbia River Highway is how to manage parking as a means for managing overall crowding. Today, parking is largely unmanaged in this part of the Gorge, which might sound great if you believe there is such a thing as “free parking” (there isn’t). But in practice, it has the opposite effect, with epic traffic jams on weekends and holidays, and travelers waiting wearily for their “free” spot at one of the waterfall pullouts.

Weekend traffic jams on the historic highway are the norm today, and result from unmanaged parking (KATU)

At Oneonta, the lack of managed parking is at the heart of the destruction that mobs descending on Oneonta Gorge brought to the area, including the defacing of the tunnel. Some simple, proven parking management steps are essential, no matter what comes next at Oneonta. First, parking spaces must be marked, with a limited number of spots available and enforced. Can’t find a spot? Come back later, or better yet, at a less crowded time. 

Second, the parking should be managed with time limits (30 minutes, 60 minutes and a some 120 minute spots for Oneonta Gorge explorers). Timed parking also allows for eventual parking fees during peak periods, which in turn, could help pay for badly-needed law enforcement in the Gorge. Eventually, it makes sense to meter all parking spots in the Gorge, but that’s going to take some a level of cooperation between ODOT, the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks that we haven’t seen before, so lots of work lies ahead on that front.

So, these are all basic tools of the trade for managing parking in urban areas, and the traffic in the Gorge is well beyond urban levels. It’s time to begin managing it with that reality in mind.

The east parking area (below) at the Oneonta Tunnel was rebuilt as part of the tunnel restoration in 2006, but is poorly designed, with a huge area dedicated to parallel parking. 

Unmarked, poorly designed shoulder parking at the new pullout east of the Oneonta Tunnel comes complete with a sidewalk, and could be easily be restriped and better managed with angled spaces

However, this relatively new parking area includes a (rarely used) sidewalk, and thus it could be striped with angled spaces that would make for more efficient parking and also include space for a tour bus pullout. ODOT would just need to take a deep breath, since this would involve visitors backing into the travel lane when exiting a spot — a bugaboo for old-school highway engineers. But drivers manage this all time in the city. We can handle it.

The west parking area (below) at Oneonta is an unfortunate free-for all, with an unmanaged shoulder that was ground zero for the huge social media crowds that began clogging Oneonta Gorge in the late 2000s. This area needs a limited number of marked, timed parking spots no matter what happens at Oneonta in the future. There’s also plenty of room for a sidewalk or marked path in front of the parking spaces, along the foot of the cliffs, similar to the new sidewalk built east of the tunnel. This would make for much safer circulation of pedestrians here.

The west parking area would also be the best place for accessible parking spaces, since it offers the shortest, easiest access to the tunnel and views of Oneonta Gorge from the historic bridge.

Looking west for inspiration… and operations?

Most who visit the iconic Vista House at Crown Point don’t know that the interpretive museum inside the building is operated as a partnership between the non-profit Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks.

Vista House rotunda (TripAdvisor)

The Friends formed in 1982, well before the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area was created in 1986, and have done a remarkable job bringing the Vista House back from a serious backlog of needed repairs. Today, it is among the jewels that draw visitors to the Gorge.

Vista House interpretive displays and gift shop (TripAdvisor)

In their partnership with State Parks, the Friends operate a museum inside Vista House, as well as a gift shop and espresso bar in the lower level. Proceeds from the gift shop are directed to their ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret this structure for future generations.

Vista House interpretive displays (TripAdvisor)

The unique partnership between the Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks is a proven, successful model, and it could be a foundation for a museum in the restored Oneonta Tunnel. Could the Friends operate a similar facility at Oneonta as part of an expanded mission? Perhaps. Or perhaps another non-profit could be formed as a steward for the tunnel, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and State Parks? 

Crucially, having a staffed presence at Oneonta would allow for effectively managing access to Oneonta Gorge, itself, using a timed entry permit system. This is a proven approach to protecting vulnerable natural areas from overuse, and the Forest Service already uses timed permits elsewhere. Ideally, this permitting function would be funded by the Forest Service, and would include interpretive services for other visitors discovering the area, as well.

