A road to the coast

Hundreds of times in my life I have traveled from Portland to our Oregon Coast through the Coast Range. At least a quarter of those times I have stopped at the one rest area off Highway 26. Once, yesterday, I actually took a few minutes to view the historic kiosk located there, usually too eager to move forward on my journey. And it is, yes, ironic – or is it hypocritical – that I write about this highway: an area surrounded by clearcuts and losses of massive, first growth trees, after just finishing Richard Powers’ magnificent The Overstory. Ironic or hypocritical in the same manner that I revel over my great great great grandparents’ Oregon roots while struggling to accept their faith’s denial of Native Oregonians’ wiser, earth-friendly traditions, cultures and practices.

Ignoring the disconnect and discomfort for the moment – for, that is what some of us do – here’s what I do know: travel to the Oregon Coast for people in the days of my grandfather’s early childhood was difficult. An unpaved highway connected Portland with Astoria beginning in 1915, and it wasn’t until 1931 that Highway 101 was paved and finished. As a small boy of the late 1800’s and turn of the century, my grandfather and his family were fortunate to get to the beach by steamship, a form of travel – if you could afford it – making it easier for Portlanders to visit Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula than those from Washington Cities. And because of my great great grandfather J.K.Gill’s brother, Sam Gill – a steamboat engineer and writer – we know a bit about travel from Portland to Astoria in days even before my grandfather’s time. Although not relying on wind as did the sailing ships bringing my great great great grandparents around Cape Horn, Sam Gill’s steamers burned wood, not yet burning diesel like later ships, or guzzling gasoline like most vehicles today.

Sam followed our great-great-grandfather, his brother J.K. Gill, to Oregon in 1876. Sam began his steamboat career after being laid off from Albina Iron Work. He jumped at an opportunity to work on the Hayward steamboat as a fireman and, eventually, he became a steamboat captain.

In the early years of Sam’s career, the Hayward steamboat ran from Portland to Astoria on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, returning to Portland on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The steamboat fare was fifty cents between terminals on the Washington side, or two dollars and fifty cents for meals on the Oregon route. The run followed the Washington shore, across the bay at Harrington’s Point, and down to Astoria. Harrington’s Point is the legendary spot where, in 1805, Captain Clark stood and believed he was looking upon the ocean. In fact, Clark and his men were gazing at the lower Columbian River Estuary and Grays Bay, and they still needed to travel another twenty miles before they would reach the Pacific.

Sam wrote about the Hayward’s direct competitor, the Willamette Chief: the supposed namesake for my grandparents’ cruiser—luxurious to us kids, but nothing compared to the steamship. The Hayward’s boiler allowed only ninety pounds of pressure, requiring the “skill of an expert demon from Hell” to get enough steam on the gauge. When the two steamers were near each other, the Captain of the Chief would stand out on the deck jockeying the crew of the Hayward, and the ships would dodge competitively up or down the river, no doubt worrying passengers aboard with this early form of road rage.Sam’s boss, Captain Dave, appreciated the efforts of Sam and his fellow firemen to keep the old kettle boiling. When they arrived in Astoria, they would have to burn the fire out, drop the steam down to zero, and get into the firebox to caulk a few of the leaky tube ends.

From Chapter 10: Boats, Carp and Steamers, My Music Man

Before Sam Gill engineered steamers in the latter part of the 1800’s, those arriving by Oregon Trail wanted easier access to the beaches of Oregon. The provisional government also wanted a road to “defend” Astoria – believing in those days it important to protect it from both Native Americans and foreign lands. Federal funds were finally promised to create the Military Road from Salem to Astoria beginning in 1856, but the project was halted as funding stopped when the Civil War broke out. Wagons never did travel the entire length of this road. It wasn’t until 1932, two years after my dad was born, when construction of the 75-mile Wolf Creek Road was begun, remaining unfinished until 1946 when it was renamed Sunset Highway in honor of the Oregon National Guard’s 41st Infantry Division. The total cost of this 16-year project was $20 million.

Map from the Highway 26 rest area kiosk.

Yesterday, after leaving the rest area and as we proceeded westward along Highway 26, my companion muttered. “The whole hillside is on the move- ODOT calls it the Quartz Creek maintenance nightmare.” Yet, this geologist spouse of mine, gave a brief smile, adding, “Geology in action.” It’s impossible not to spot clear cuts, my brain still meditating on Richard Powers’ characters and plots. These trees. This earth. Sigh. Roads, cars and trips we take for granted: less than two hours of travel to view the ocean. Trees along the way generations removed from original growth.

Going home, we’ll take the now paved-for-decades, Highway 30, following the Columbia River via Astoria. I might urge my companion to pull over in Westport, where a ferry still crosses a channel of the Columbia, or perhaps I’ll merely peer down the road where Highway 20 crosses the intersection. I will imagine this spot where my own character, Ernest, pulls the bottle from the river (spoiler alert: Beyond the Ripples). And. Breathe. Cry. Shout. Rejoice. Imagine what it is we do next. We do what we do, or try to do what we think we should do, all while earth continues spinning.

The Columbia River, near Westport.

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