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.

No comments :