Focus on Sam Lancaster’s Road?

Samuel Lancaster, the dreamer behind the Columbia River Highway

On the cut stone wall of the Vista House, a bronze plaque honoring Samuel Lancaster provides a very brief introduction to the man. Displays inside Vista House, and elsewhere in the Gorge, also tell his story in shorthand. But Lancaster’s original vision and continued legacy in shaping how we experience the Gorge deserves a more prominent place. A converted Oneonta Tunnel Museum would be a perfect place to tell that story.

The walls of the tunnel provide a combined 250 feet of display space, which could allow visitors to have a detailed look at some of the secrets of Sam Lancaster’s amazing road. The State of Oregon has a rich archive of historical photos of the highway during its construction phase, mostly unseen by the public for lack of a venue. 

These include rare photos of spectacular structures now lost to time. Among these (below) is the soaring bridge at McCord Creek, destroyed to make room for the modern freeway, and the beautiful arched bridge at Hood River, replaced with a modern concrete slab in the 1980s.

The soaring, former McCord Creek Bridge under construction in 1915 (ODOT)
The graceful former Hood River Bridge in the 1920s, replaced with a freeway-style concrete slab in the 1980s (ODOT)

A new Oneonta Tunnel Museum could tell the story of Sam Lancaster’s inspiration for the famous windowed tunnel at Mitchell Point (below), another lost treasure along the old highway destroyed by modern freeway construction.

The former Mitchel Point Tunnel of many windows (ODOT)

A new museum at Oneonta could also tell the story of the surviving gems along the old road that are now part of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. These include (below) the spectacular section between Hood River and Mosier, with its iconic twin tunnels, the beautifully crafted stone bridge at Eagle Creek and the graceful arched bridge at Shepperd’s Dell.

1920s scene along the spectacular Mosier Twin Tunnels section of the old highway
Eagle Creek Bridge construction in 1915 (note the group of stonemasons in the viewing alcove on the left)
Shepperd’s Dell Bridge on dedication day in 1916. Samuel Lancaster is riding in backseat of  the first automobile (photo trivia: the big Douglas fir at the far left in this image is still standing and survived the 2017 Eagle Creek fire with some scorching to its massive trunk!)

The story behind the building of the old highway extends beyond the genius of Samual Lancaster and the beauty of the design. The construction, itself, was a monumental undertaking, and the stories of the people who built this road deserve to be told in a lasting way for future generations.

The Lancaster story continues today, as well. Since the 1980s, ODOT, Oregon State Parks and scores of dedicated volunteers have steered the ongoing effort to restore and reconnect the old route, as called for when the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Actwas signed into law in 1986.

Many of the restoration projects are epic achievements in their own right, and deserve to have their story told for future generations to appreciate. All are inspired in some way by Samuel Lancaster’s original vision for a road blended seamlessly into the Gorge landscape in way that allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the scenery. These include handsome new bridges (below) at Warren Creek and McCord Creek, as well as a planned recreation of the Mitchell Pont Tunnel.

The new bridge over Warren Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail
The new bridge over McCord Creek on the restored Columbia River Highway State Trail

What would it take to create an Oneonta Tunnel Museum dedicated to Samuel Lancaster’s enduring vision? Capital funding, of course, but that will surely come at some point, given the current state of the tunnel after the fire. It would also take a willing non-profit partner and a strong interest from the Forest Service, ODOT and Oregon State Parks to try something different when it comes time to once again restore the tunnel. But the time to start that conversation is now, before the agencies start down the path of simply repeating mistakes from the past decade.

So, for now, this is just an idea. But in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Samuel Lancaster and his amazing highway, there are two books that should be in every Gorge-lover’s library. And they make for especially good reading in this time in which we’re not able to visit the Gorge! 

The first is Samuel Lancaster’s own book, The Columbia: America’s Great Highway, first published in 1916 by Lancaster, himself. This book is as eccentric and sweeping as Lancaster’s own imagination, and his love for the Gorge comes through in his detailed descriptions of the natural and human history. It’s easy to see how his vision for “designing with nature” grew from his intense interest in the natural landscape of the Gorge.

