Historic Hood River
“Showing West End of Convict Work”
Ten years ago we learned about the very earliest work on the Columbia River Highway in Hood River County: the construction of a road at Shellrock mountain by convict labor, which we saw in this image. Our friends at ODOT recently shared a 1914 report from highway engineer John Elliott which sheds some new light on this episode.
Elliott was charged with constructing the highway past this point, and he did not like what he saw of the 1912 construction. He described how Simon Benson gave Hood River County $10,000 for the project. He offered this unvarnished appraisal of the work of the 1912 road crew:
This money was expended for work by convicts. The class of work was of the poorest type giving no evidence of any engineering except a few stakes and hubs. The roadbed was built only 14 feet wide in places with no definite width prevailing… The wall construction was a poor handplaced rip rap. No hammers were used and the wall was layed as loose as possible with the apparent idea of making each rock go as far as it would… The convict work besides being poor in quality increases the cost of the present construction materially. New walls have to be built where the old ones stand necessitating the removal of the old one and fill behind it before the new wall can be started.
Elliott’s imposed much higher standards on the 1914 construction, resulting in a highway that lasted until the construction of I80N (I84) through that corridor– though it was not without its own set of problems. This section of the Columbia River Highway was subject to landslides and avalanches. As recently as the Eagle Creek fire of 2017 rocks and flaming debris slid down onto the interstate highway and the Columbia River Highway State Trail segment which was then under construction.