Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Tunnel Point

Ok, next up we're visiting Tunnel Point, a little scenic viewpoint on I-84 at the west end of the Columbia Gorge. It's only accessible to westbound traffic, so I've driven past it countless times on my way home to Portland from somewhere else. It just never seemed compelling enough to stop for, until I realized I'd never been there, and then it became a must-do. There's an interesting view of the Gorge from here, plus a navigational light, a railroad tunnel on the far side of the freeway (thus the name "Tunnel Point"), and an old historical marker that explains this is roughly the furthest point upriver that the George Vancouver expedition got to back in 1792. There aren't any trails starting here, so there's not much of a reason to stick around once you've taken in the view. Still, there's some interesting (at least to me) history here that that the marker doesn't mention.

Before the freeway went in, Tunnel Point was a huge rock formation jutting out into the river. Two photos shared by the Oregon State Archives show what it used to look like before it was deemed to be in the way of progress. Or more precisely, it was right in the way of a modern new highway route that became I-84. So the whole rock was dynamited and quarried and hauled away as building material for the new road. I'd never heard of this before and it isn't obvious (to me, a non-geologist) that the cliff face across the freeway is a recent creation. So I was skeptical at first. If you look at the area in Google Maps with terrain view enabled, though, it becomes clear that the landscape here isn't quite natural.

An odd thing about the original Columbia River Highway is that although it was a marvel of early 20th century engineering, it was also obsolete essentially from the day it opened. As the only paved road heading east out of Portland, it was quickly choked with traffic, and the road's twists and turns made it a white knuckle experience, not the relaxing scenic drive it was meant to be. Less than twenty years after it opened, Portland civic boosters were already calling for rerouting and modernizing the road. A May 5th 1935 Oregonian article explained the many benefits of a water-level route for what was then called the Bonneville Highway, in honor of the new dam. Costs were initially estimated at just under $5 million.

An April 4th 1937 article gushed about the proposed new water-grade highway route, and this time featured several sketches of what the modern highway of the future would look like. These generally resemble what was actually built, but the initial 1937 plan would have put a deep, narrow road cut through Tunnel Point rather than leveling it entirely. I haven't located a record of exactly when or why the plan changed, but it probably had to do with switching to a four lane design, or realizing the original road cut design was a recipe for near-constant rockslides. At this point the price tag had risen to $12 million.

Construction began in 1938, but was suspended in 1942, presumably due to World War II. So for the next five years, visitors to the Gorge were treated to the sight of a half-finished, semi-abandoned highway to nowhere. Construction finally resumed in 1947, and a October 5th 1947 article reminded the public that the new(ish) highway was going to be really great, and the state really was going to see it through to completion this time, honest. The article includes several photos, including one looking west from Crown Point in which you can still see Tunnel Point before it was completely leveled. (Though an October 1941 article mentioned that Tunnel Point quarrying was already in progress at that time.) This article did not mention a price tag.

The first new segment of the highway opened to the public in 1949. In an August 7th 1949 article, the Oregonian explained that the shiny new highway really was as great as promised, and tried to reassure concerned readers that the new road still offered scenic vistas and had not ruined the Gorge as feared. In fact, the article explained, a couple of new vistas had been created, including the Tunnel Point viewpoint. In total, around 150,000 cubic yards of rock were excavated from Tunnel Point to make it what it is today.

The navigational light was a later addition. It was built in 1965 to replace lights further upriver at Rooster Rock, which had been destroyed by the winter floods of 1964.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gorton Creek Bridge

While I was visiting Gorton Creek Falls (which we saw in the previous post) I took a quick peek at the small, circa-1919 Gorton Creek Bridge nearby. One of my numerous ongoing projects here involves tracking down old bridges from the original Columbia River Highway, and this is yet another of them, albeit maybe not one of the crown jewels. Still, the project wouldn't be complete without finding it, so here we are.

As I mentioned in a post about the Shepperds Dell Bridge a while back, the state highway commission had around 4 bridge designers working on different parts of the highway. This one was designed by Lewis W. Metzger, who's also credited with the nice little arch bridge at Eagle Creek, and a larger one at Moffett Creek that I haven't gotten around to posting about yet, plus a few others I haven't visited, and a couple that no longer exist, like one in Hood River that was demolished & replaced in 1982.

The highway commission biennial report for 1916-1917 mentioned that this bridge was budgeted at $2500, which is about $53,600 in today's dollars. Which seems pretty cheap for a concrete bridge that's held up for nearly a century. (The most expensive item on the list was $250,000 for the now-replaced Center Street Bridge in Salem. Metzger worked on that bridge too, so I imagine the Gorton Creek project was a bit of an afterthought.)

A downside of building a no-frills bridge is that it was made just wide enough for early 20th century cars, and it lacks sidewalks. In practice this isn't a huge problem, as this stretch of ex-highway is lightly traveled and the bridge is short so you can just wait & walk across when nobody's coming. On the other hand, ODOT is in the middle of their big-budget Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail project, which aims to create a shiny new bike-friendly, tourist-friendly route from Portland out to the Dalles or so. This bridge is on the route, but ODOT felt it wasn't up to the job, bike-wise, so in 2015 they started looking at adding a new bike/pedestrian bridge next to the current bridge. Construction was targeted at fall 2016, but eventually began in August 2017, and it's not clear now whether they're adding a bike-only bridge in parallel, or replacing the whole thing. If it's the latter, it wouldn't be a major loss in terms of sheer beauty or historic preservation, let's be honest here. In any case, the latest project newsletter indicates construction is ongoing, so evidently this area wasn't heavily impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire.

Gorton Creek Falls

I was taking another wary glance at my vast Drafts folder and realized I had a number of unfinished posts about places around the Columbia River Gorge. I feel like I ought to finish them up now, as a small record of what the Gorge was like before the Eagle Creek Fire.

So first up are some photos of Gorton Creek Falls, in the Wyeth area east of Cascade Locks. I took these in July 2015; it was the first time I'd ever been to this particular waterfall, so I went by the description of the hike, and instructions on how to find the trailhead. (Note there's also a remote & difficult Gorton Creek Trail that goes nowhere near the falls, so it's best not to confuse the two hikes.) The one thing to watch out for is an intersection with the east-west Gorge Trail not far into the hike. There are signs for various trails heading off to the left and right at this point, but the trail going straight ahead is unmarked for some reason. The unmarked trail is the one to the waterfall. It starts out as a nice well-maintained trail, but before long you'll be clambering over rocks and tree roots as you make your way upstream to the falls. It's sort of the same category as Oneonta Gorge that way, except that you don't absolutely have to wade through the creek. I made it without getting my feet wet, but this was in late July during a dry summer, and your mileage may vary. It was kind of fun, and the falls were worth the effort. I didn't say as long as I'd have liked to, though, because a sign at the parking lot said a Northwest Forest Pass was required, and I couldn't figure out where to pay my $5, so I kind of rolled the dice and hoped I could get out & back before they ticketed or towed me. Luckily that turned out ok, but again, your mileage may vary.

There's no such thing as an undiscovered hike in the Gorge anymore, but Gorton Creek was surprisingly uncrowded when I was there, probably just because it's just that much further from Portland than the more famous Gorge attractions. If this was located where Oneonta Gorge or even Eagle Creek is, it would probably be packed all summer.