Lancaster’s original book was reproduced in 2004 by Schiffer as a modern edition, and is still in print. The modern version includes restored, full-color plates from the 1916 edition, as well as additional plates that were added to a 1926 version by Sam Lancaster.

Essential reading for any Gorge lover!

A wonderful bookend to Sam Lancaster’s classic is Building the Columbia River Highway: They Said it Couldn’t Be Done by Oregon author Peg Willis. This exceptional book focuses on the highway, itself, and the collection of characters who came together to make Samuel Lancaster’s bold vision become reality.

Peg’s book also includes a terrific selection of seldom-seen historic photos of the highway during it’s original construction, reproduced with fine quality. In fact, the stories and images in this book would a perfect blueprint for the future Oneonta Tunnel Museum… someday!

_________________

As always, thanks for stopping by and reading through yet another long-form article in our era of tweets and soundbites!

Special thanks to Oregon photographer TJ Thorne, who contributed photos of the Oneonta Gorge summer crowds for this article. Those were just a few snapshots from his iPhone, but please visit TJ’s website to see his amazing fine art nature photography from landscapes across the American West, and please consider supporting his work.

Oregon’s outdoor photographers serve as our eyes on the forest, taking us places we might otherwise never see. They help the rest of us better appreciate and protect our public lands through their dedicated work, but they need our support to continue their work. 

Thanks, TJ!

_________________

Tom Kloster • April 2020

An Overdue Warren Falls Update (…and a bombshell!)

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Warren Falls lives! Well, occasionally… during the wettest winter storms

Time is running out on the Restore Warren Falls! project. This summer the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail project will begin construction of a segment that will pass right in front of the falls.

The new trail construction in the area is not simply an ideal opportunity to finally undo what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) did to this magnificent waterfall 76 years ago — it’s probably the only opportunity in our lifetimes.

In that spirit, I thought an update on the project and Warren Falls was in order — plus share a bit of a bombshell that was sent to me recently!

Checking in on Warren Falls

First, a quick visit to Warren Creek: in mid-April I made a couple visits to Warren Falls as part of my twice-annual Friends of the Gorge hikes. As has become the norm in recent years, the natural falls clearly flowed again this winter during heavy runoff that overwhelmed the diversion weir at the top of the falls.

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

The flood path from the briefly reborn falls cleared leaf debris as shown by the arrows in this photo…

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

…and in this photo, where the overflow stream continued down the ancient creekbed

These regular overflows make more sense when you look at the condition of the weir — the following photos from the top of the falls show just how clogged the giant “trash rack” has become, and also how badly the upper lip of the rack has been exposed as the concrete diversion dam continues to erode:

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

Over its 76-year life the enormous weir has become twisted and clogged with debris, causing more overflows each year

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The steel beams that make up the weir are also coming loose from their foundation as the concrete diversion dam deteriorates with time

The Friends of the Gorge hikers always marvel at the strange, unsettling scene of a dry waterfall. Like most who visit Warren Falls, many are also saddened by the idea that the ODOT could have been so cavalier in altering such a beautiful scene at Warren Creek so grotesquely.

While the original decision to divert the falls can arguably be blamed on the thinking of the era (late 1930s), I would submit that allowing this tragic mistake to continue to exist is equally cavalier and dismissive of the natural landscape at Warren Creek. Thus, my campaign to attach the burden of undoing the mess at Warren Falls to ODOT — and in particular, their looming state trail construction project that will soon begin in the area.

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

While researching Warren Falls over the winter, I finally found a definitive story on the official naming of the creek. The name “Warren” comes from Warren “Barney” Cooper, and early forest ranger in the Mount Hood area (and part of the Cooper family described in this previous article).

This Oregonian article documents (in the last paragraph) when Warren Cooper’s name finally became the official name of the creek in 1948, though it had been in unofficial use for years:

WarrenFallsUpdate07

So, we now learn that Warren Lake and creek were once called “Warm Lake” and “Warm Creek”. Warren Lake is situated on a high, rocky shoulder of Mount Defiance, and shallow enough to be “warm” in late summer, so that could be the simplest explanation for this early name.

