The Columbia River Gorge. Isn’t it true, no matter how many times we have traveled along the banks of the Columbia River as it weaves its way through this geologic rich gorge: we are awestruck? We are eager to show it off to those new to Oregon and it inspires us when we are lucky enough to see it through the seasons: fruit laden orchards in the fall, icy falls in the winter, rushing creeks in the spring and the blue-skied breezy hotness of summer.
It was only earlier this month, after all my years of traveling through the gorge, that I visited Beacon Rock State Park. Beacon Rock is an 848 foot basalt plug lying today on the Washington side of the Columbia River. The Cascade tribe knew the rock as Che-Che-Op-Tin, but it was referred to initially by Lewis and Clark as Beaten Rock, likely because of a spelling error. The rock’s placement along the Columbia was identified as the point where Lewis and Clark first measured river tides that indicated they were nearing the ocean in 1805. These explorers noted that the rock marked the furthest eastern point where the tide influenced the Columbia. They corrected the name in their log to Beacon Rock on their return trip. At one point later the name was changed to Castle Rock, and then finally permanently back to Beacon Rock around 1915.
Henry Biddle, who lived from 1864-1928, was an ecologist who purchased the rock in 1915, apparently for one dollar, to save it from being used for quarry purposes. He also had great hopes of creating a trail to the rock summit, and in fact, succeeded in completing a trail to the top by 1918. The trail that Biddle created was 4500 feet long, 4 feet wide, with 52 hair pin turns and 22 wooden bridges. Before the trail was built, the first climbers of the rock used spikes and ropes to reach the summit in 1901. Anyone particularly interested in this rock, Henry Biddle, and his efforts to build the trail would be remiss not to read his account and explanation, Beacon Rock on the Columbia, supported by photos and other research as preserved and made available today by the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum.
When Henry Biddle passed away in 1928, his heirs offered Beacon Rock and 260 of adjacent acres to the state of Washington in an effort to preserve it and continue to protect it from quarrying. It was around this time that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to blast the rock into little bits so to use it for material to build a jetty at the mouth of the Columbia. The gift was presented by the Biddle family to Washington State on the condition that the land and rock would be kept for its scenic beauty and never developed, and that the trail to the summit would continue to be maintained. At first, Washington Governor Harley refused the offer. Citizens in Vancouver and Portland, coming from a closer population center than the Olympia-based Harley vocally shared their great concern and in a clever act, led by the incumbent Superintendent of Oregon State Parks, Samuel Boardman, began some discussions that appeared as if the Biddle heirs were going to offer Beacon Rock to the State of Oregon. Eventually, thanks to help from Washington newspaper stories and growing public pressure, Washington State accepted the gift from the Biddle Family. Was Oregon’s proposed purchase a bluff: imagining an Oregon State Park on the Washington side of the river? Or perhaps, after all, it was just a reminder that just less than a mere century prior all of this land, and more, had all been the Oregon Territory.