In these days of mammoth road building equipment with air-conditioned cabs and computer-aided operation, it may be difficult to imagine building the Columbia River Highway with the hand tools and primitive mechanical equipment of a century ago.
Men with strong backs built much of the highway, especially in the early years. They relied on picks, shovels, sledgehammers and wheelbarrows to slowly whittle away at the task. Local farmers added to the road crews as day laborers along with loggers who joined the effort after the logging season ended. Volunteers from Portland joined in weekend road crews to speed the progress.
Work camps sprang up during the early stages of construction in late 1913. These served many of the approximately 2,200 workers who toiled on the Multnomah County portion of the road. A man with a team of horses collected $5.00 a day; day laborers earned $2.25.
Gradually, builders employed more and larger powered equipment such as dump trucks and steam shovels. Equipment manufacturers saw rapid change during these pioneering years as designers learned from the weaknesses of equipment under heavy use in the field. And, of course, road builders relied on strategically placed explosives to do much of the heavy lifting.
Italian stone masons occupied a unique position among workers on the highway. Samuel Lancaster hired these skilled craftsmen to build retaining walls, arched guard walls and other features along the highway. They also worked on Vista House. Reflecting the art that went into their work, each mason had his own distinct style.
Workers construct the deck of the McCord Creek Bridge in 1915. (Oregon Department of Transportation)
Workers prepare to pour concrete into forms with rebar during the construction of the Moffett Creek Bridge in 1915. (Oregon Department of Transportation)
(Source: Willis, Peg. Building the Columbia River Highway. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014.)