The name “Warren” appears on maps and early documents from well before this 1948 decision, so the timing of the article is interesting, especially so long after Warren Cooper’s death in 1920. Was the naming in 1948 simply cartographic housekeeping or an overdue recognition of a pioneering forest ranger by those who followed him?

As always, every answer brings a few new questions!

Friends of Warren Falls… are everywhere!

Since the Oregon Field Guide story on the Restore Warren Falls! project first aired the fall of 2012 (watch the documentary here), several anonymous “friends” of Warren Falls have quietly contacted me with offers to help.

OFG's Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

OFG’s Vince Patton and Michael Bendixen looking for the illusive Warren Falls in the winter of 2012

Most surprising among the proposals were offers to simply “monkey-wrench” the weir at the top of the falls to speed up its demise! While I’m sympathetic to both the frustration and impatience behind the monkey-wrenchers out there, I’m also concerned that tinkering with the weir might actually be illegal (though it’s hard to see how a decaying structure that no public agency will claim responsibility for could somehow also become the basis for legal action..?)

More importantly, I’m concerned that formally removing the weir and associated debris will become increasingly difficult if the structure is further compromised. I’ve therefore thanked the monkey-wrenchers for their passion, but encouraged them to be patient and allow the slow wheels of government to turn a bit further..!

…and the bombshell…

Another piece of information that trickled in from an anonymous attorney and friend of Warren Falls is found in plain sight: in the Oregon Revised Statutes. Specifically, ORS 538.200, which exists solely to prohibit the diversion of “streams forming waterfalls near the Columbia River Highway” for “any purpose whatsoever”.

While quite clear in its intent, this might seem like a very general reference. But the statute (which was signed into law in the early 1900s, before the Warren Falls diversion) goes on to list each of the streams and waterfalls that fall under this protection — including Warren Creek, in ORS 538.200(26)!

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

An unusual view of Warren Creek topping its weir and overflowing into its natural falls (visible behind the trees)

What does this new information mean? For starters, it means that ODOT — at the time, called the Oregon Highway Division — broke the law in 1939 when it blasted a diversion tunnel and erected a dam and weir to pipe Warren Creek away from its natural falls and streambed. That is quite clear.

What is unknown is whether the ODOT decision to defy the law in the late 1930s was brazen in its intent. As hard as that possibility is to believe, it is also very hard to believe the agency wouldn’t have known about the law, given that it had been enacted just a few years prior the Warren Falls diversion project being concocted in the early 1930s — and was specifically aimed at the state’s premier highway of the era.

What does it mean today? In my view, it means that ODOT now has BOTH a legal and ethical responsibility to undo what it has done to Warren Falls. That couldn’t be more clear.

The End Game?

For the past four years I’ve been beating the drum to connect the restoration of Warren Falls to the massive, multi-million dollar Historic Columbia River Highway state trail project, without much success. So far I have:

• been turned away by both Oregon State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, both claiming the falls lies on the other agency’s property (though it quite clearly falls on Oregon State Parks land)

• unsuccessfully pitched the cause to three of the premier conservation groups active in the Gorge, including on-site tours, but did not persuade any of the groups to adopt the cause.

• unsuccessfully made the case twice before the Historic Columbia River Highway steering committee, with some sympathetic interest from the committee, but a deep reluctance to seriously consider the idea. It was added as an item “for consideration” — but later dropped due to cost concerns.

• successfully pitched the idea to the producers of Oregon Field Guide story, and while ODOT staff involved in that effort were sympathetic to the state of Warren Falls, the publicity created by the story did not change their recommendations to their steering committee for any further consideration of restoring the falls.

• posted a string of articles on this blog and started a Facebook group two years ago to continue to rally the cause, but these efforts haven’t made a noticeable dent at ODOT, either.

We are now in the end game, and I don’t think the Warren Falls will ever be restored if the work doesn’t happen when ODOT has heavy equipment in the area later this year. After that, it will most likely be up to Mother Nature, and that’s would be such a sad commentary to future generations when they judge the state of the world we choose to leave them.

