A Water-Level Bypass

Proposed New Columbia River Highway at Tunnel Point 
Barely a decade after the completion of the historic highway in 1922, the Oregon State Highway Commission produced this 1935 hand-colored drawing by Frank G. Hutchinson of the Proposed New Columbia River Highway at Tunnel Point looking east. (Oregon State Archives, ODOT Highway Division Records, Hutchinson & Spooner Graphic Art Drawings)

The Price of Progress

Progress is a fickle force. Most Oregonians saw the Columbia River Highway as the epitome of progress upon completion in 1922. Soon, it became part of U.S. Highway 30 and joined a modern route that would stretch from Astoria, Oregon to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Quite a change from the prevailing paradigm of dirt roads.

Tunnel Point construction

This is the same view as the drawing above. It shows work in 1939 to remove Tunnel Point and make way for the water-level bypass route. (Oregon State Archives, OHD0794)

Oneonta Tunnel bypass

This 1951 photo shows the abandoned Oneonta Tunnel to the right filled in with rubble as a vehicle drives on the bypass highway. (Oregon State Archives, OHD04906)

But progress kept moving. Cars and trucks grew much larger, faster and more numerous—they were overwhelming the design of the road. The expectations of drivers changed too. The pleasure of a leisurely drive through the Gorge diminished in the face of traffic jams, narrow clearances and frequent rockfall on the road. Sam Lancaster did not value speed when designing the highway, but by the 1930s most drivers would see speed and efficiency as paramount. 

Other concrete signs of progress conspired against the highway. Construction of the Bonneville Dam in the 1930s caused officials to realign part of the road near Tooth Rock and Eagle Creek. By 1954, the entire route from Troutdale to The Dalles had been bypassed by the new highway built largely on fill material dredged from the Columbia River. Drivers marveled at the wider, straighter, flatter, safer and more modern roadway—which was, in a word, efficient.

U.S. 30 highway bypass

The historic highway meets the shorter U.S. 30 bypass route in 1949 west of Warrendale near the location of the current Interstate 84 exit 35. (Oregon State Archives, OHD4364)

U.S. 30 divided highway

Cars speed by on divided U.S. 30 (later I-84) in 1963, five miles west of The Dalles. Much of this route was built on fill material dredged from the river. (Oregon State Archives, OHD7185)

In the process, some sections of the old highway were abandoned and others were destroyed. The Mitchell Point Tunnel, star of so many postcards, played a poignant role in the history of the highway. After it was bypassed, workers bricked up the five windows, filled the tunnel with rock, and blocked the viaducts leading to the entrances. The ultimate indignity came in 1966 when the tunnel was completely destroyed during the widening of what would become Interstate 84.

(Source: HAER No. OR036-N)