Highways and Canals

“We have good roads comparatively. We mean good roads if the sloughs are not belly deep and the hills not right straight up and down and not rock enough to turn the wagon over.” —Henry Allyn, August 11, 1852
About half a dozen cars on a bridge over water. A few people walk along the side of the bridge.
The first vehicles cross the new Siuslaw River Bridge in Florence in 1936. This was one of several coastal bridges designed by Conde B. McCullough. (Courtesy of Siuslaw Pioneer Museum) Enlarge Image


Through the 1800s a network of unpaved roads linked Oregon. The routes of the Oregon Trail wound from the east, and a network of farm roads crisscrossed the state. In the west, the state’s beaches served as a common transit route, useful as the region’s unpaved roads turned to mud in the winter. The State Highway Commission was created in the 1910s to build a road system that would offer easy transit across the state, and connect Oregon’s farmers to markets. These new roads would also provide access to hard-to-reach scenic areas, encouraging tourism spending.
The state’s first scenic highway was completed in 1922 in the Columbia River Gorge. Tourism promotion was wildly successful, and by World War II it was the third largest business in the state. During this time, the new Oregon Coast Highway, now known as Highway 101, made traveling along the coast much more efficient. This also spurred the the construction of connecting highways to inland population centers, thus satisfying a growing interest by tourists to travel by auto.

A stream runs along a dirt road in an arid area of Oregon. Tan and yellow grass with a little green grass lining the water.
The Harper Southside Canal near Harper in Malheur County. (Oregon State Archives, 2011)
Get a high resolution copy of this image in the Oregon Scenic Images Collection​.
Originally ferries brought highway traffic across the bays and estuaries. As car ownership and road traffic increased, the boats would eventually become roadblocks. Vehicles backed up on the highways waiting for a turn on the ferry. The state ultimately replaced them with a system of scenic bridges designed by Conde B. McCullough, Oregon’s bridge engineer from 1919 to 1935. 


Oregon’s eastern regions would never have flourished as agricultural zones were it not for their miles of canals. These were built using federal funds in the first half of the 1900s. Manmade-waterway engineers aimed to turn the high desert and sagebrush prairie into irrigated dryland farms. In all, there are over 6,000 canals across the state. This amounts to more than 700 miles of inland waterways used for drainage, irrigation, mining, and water power.