#36 Mitchell Point
This is the view of Mitchell point from Wa Hwy 14. The gully in the middle of the point is where the viaduct bridge was, with the “Tunnel of Many Vistas” and the 5 windows to the left of it. The former roadway thru the tunnels is still there (after the 1966 blasting) and it is used to catch falling rocks from bouncing down onto the highway (A lousy fate for one of the most inspired road-engineering feats the world has EVER seen!). FYI, I dedicated my guidebook “Pokin ‘Round the Gorge” to these former tunnels at Mitchell Point. Their needless destruction is one of the Gorge’s darkest days, in terms of preservation of history. Please learn their story in the effort that we don’t repeat such historic folly again, here or anywhere else in the country.
Sprinkled throughout these historic photos of the Mitchell Point Tunnels I’ve included some PDFs of historic 1915 articles from the Oregonian that lend perspective to the building of the Historic Columbia River Highway and particularly the Mitchell point Tunnels.
This first article details the cost of the tunnels as the most expensive road works yet undertaken in America:
Next is the controversy over this expense. When the writers talk about an alternate steep-grade route, they are referring to the 1872 Wagon Rd which switchbacked up the slope between Little Mitchell and Big Mitchell and then switchbacked down the east side to get back to roughly the river level. The grade of this old roadbed still exists between Big and Little Mitchell Points:
Mitchell Tunnel construction and Wagon Rd, 1915 It turned out that the $50,000 bond that Hood River County levied for their portion of the construction was completely bought-up by Simon Benson out of his magnanimous goodwill towards completing the Scenic Highway.
Here is a July 1915 Oregonian article celebrating the completion of the Mitchell Point Tunnels, with references to the Axenstrasse Tunnels as well as the rarely-mentioned “Defile De Ruoms” (in the 3rd column):
These next pix are of the Historic Axenstrasse Tunnels along Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. These fames Swiss roadway tunnels were the inspiration for Sam Hill and Sam Lancaster for the design of the tunnels at Mitchell Point. Look close and you’ll many similarities. It’s quite obvious though that Sam Lancaster’s design far outdid the Swiss in terms of the graceful artistry of his curved window openings.
NOTE: The next photo has been in my files for years, labelled Axenstrasse, but I had always wondered why it didn’t look identical to the other Axenstrasse photos—-the scenery outside the windows. I scratched my head but “let it ride”. Only upon reading the Oregonian’s 7/1915 piece (shown above) did I first hear of the “Defile De Ruoms”….and thanks to the magic of Google, my puzzlement was quickly alleviated. Go ahead and Google Defile De Ruoms yourself and you’ll see plenty of pix of this famed 1870s French roadway. Obviously it inspired the Axenstrasse Tunnels, and possibly our Columbia River Highway too!
Here’s a snip from the 7/1915 article where it was mentioned:
These next 3 photos are from the construction of the Mitchell Point Tunnels and the viaduct bridge leading to the Tunnel’s western entrance. These photos date circa 1915. These photos are courtesy the ODOT archives.
These next two photos, also from the ODOT archives, are the closure of the tunnels with the completion of the new water-grade freeway (I-80, now I-84), circa 1954. At this time the tunnels were not destroyed, but the windows were cemented closed and the tunnels were back-filled with gravel.
The new I-80 (now I-84) water-grade freeway was built thru the Gorge 1952-1954. Here are some Oregonian articles offering opinions about the fate of the famed Scenic Hwy and the closing of the 3 tunnels–Oneonta, Mitchell, and Mosier upon the opening of the new freeway.
This first opinion piece (“Famed Gorge route Shabbily neglected”) was written by Frank Branch Riley, an esteemed Portland businessman and narrator of a short Scenic Hwy movie called “Singing Waters” (FYI, I will soon include here a Youtube link to see this 8-minute film)
Next is another opinion piece detailing public complaints over the neglect of the famed “King of roads”:
The day after the previous article, the Oregonian weighed in with an editorial and also on the same newspaper page a rebuttal by the State Hwy Engineer, expressing ODOT’s position on the closing of the three tunnels:
Next in the saga of the Mitchell Point “Tunnels of Many Vistas” comes their tragic demise. Ten years after the completion of the water-grade Highway 80, traffic had once again overwhelmed the capacity of the two-lane highway. I-80 had been expanded in many areas to 4 lanes, but the narrow passage around Mitchell Point left the highway with only two lanes around the point, causing a frequent traffic jam as the traffic had to merge from four4 lanes to two. This next phot from ODOT is an aerial photo from 1964 showing how the lanes went from 4 to 2 around the point. Notice the Scenic Highway descending from the former tunnels to the left of I-84.
Now comes the real tragedy. The highway NEEDED to be expanded to four lanes around Mitchell Point. The question was…how to do it? There were two options; the first was to move the railroad over again, just like with the construction of I-80 in the first place. Fill in the Columbia shoreline a little more with rock blocks, then move the RR to the north, making space for another two lanes of highway while also leaving room against the rocks of Mitchell Point as a rockfall catchment. The other cheaper, faster option was to blast away the then-backfilled Mitchell Point tunnels and use the former scenic roadway as the rockfall catchment, while using the ground that had been the catchment area to expand the highway with two more lanes. Look at the previous photo again and you can see the empty ground space against Mitchell Point. There were voices at the time that shouted for the preservation of the tunnels for historic interests, but sadly Governor Hatfield signed-off on the decesion to go ahead with the plan to blast the tunnels away. Here’s a photo-excerpt from Clarence Mershon’s excellent Columbia River Highway history stating his opinion about the un-needed destruction of the historic tunnels: