(Special thanks to Kristen Stallman of the Oregon Department of Transportation for this feature. ODOT encourages you to share your story: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The 100th anniversary of the dedication of Historic Columbia River Highway this year provides an opportune time to remember what life was like along the Historic Highway back in the day (1916 – late 1950s) when this was the only road between Portland and points east.
It is certainly hard to imagine this bucolic life today as we speed 65 mph on I-84 and to imagine only seventy or so years ago, all the car travel through the Gorge was forced to the narrow, two-lane, scenic highway. It must have been an incredible 30 mile per hour drive punctuated with breathtaking views and dotted with roadside cafes, souvenir shops and service stations. However, it wasn’t always stress-free. Stories of getting car sick, terrible weather, and flat tires were quite common and add to the lore of this historic road.
Mike Johnson (Vancouver, Washington) and his cousin George Johnson (Hood River, Oregon) surely remember what life was like along the Columbia River Highway. Mike and George’s grandparents operated Johnson’s Café and service station located on what is now the parking lot at Vista House at Crown Point. They spent their childhood at Crown Point. Mike and George shared their stories with Kristen Stallman in Troutdale on July 25, 2016.
The Johnsons family’s black and white photos dated as early as 1926 fill albums made of black paper pages bound together with string. These pages document a family history linked to the Columbia River Highway. In fact, George lived in the basement apartment below the store with his mom for the first several years of his life while his dad fought in Pacific during World War II. Mike’s baby album is so organized and thorough it was as if his mom was doing her best to capture every stage of her new-born baby’s life to share with his proud dad upon his return from the war. These meticulous photo albums celebrated generations of Johnsons which included snapshots of their thriving businesses and a host of characters along the Historic Highway.
These small black and white photos feature the Johnson family at holiday gatherings, neighbors such as the Hendersons (Crown Point Chalet) and Dimitts (Postcards), favorite customers (State Highway Patrolmen, truck drivers), locals and staff, not to mention the famous pets such as “Muggins” the famed café cat. The pages of photos document the many epic weather events that were truly unique to living and operating a business at Crown Point during the winter months. Photos of ice encrusted Vista House and piles of snow were common as were traffic accidents. A long truck didn’t do so well as it tried to make the famous figure eight curves east of Vista House. Could 60 mph gale force wind be to blame? The familiar rock walls and Vista House’s circling steps are featured in these historic family photos. It is easy for one who is familiar to with the site to pick out the same locations todays and step back in time.
George Johnson and Mike Johnson have a love of the Columbia River Highway and the Gorge. Their stories and photos make the highway come alive for all of us who appreciate its history and beauty. They did leave us with one mystery. The albums portray the Columbia River Highway bear. Stephen Kenney, a local historian, shared similar story to of a bear shackled at a gas station near the Stark Street Bridge, but the photos make it appear like it was someplace at higher elevation. If anyone has information on the Columbia River Highway bear please share!