Columbia River Gorge

August 2, 2019

The Columbia River Gorge is one of the great beauty spots of the Pacific Northwest. America’s fourth largest river flows through an 80-mile canyon of precipitous cliffs, majestic fir trees, and pounding waterfalls.
All that sublime landscape was lost on the pioneers who embarked on leaky rafts nearly two centuries ago. To them, it was a treacherous waterway, the final ordeal on the Oregon Trail. “Rained most all day,” wrote one pioneer mother in 1847. The next day’s journal, “Rainy day.” And so on, until the entry which reads, “Rain all day. This day my dear husband died.”
Those hardships were remote to the day-trippers cruising up and down the river in steamboats a generation later. The future of the gorge as a tourist destination was in place by the late 19th century. The river was politically important because it formed the border between Oregon and Washington, and it was a vital link to the inland farms and orchards. But any development would have to take into account the value of its natural wonders.
In 1913, construction began on the Columbia River Highway. It was located on the north bank and incorporated the latest advances in engineering with an appreciation for the picturesque. The intention was not purely aesthetic. “We will cash in, year after year, on our crop of scenic beauty, without depleting it in any way,” said Sam Hill, who was president of the Washington State Good Roads Association.
The highway attracted a following among nature lovers in the 1920s, when it was described as the “the finest scenic drive in the world.” Best of all, it was paved. You can still dawdle along the old Columbia Highway. The road hugs the woodsy crags. Waterfalls swing into view. In the distance is Mount Hood.
Alternatively, there is Interstate 84, the “new” road, which follows the river. The route is efficient and gives the visitor a close view of the Columbia. The fearsome wind that made navigation so perilous is felt close to the riverbank.
The choice of road depends, in part, on the size of your car. The hilly and meandering two-lane highway was designed in the era of the Model T, while the interstate is suited to the larger modern vehicle.
Scenically, the western half of the gorge is the more rewarding. Keep pushing east, past the rain shadow, and the topography changes. Now you’re driving by grassy dry lands. The views are less magnificent, though, by way of compensation, the region is home to many wineries.
For the visitor limited to a morning excursion, Multnomah Falls and Crown Point Vista House are the principal sights. Both can be reached from Portland in less than one hour.
The falls are drive-off-the-road beautiful. The prudent thing to do is park the car and walk the short trail to the pedestrian bridge located halfway up the 600-foot drop. More arduous trails are open to the adventurous. For the hungry and sedentary, there is Multnomah Lodge, a restaurant with waterfall views. The stone structure was built in the 1920s, and that time is evoked in the plain and comfortable dining room with a wood-burning hearth.
Less than ten miles away is the Vista House at Crown Point, which offers a panoramic view of the gorge. The experience is visually and physically powerful. Because of the wind, the small and frail need to be securely moored to the terrace.
The origins of the lookout were practical; there was the need, in those early days, for a rest stop to accommodate the many motoring parties. The absence of facilities was felt to be a hardship for the ladies. A wood and concrete structure was planned.
Rapidly, though, the project grew to accommodate a host of social and architectural ambitions. It was decided to build an observatory that would also serve to be a memorial to the pioneers. An architect was hired. The costs rose. According to the Taxpayers League, it was the most expensive comfort station ever built.
The planning and construction coincided with the last years of World War I. While farmers and businessmen were protesting the price of the mahogany stall doors, soldiers in France were suffering the horrors of trench warfare.
A monument to the local men who died in the war is in the town of Goldendale, at the eastern end of the gorge. It is a full-scale replica of Stonehenge. When the site was dedicated in 1918, it was erroneously believed that the original Stonehenge had been built for human sacrifice. “Humanity is still being sacrificed to the Gods of war” was the message of Sam Hill, who commissioned the monument.
