Sunday, June 10, 2018

Moffett Creek Bridges

The next installment of the ongoing Columbia Gorge bridge project takes us to a set of bridges over Moffett Creek, between Elowah Falls and the Bonneville Dam / Wahclella Falls area. I'm treating them as a group because they're close together and a lot of my photos ended up with more than one bridge in them, but the main event here is the original Columbia River Highway bridge from 1915. Unlike the CRH bridges further west of here, this one was designed by Lewis Metzger, who also designed the bridge at Eagle Creek. This bridge is said to have been the world's longest "three-hinge concrete bridge" at the time of its construction. Not being a bridge engineer, I was curious what that meant, and found a very in-depth article explaining what a bridge hinge is for and how it works, if you're into that sort of thing. From that article I gather the old Moffett Creek Bridge was built with the bleeding edge advanced technology of its day.

Time and engineering moved on, though, and the old bridge was abandoned in place when Interstate 84 was built. It then sat abandoned for decades, brief glimpses of it visible from the new freeway bridges next door. It's now part of ODOT's pedestrian/bike Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which the state of Oregon has been slowly building in segments since the late 1990s. The segment from Tanner Creek (Wahclella Falls) west to Moffett Creek opened around 2000 (per an OregonHikers page about the bridge), and then the trail ended at the bridge for over a decade.

A new trail segment finally opened in 2013, winding its way under the adjacent I-84 bridges and along the freeway to the Elowah Falls trailhead. The I-84 bridges are the ones in the background of a lot of these photos. One dates to the 1950s, when the new highway was just US 30 and not an interstate yet. The other was built in 2009-2011 to replace an ugly 1960s bridge that didn't hold up to the elements as well as its older neighbors. The new bridge was built to the state's I-84 design guidelines, so it bears a strong resemblance to the replacement Sandy River bridge that was built around the same time.

Beyond the current and former road bridges, there are a few more bridges along Moffett Creek: An old railroad bridge further downstream that I don't know much about, and a small wooden bridge for Gorge Trail #400 just upstream. Apparently there's also a second trail bridge or crossing of some sort for the Moffett Creek Trail #430 much further upstream in a remote corner of the Gorge. I've never been there and have no photos of that one. Despite the name of the trail, it doesn't follow Moffett Creek upstream like the Eagle Creek Trail does. Moffett Creek unfortunately doesn't have a trail like that, even though there are a few waterfalls along the creek. I gather the state or the Forest Service thought about building a trail around the time the old highway went in, but it didn't happen then, and trail construction in much of the Gorge either happened in the 1910s or not at all, and that's why there isn't a trail a century later.

There also isn't a parking lot off I-84 (or at least not an official one) or a trailhead at Moffett Creek; I got here by walking from the Elowah Falls trailhead, on the new circa-2013 trail segment. It runs riiiight next to I-84 the entire way to Moffett Creek (except for a small detour at McCord Creek), with semis zooming by at freeway speeds just a few feet away, so I can't honestly describe this as a fun or enjoyable walk. I think this trail is mostly intended for cyclists, since bikes are banned on most Gorge hiking trails. If you aren't on a bike and you aren't doing this for the novelty, a better way here would be to take the trail to Elowah Falls and continue on along Gorge Trail #400 from there; when you get to Moffett Creek there's a trail spur over to the HCRH trail just before it ducks under the I-84 bridges. In any case, I turned around just after the old bridge, since that was what I'd come to see, and there's only so much walking next to freeway traffic I'm willing to endure in one go. However the Oregonian article about the trail opening points out that the new paved trail is not just a bike path; it's also one of the very few wheelchair-accessible trails in the Gorge, which is something I hadn't considered when I started grumbling about the ambience.

In any case, you can't get to the old bridge on either trail at the moment thanks to the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which heavily damaged the Moffett Creek area. It could be years before either trail reopens. I haven't been out to the Gorge since the fire, since I'm not sure I want to see the damage in person; instead I've been working my way through a big backlog of Gorge photo posts and remembering what it was like before the fire. I'm not sure whether this is actually helping or not, but it's what I've got, so it's what I'm doing.

I'd been to the Moffett Creek area exactly once before I took these photos, back in the early 90s when you had to rely on paper maps and vague directions in library books. A map suggested that if you followed the Gorge Trail east from Elowah Falls, there'd be one or more waterfalls along Moffett Creek somewhere vaguely upstream of the trail. I'd also read somewhere that there was a cool abandoned bridge, overgrown with weeds, somewhere in the vicinity. That sounded promising, so I went there based on this scant information and was unable to find either the falls or the bridge, which was sufficiently annoying that I didn't go back for a couple of decades.

I still haven't found the waterfalls, truth be told, and even now in 2018 the available information about them seems kind of sketchy and unreliable. There are photos proving there's more than one waterfall along the creek, along with evidence that the names "Moffett Falls" and "Wahe Falls" have been kicked around for over a century. And that's about where the consensus ends. It seems that one of them (and I'm not clear on which) was dubbed Wahe Falls by the Mazamas circa 1916, and then USGS maps called it Moffett Falls for decades, which Wahe partisans say was a big dumb mistake.