From the beginning, I have argued that restoring the falls isn’t about money, but rather, about responsibility. ODOT created the mess that now exists at Warren Creek, and for a whole variety of safety, ethical, environmental — and now, legal — reasons that I’ve argued over the years, it’s time for the agency to own up to their responsibility.

No fooling, ODOT has $2 million annually in a “contingency” fund for exactly the kind of work that restoring Warren Falls would entail — and just allocated another half-million dollars to cover additional costs for the state trail project in the Warren Creek area.

It turns out the money has always been there, too. On April 1, ODOT quietly pulled nearly a half-million dollars in “contingency” funds into this latest phase of the state trail as a consent item before the Oregon Transportation Commission. The new money is for a previously unplanned bridge over nearby Gorton Creek, a worthy addition at the east end of the current phase of construction. Warren Falls could be restored for a fraction of that amount – if only the will and sense of agency responsibility at ODOT existed.

My next efforts will focus beyond ODOT, given my fruitless efforts to work with the agency. At the top of my list of arguments is the newly discovered fact that the agency violated state law when they built the project in 1939 — underscoring the notion that ODOT has both ethical and legal obligations to own up to restoring the falls. The agency clearly has funding available for worthy efforts like this one if the desire exists. I will be making that argument, as well.

There's still time to realize this vision… but not much.

There’s still time to realize this vision… but not much.

I’ll post a follow-ups to article with more details soon, and especially how you might be able to help get the restoration of Warren Falls unstuck from our state bureaucracy. Most of all, a big thanks to all who have offered to help — and as always, thank you reading this blog and caring about Mount Hood and the Gorge!

Farewell to an Old Friend

The Bucher barn and Nesmith Point (2008)

For camera buffs, the century-old Bucher family dairy barn at the foot of St. Peters Dome in the Columbia River Gorge has been like an old friend. The huge, stately old structure could not have been more picturesque, with its bleached planks and rusty tin roof standing in dramatic contrast to the towering basalt walls of the Gorge.

Thus, it was to the great dismay of many when the barn came down this fall, and now is in the process of being salvaged.

The Bucher barn was located in the old Dodson district, a fading rural village that experienced its heyday in the 1930s, when the original Columbia River Highway was the premier travel route through the Gorge.

Until its recent collapse, the barn had survived to become the most prominent structure in the Dodson district in recent years, familiar to speeding traffic on I-84 (and plainly visible in the air photo, above).

The Bucher barn in happier days (2006)

The Bucher barn was tucked at the base of the towering cliffs and spires of Ainsworth State Park, with Yeon Mountain, Katanai Rock, St. Peters Dome and Rock of Ages filling the skyline. Nesmith Point is also prominent, and is the loftiest cliff in the Columbia Gorge, rising nearly 4,000 feet directly above the river.

The barn was located in an area that made headlines in the winter of 1996, when a series of dramatic debris flows roared down from the Gorge rim and burst across I-84, closing the freeway for five days and destroying nearby homes — but sparing the barn. (click here for a full account of the debris flows)

Beginning of the end in November 2010

In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State Parks have been actively acquiring private land in proximity to the Bucher barn as part of implementing the long-term vision for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. According to the National Integrated Land System (NILS), these acquisitions may cover the Bucher barn parcel, which could explain the barn coming down, though I have not been able to verify this connection.

(Note: please see the postscript to this article for updated background on the ownership of the barn and decision to bring it down).

The fallen barn in November 2010

The current deconstruction of the Bucher barn was underway by mid-November of this year. The plank siding had been partially removed from the lower half of the structure by Thanksgiving, but the main building frame was still intact.

By late November, however, the building had been toppled, tipping forward toward the frontage road with the roof framing intact. Whether the collapse was intentional or from a structural failure is unclear, though the ongoing salvage operation suggests that it was dropped intentionally.

Almost gone in December 2010

A series of early winter storms gripped the Gorge in late November and early December of this year, but the salvage work continues, and by mid-December, half the roof frame of the Bucher barn has been removed, along with most of the metal roofing.