There are, of course, differences between this Stonehenge and the prehistoric prototype. For one, the Neolithic builders did not have the convenience of working with poured concrete. Then there is the terrain. The Goldendale Stonehenge is set amidst rolling sagebrush and cloudless blue sky.
Nearby is Hill's house. It is a chateau-like structure made of concrete, Hill’s medium of choice. Hill never realized his grand plans for its furnishing and equipment. His financial losses brought construction to a halt in 1917.
That the house should be turned into a museum came at the suggestion of Loie Fuller, an American avant-garde dancer. Fuller was at the center of the circle of larger-than-life characters who befriended the frontier eccentric. She enjoyed an intense and controversial friendship with the alluring Queen Marie of Romania. The queen appreciated Fuller's experiments with lighting and costume. In turn, her artistic and literary efforts were encouraged by Fuller.
Another friend was Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the San Francisco artist's model who married a sugar magnate. The basis for this friendship was the sculpture of Auguste Rodin. Fuller was a promoter and agent for the artist. She introduced Rodin to Spreckels, who went on to form a large collection of his work.
Hill was a Quaker, though his morals were more “friendly” than Society of Friends. There was a Mrs. Hill, but she was a shadowy figure who does not seem to have played an important role in his life. He was at ease with these unconventional women.
The web of friendship was strengthened and completed by the war. Sympathy was strong for Romania, an allied country that suffered under German occupation. It was the occasion for Fuller to introduce Spreckels to Queen Marie while Spreckels introduced Fuller to Hill. It was also the occasion for Hill to renew his acquaintance with Queen Marie. The queen's American friends were active fundraisers. In 1919, one year after the war ended, Hill traveled on a supply ship to Romania.
In thanks for Hill’s help, the queen agreed to attend the dedication of his museum in 1926. The ceremony was one stop on her 50-day tour of America. It was an extraordinary occasion that brought together the incongruous quartet of royalty, business, and bohemia. Hill, Fuller, and Spreckels joined the queen on her private train for the last part of her journey to Goldendale.
The occasion was also extraordinary because there was no museum. There was an unfinished and empty house. Hill was a showman, not a connoisseur. What really mattered was securing the queen’s attendance at the ceremony. The locals had never seen anything like it. The gratin of Portland society came, as did a convoy of local people from miles around. The “curious and interesting building” (the queen’s words) was decorated with bunting and flags, and there was a red carpet borrowed from a Portland hotel.
A certain skepticism can be inferred from one reporter’s use of quotation marks around “Museum of Fine Arts.” Indeed, the museum opened to the public only in 1940, nine years after Hill’s death. By then, Fuller and Queen Marie had also died. Spreckels, the sole survivor, was an active trustee and generous donor.
The Maryhill Museum (it was named after his daughter) is a testament to Hill's friendships with powerful women. The principal gallery is devoted to the furniture and regalia of Marie of Romania. The queen was not only the star attraction at the dedication, she supplied many of the exhibits. The tables and chairs made by Romanian craftsman in the medieval Byzantine style beloved by the queen are on view. So too are Fabergé odds and ends, the Russian icons, and the gown she wore to the coronation of her cousin, the Russian Czar Nicholas II. Some things she donated directly to the museum. Others she gave to Spreckels, who later donated them to the museum.
The layered provenance is also reflected in the collection of Rodin's sculpture and works on paper. Many were acquired by Hill through Fuller, though some were donated directly by Fuller.
The fin de siècle collections include Art Nouveau glass from Spreckels. Spreckels, ever curious and receptive, also acquired for the museum the Théâtre de la Mode, the French fashion mannequins that toured America after World War II, promoting Parisian haute couture. When Spreckels died in 1968, the Maryhill Museum was a remote stronghold of French art.
From Goldendale, you can make the drive back to Portland in two hours. Even better, why not stay the night? There is plenty of accommodation throughout the gorge, ranging from campsites and family motels to high-end, reservation-required establishments.
Amy Gale is the author of Shows, Shops and Auctions (Witlings Press, 2013).

 

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