Which leads to the wider question of what makes a place name authoritative. In the Northwest, 1916 was around the heyday of white people giving places romanticized sorta-Indian names, and I haven't seen any evidence that local tribes actually called it "Wahe", or that anyone at all did before a few sentimental Victorians came along. And legally speaking, USGS names are supposed to be authoritative, even if they screwed up or didn't exactly follow earlier naming. I dunno.

There are all sorts of variations on the dispute: Two names for one waterfall, while the other goes unnamed; one is Moffett and one is Wahe, but nobody can agree which is which; one of the names is invalid, and you have either Moffett or Wahe, plus an Upper or Lower sibling, depending on which one you think is the main waterfall. I genuinely and sincerely have no opinion on the dispute. I have never been to any of them, have no photos of them, and have not needed to pick a name to use for a blog post title. If it comes to it, I might just go with GPS coordinates or something to avoid antagonizing anyone.

In any case, there's a Recreating the HCRH page about the waterfalls, and Waterfalls Northwest pages for them (dubbing them "Wahe Falls" and "Upper Wahe Falls"). WyEast Blog has a couple of posts with post-fire photos, with notes about maybe building trails to the falls someday. A few OregonHikers posts talk about hiking or bushwhacking up along the creek and visiting assorted waterfalls, while going the other direction a RopeWiki page has details about rappelling down Moffett Creek from the top. A Canyoneering Northwest page mentions the creek actually has eleven(!) waterfalls, if you have the technical chops to visit them all.

The Moffett Creek area pops up in the library's historical Oregonian database now and then:

  • Early on the stories were all about planning and building the old highway, such as "Road is Feasible, Engineer Says" (January 9th 1910). The article explains that the highway (which it still referred to as a new wagon road) in this area would roughly follow the route of an older road or trail. The unnamed older route (as the Eagle Creek Bridge post explained) might have been the Dalles and Sandy Wagon Road, although it was located further up slope in many areas. Though the article goes on to mention that this older road appeared unfinished further east at Tanner Creek, so the old route could also have been some other road I'm unfamiliar with. The article doesn't explain how the older road crossed the creek here, whether there was a previous bridge on the site, or travelers had to find a flat spot to ford the creek. An archived ODOT page from March 2012 about the new trail includes a historic photo of the bridge under construction, which is the only one I've encountered.

  • In the 1920s, the area hosted a 50 acre YWCA campground, with a few wood buildings that were probably somewhere near the bridge. The place was profiled in "Wauneka Appeals to Business Girls" (July 20th 1924). The first couple of paragraphs make it sound pretty idyllic.
    A book, an Indian blanket and a ferny spot beside the hurried little Moffett’s creek for the girl who is tired of typewriters and time-clocks; a climb up a mountain trail or a walk along the highway for her more energetic sister, are on the unwritten recreational programme at Wauneka, vacation camp of the Portland Y.W.C.A. on Moffett’s creek, 45 miles up the Columbia highway.

    There’s nothing to do but enjoy yourself, and sleep and eat and rest, at Wauneka, say the officials of the Y.W.C.A., whose only share in the proceedings is to keep excellent caretakers on the place in order to provide chaperonage, cooking and upkeep. There is no educational or any other sort of arranged programme, and the business girls who go there can do anything they please, within reason, except pick the ferns and flowers and wild greenery that keep Wauneka beautiful.

    I'm not entirely sure where this 50 acre parcel would've been. Possibly much of it is under I-84 now. The land's currently divided between the state (the "John B. Yeon State Scenic Corridor") and the US Forest Service. One of the state-owned parcels might include parts of the YWCA site, but I'm just guessing here. Incidentally, the state park's History/FAQ page explains that it's illegal to fly drones anywhere along the historic highway trail, as well as in most state parks through the Gorge, at least unless you get a special use permit (and it reads as if those permits are rarely granted). The rare exceptions to the rule being Dalton Point on the river, a few parks out near Hood River, and George W. Joseph State Natural Area, which is home to Upper Latourell Falls, but not the main falls. But I digress.

  • There weren't many other mentions of the YWCA campground in the paper, so I don't know how long it was there, but there was at least one private residence near the bridge in the 1930s, per a small May 28th 1935 news item about the house being burglarized.

  • November 19th 1953: The Forest Service bought a chunk of riverfront property that extended upriver from Warrendale/Dodson up to Moffett Creek. This land was the former site of a salmon cannery (which closed in 1934), some ruins of which were still around back then. Frank Warren (the plant's founder, and namesake of Warrendale) died on the Titanic.

  • Moffett Creek largely vanished from the paper for several decades after that; this coincided with the present-day freeway going in. They didn't include a Moffett Creek exit on the new Interstate, so it seems the place largely fell off the radar until the 1980s. One exception was an October 10th 1971 article about the abandoned bridge, slowly being reclaimed by nature at the time.

  • April 19th 1981: "Drive intensifies to preserve scenic gorge highway". A comprehensive survey was done after 1981 to figure out what was left of the old road and what could be saved, which at least was a first step. In passing, the article claims the old bridge was still the world's longest three-hinge concrete bridge at the time. I have no idea whether this is still true; I'm old enough to think of 1981 as "recent", but it really isn't anymore, and a lot of bridges have been built since then.

  • September 7th 1982: "Scenic gorge route's tarnished gems being polished"

  • August 19, 1987: "Highway options pondered", in which something along the lines of the present-day trail was one of the options. It obviously took a while; I think it was off the table for a long time until they figured out how to fund it via ODOT.

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