Warning: There’s some disturbing racist shit to be found up in here.
The Columbia River Highway turns 100 on June 7th, 2016! I wrote a little piece about it in Portland Monthly magazine to catch you up on the history, and you can come out to the Edgefield on June 28th and see some awesome magic lantern glass slides that Matthew Cowan and I will be presenting about the construction of the Highway. But a few of the other, important features of the June 7th, 1916 dedication of that highway aren’t being examined at the moment. The programming for the dedication of the Highway also featured a massive display of patriotism to the federal government and a stunning (to our era) display of subjugation of the region’s Native Americans. Oh, and “redface” to boot!
The opening of the highway was a massive affair, and thousands of Portlanders attended. There was a dedication at Multnomah Falls, and then the procession continued on to Crown Point, for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Vista House. Rose Festival Queen, Pendleon’s own Muriel Saling presided over the festivities, and the crowds witnessed some pretty embarrassing shit… In discussing the programming that would occur at the Falls for the dedication, The Big O wrote that…
“It is old Chief Multnomah come back to life. The chief, who will be impersonated by a local newspaper man, with Hamlet-like voice, will rush down the trail back of the falls, and demand to know why the white Queen has dared to invade, with her presence, the waters, the rocks and the hills, of which he is guardian. The Queen and the chief will pow wow a while and figuratively smoke the proverbial pipe of peace. The chief will resign himself to his fate and proceed slowly back into the woods, to show that he is ready to give way before the encroachment of civilization.” From: “Highway Dedication To Be Pompous Ceremony,” The Oregonian, 6/4/1916, Pg. 5.
And if the themes of subjugation weren’t powerful enough in that example, just gaze yonder…
“The Queen, in sorrow for the deposed chief and with feeling, will extend her hand as a token of friendship. The big warrior will refuse and, throwing his blanket over his shoulders, turn, and for the first time, will be amazed at the great number of whites present. Realizing defeat, he will cover his eyes for a moment, trying to think it is all a troubled dream and not real. Finally, realizing that his days of rule are over, he will lay down his bow and arrows and walk from the platform. Taking the trail, the chief will disappear near the base of Multnomah Falls and this scene will end. About this time progress and rapid transit will make its appearance in the person of Miss Columbia, followed by two boys rolling a winged wheel representing the new order of things.” From: “Columbia Highway To Be Dedicated With Fine Drama,” The Oregonian, 5/28/1916, Pg. 2.
I have yet to find a good photograph of this “get the hell out! This is the New Order Of Things!” ceremony, but there is this crappy photo of redface “Chief Multnomah” at the dedication in The Big O’s archives.
Of course, after making that the Native folks “realized that their days of rule are over,” the “Wonder Road of America” needed to give a nod to the nation, even though the Highway was a local, and not a federally financed affair. Displays of uber-patriotism were a vital component of the dedication, and they are interesting to read about in our modern era. At the Multnomah Falls festivities, Miss Columbia was attired in a white gown, with red and blue silk stripes. Portland Public School girls performed enchanting dances to the band’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Positively dripping with patriotism!
But when the party moved on to Crown Point – that’s when the shit went straight U.S.A.! A federal flag was to be unfurled at the dedication at Crown Point– and obviously, an appropriate historical and patriotic device, with Oregon connections, needed to be found for the ceremony. In the City Museum at City Hall, the guillotine that was used in the 1893 San Francisco launch of the Battleship Oregon was identified and secured (see invitation to the launch below). And this contraption was to be initiated when President Wilson touched a button at his desk in Washington DC, over 3,000 miles away. The unfurling was to indicate that “the highway has been opened to the traffic of the world.”
And then BOOM! 48 salutes, one for each state of the Union, were fired by Battery A of the Oregon National Guard. The battery’s participation, “lent interest to the occasion. As the loud salutes resounded through the gorge a patriotic touch was felt, and the celebrants joined in the salute-giving by waving their hats and clapping their hands, and the din was increased by the shrill sounds of automobile sirens.” Nothing quite like a fusillade of artillery fire rolling through The Gorge!
It’s interesting to place this all of this nationalistic revelry on the timeline of “American-ness.” The war (the WW1 flavor) was raging in Europe, and initially, most Americans were of a decidedly isolationist viewpoint (as was President Wilson). But U-Boats, mines and torpedoes can change opinions pretty quick. Just nine months after the opening of the Highway, the US House and Senate would vote to declare war on Germany. In June of 1917, one year after the dedication, 14,000 American soldiers would land in France (the first of the 2,000,000 Yanks that would serve in Europe).
But maybe it wasn’t just the pride of war building up in our old-timey fellow Oregonians. Maybe this acknowledgement of our national identity helped to solidify the nation’s mastery of this entire continent, sea to shing fucking sea, conquering what had previously been formidable obstacles, and again, provided some sort of fait-acompli for the Native Americans who were still in their midst.
So let us celebrate this wonderful centennial of this astounding man-made construction carved within in this ruggedly beautiful natural treasure that is The Gorge. Let us honor and recognize what an engineering feat it truly was. Realize what a gift that road really was to Portlanders, and other Oregonians. But let us not forget the embarrassing moments of that dedication, either. Because they are a part of Oregon’s History as well, friends…
Additional sources: “Plans For Highway Dedication Ready,” The Oregonian, 6/4/1916, Pg. 18, “Queen To Dedicate Columbia Highway,” The Oregonian, 6/7/1916, Pg. 11, “Vista House Begun,” The Oregonian, 6/8/1916, Pg. 17.