At the current rate of removal, the barn will likely be gone in a few weeks, taking a bit of Oregon history with it. Thankfully, it is one of the more photographed barns in the region, so will live on through images that captured its charm and unique setting.

Bucher barn salvage in December 2010

The sudden demise of the Bucher barn is a reminder that historic barns are fading away across the Oregon landscape, so hopefully others can be equally appreciated and documented while they are still standing.

If you are interested in seeing this rapidly disappearing bit of history, take the Ainsworth exit on I-84, then follow signs to the eastbound Frontage Road and John B. Yeon State Park. The barn is located one-quarter mile from the interchange, just beyond the first house. Please respect the private property signs, and stay outside the fenced pasture.

Postscript

In April 2011, Breanna Mohr, a member of the Bucher family, provided some additional family history on the Bucher barn. The building once belonged to her great-grandfather, Joseph Bucher, a dairy farmer in the Dodson area. When Joseph Bucher passed away, his farm was divided among his children, and the portion that included the barn was passed to his daughter. Breana Mohr goes on to say:

“Now to explain why it is being tern down. The barn has been falling down for many years now, and my aunt could not keep up with the work that it needed… So the family decided to tear it down. This has been a hard thing for my family because they all still remember it being full of milk cows, (my grandfather was the milk man in Dodson) and having to get up early in the morning to milk the cows.”

Breanna also pointed out that I didn’t include Katanai Rock in the original article. The name was new to me, but after a bit of research, I learned that this is the local name for the huge monolith immediately above the Bucher farm. I’ve taken a shot at identifying the various landmarks that make up the towering heights of Ainsworth State Park and the Dodson area, including Katanai Rock:

Click here for a large version of this photo

Though all but the Katanai name are official and found on USGS maps, interpreting the jumble of contours on the map as they related to real features on the ground turns out to be more difficult than I’d imagined. Thus, I’d appreciate any corrections to this schematic that local residents or area explorers have to offer.

Finally, I’d like to thank Breanna Mohr and the Bucher family for not only providing historical background on the area, but also for keeping this fine old structure standing for so long. While it shall be missed by all of us, it was enjoyed for decades for its picturesque charm, and lives on in our memories, as well!

Proposal: Baldwin Memorial Wayside

Few in the Hood River Valley would ever recognize the name “Gilhouley Road”, much less anyone from beyond the area. And yet, at the intersection of this obscure dirt road and the Mount Hood Loop Highway lies an imposing scene that is treasured by locals and tourists, alike: the first big look at Mount Hood as you descend into the Upper Hood River Valley.

On a clear day, you’re guaranteed to see tourists pulled to the highway shoulder, snapping pictures of the mountain rising above bucolic pastures, even as semi-trucks roar past on the downgrade. The scene is irresistible.

Illegal dumping on the proposed wayside site

Earlier this year, a friend and national parks advocate from New England was visiting, and took the opportunity to drive the Mount Hood loop, and see “Oregon’s next national park”. Despite all of the mistreatment Mount Hood has seen, his sharpest critique was the shabby way in which we treat our visitors. He was amazed at the utter lack of traveler information — and confusing information, when it was provided. So, this article is inspired by his comments.

Rediscovering Waysides and Viewpoints

In the early days of auto touring, the Columbia River Gorge had the “King of Roads”, and among the great features of Samuel Lancaster’s magnificent scenic highway were the waysides and viewpoints that dotted the route. A family could load into their 1917 Packard Twin Six, and make a day of it, pulling off at each viewpoint, snapping photos with the family Brownie camera, and often following the short trails that led to still more views, or perhaps a waterfall.

Crown Point is the king of the waysides on the “King of Roads”

Times haven’t changed all that much, since, but the way we design our roads has. Tourists are now discouraged from stopping in many spots, and often take their life in their hands, if they do. Today’s highway engineers are much more concerned about keeping cars moving, at all costs.

The Hood River valley has just one “official” roadside viewpoint, located on county-owned land at Panorama Point in the lower valley. The scene is well-known, but also well removed from the Mount Hood loop highway by a couple miles. This proposal is for a companion overlook to Panorama Point, located in the upper valley, where the mountain first comes into full view for highway travelers, at the obscure junction with Gilhouley Road.

