Oregon State Parks Essay: Portland/Columbia Gorge

The city of Portland is seen in the distance behind a water body. In the foreground a sandy shore.
The Willamette River from the Sellwood Riverfront Park in southeast Portland with downtown Portland in the background. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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In 1850, President Millard Fillmore appointed John B. Preston to be the Oregon Territory’s first surveyor general and tasked him with creating detailed maps of the region. The next year, Preston set a cedar stake in what is now Willamette Stone State Heritage Site in Portland’s west hills. This spot, where the Willamette meridian and the Willamette baseline cross, is the origin point for all maps and surveys of the Pacific Northwest. In 1988, the federal Department of the Interior memorialized the spot with a steel marker and a brass plaque. 

“There was a lot of pot smoking and skinny dipping, but nobody was killed.” That’s how Governor Tom McCall summed up Vortex 1, Oregon’s version of the Woodstock music festival. In the summer of 1970, Vietnam War protests were growing increasingly violent, and President Richard Nixon announced plans to attend the national American Legion convention in Portland. Anti-war activists planned to disrupt Nixon’s visit. The FBI predicted rioting. One small peace activist group, The Family, offered up a free solution, that with the Governor’s office’s sponsorship, they could put on a rock festival during Nixon’s visit. McCall’s office agreed, and green-lighted a week-long festival at Milo McIver State Park, 30 miles southeast of Portland. Approximately 50,000 people partied along the Clackamas River, without incident. The Oregon National Guard patrolled the park with a light touch. Nixon cancelled his visit, and there were no anti-war riots. McCall later said, “It was the damnedest confrontation you’ll ever see.”

Also in the 1960s, Oregon turned its attention to the 187-mile Willamette River, which runs north from the Cascade Range east of Springfield into the Columbia River. For decades, industries and municipalities clustered along the Willamette River’s ports dumped sewage, industrial waste, and other pollutants into the river. Trains started running through the valley in 1871, followed by roads and eventually the I-5 interstate highway, and by 1960, the Willamette River was neglected, abused and badly polluted. The Willamette River Greenway, a water trail strongly championed by governors Bob Straub and Tom McCall, was created to restore and protect the river. Oregon state parks, working with cities and counties bordering the river, bought, traded, rented and accepted gifts of land to create the greenway, which includes docks for boats, local and state parks and campgrounds. State parks river rangers patrol the river with boats, surveying and repairing properties.

Octagonal stone building a top a rocky promontory 733 feet above the Columbia River.
Vista House in the Columbia Gorge received an unfortunate nickname by its critics. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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“The $100,000 Outhouse” was the inelegant nickname for a majestic rest stop overlooking the Columbia River Highway. The highway, considered a technological jewel when construction began in 1913, winds up and around Crown Point, a cliff overlooking the Columbia Gorge. Engineers chose Crown Point as the site for Vista House, a three-floor, octagonal building under a dome roof with public restrooms. Queen Marie of Romania visited Vista House on November 4, 1926. As she and her lady-in-waiting privately used the basement restroom, a crowd of press and dignitaries waited in the corridor when an Oregonian photographer called out, “Listen for it, folks! A royal flush!” The building, now a museum, is a popular observation point in the Crown Point State Scenic Corridor.

Heading east, White River Falls State Park near Maupin is all about water; its 90-foot waterfall feeds into a now-deserted hydropower plant. The plant channeled the waterfall into a turbine-filled powerhouse which, from 1910 to 1960, provided electrical power to Wasco and Sherman counties.  Originally built in 1902, the facility provided power for the Wasco Warehouse Milling Company’s flour mills in The Dalles. The company built a small grist mill near the falls, along with four company houses for workers. The massive rock-and-concrete structure, the turbines and remnants of the grist mill are still there.

A message scratched into a rock wall inside of the Mosier Twin Tunnels, east of Hood River on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, tells the story of early automobile-era transportation. The trail is three individual paved paths along parts of the historic Columbia River Highway, the first road to connect Portland with The Dalles. Today, hikers and bicyclists can travel though the Mosier Twin Tunnels, where a blizzard trapped 10 cars full of travelers on November 19, 1921. The next day the travelers, except for Charlie Sadilek and E.B. Martin, hiked through the snow to Mosier, where they stayed until a barge could take them and their cars to Portland. Sadilek, who was headed for Portland after hunting for geese, and Martin didn’t want to leave their cars, so they stayed in the tunnel for 8 days, living on Sadilek’s geese, Martin’s apples and the other travelers’ whiskey. The hardy pair etched “Snowbound, Nov. 19 to 27 – 1921, Chas. J. Sadilek, E.B. Martin” before being rescued and headed to Portland.​

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