Click here for a larger map

In researching the possibilities for a new wayside at this spot, I first did a site inspection of the hillside above the highway: the area is recently logged, but with a fair number of mature trees left standing. The inevitable illegal dumping is present, of course — the scourge of public lands in highway corridors. But the view is breathtaking, with Mount Hood even more dramatically framed by hills, forests and fields than from the highway grade.

According to public lands data, the land is mostly public, and owned by Hood River County. The map (above) shows a perfect rectangle of public property that extents east along Gilhouley Road from nearby Middle Mountain, largely encompassing the wayside site. One triangle of land (indicated with a question mark) may be a private parcel, but isn’t essential to the wayside concept.

The approach to the site from Highway 35 is ideal: the intersection is located on a long, straight segment of road that would make for safe exit and entry from either direction. The presence of Gilhouley Road means that access is legally assured, with little possibility of an extended battle with ODOT for the right to build a wayside.

Looking south at the wayside site from Highway 35

The larger question is whether ODOT and Oregon State Parks would step up to make this a joint venture with local governments. It seems plausible, at least, given the lack of waysides along this portion of the loop highway, and the obviously heavy tourist traffic.

What would the wayside look like?

The site inspection revealed a surprising expanse of public land available at this site, so I’ve sketched a full-blown day use park as the proposed “Baldwin Memorial Wayside”.

As the schematic (below) shows, there could be a viewing structure, picnic areas, a nature trail and restrooms. This degree of development puts the concept into the major investment category, but certainly not beyond reach, especially since there are no other state parks or waysides in the Hood River Valley.

Click here for a larger map

Because the site has recently been logged, the wayside proposal could be equal parts park development and habitat restoration. While the main feature would be a developed overlook for highway travelers, this proposal also takes advantage of the open hillside rising above the highway. A scattering of ponderosa pine spared from logging provides an excellent opportunity for an interpretive trail built around habitat restoration.

One interesting possibility could be a restored balsamroot and lupine meadow beneath the pines. These spectacular blooming species are native to the area, are already present on the site and could become a popular draw for spring visitors to the area, just as similar wildflower spots in the Gorge are now.

What would it take?

Could a project like this really happen? Some stars are already aligned: Hood River County already owns the land and access rights to the highway at Gilhouley Road. Together, these are an invaluable step forward, since the road guarantees highway access and the land can be used as a grant match for state and federal funds. The site also benefits from access to utilities and proximity to existing emergency services. These are all core considerations when creating a new public park.

Most of all, it would take local leadership in the Hood River Valley area to secure state or federal funding through grants or other sources. Even in times of tight public budgets, this sort of project is achievable, especially if it helps reinforce the local economy and has an ecological purpose.

About the Name

Lastly, what would this new wayside be called? Well, “Baldwin Memorial Wayside” is simply borrowed from nearby Baldwin Creek, which in turn, memorializes Stephen M. Baldwin, who settled a claim along the stream in 1878. This would have made Baldwin one of the earliest settlers in the area.

The Cloud Cap Inn circa 1900

But this is where the connection to the Mount Hood view comes in: Stephen Baldwin’s son Mason “Mace” Baldwin became a well-known figure in Hood River County history in the early 1900s. Most notably, he was one of the founders of the legendary Crag Rats mountain rescue group in 1926, formed after the dramatic rescue he led that summer of an 11-year-old boy lost on Mount Hood.

Mace Baldwin not only gave the Crag Rats their name, he was also elected to be the group’s first “Big Squeak” (president), and went on to take part in many mountain rescues over the years. The Crag Rats were the first mountain rescue organization to be formed in the American West. In 1954, the Crag Rats adopted the venerable Cloud Cap Inn, on the north shoulder of the mountain, and have since been the careful stewards under special arrangement with the Forest Service.

The Crag Rats continue to be active today, and given the connection of this site to one of their founders, perhaps the “Baldwin Memorial Wayside” could include a tribute to these mountain heroes? It would certainly be a fitting memorial, and a fine way for visitors to enjoy the mountain view and learn a bit more about it’s rich human history.