Taming Neahkanie Mountain in Oswald West State Park
Today, traffic passes through Neahkahnie Mountain in Oswald West State Park, along the Oregon Coast Highway, easily navigating tight turns, crossing deep ravines and speeding along cliffs. But crossing Neahkahnie wasn’t always so effortless.
In his 1971 book Pioneer Trails of the Oregon Coast, author Samuel Dicken contends that, “For many years, Neahkahnie Mountain was the most dreaded point on the Oregon Coast. [It was] the terror of travelers.”
Particularly challenging for early travelers was Neahkahnie’s western slope, which “from its crest is as steep as the roof of a house and as it approaches the sea the slope breaks off in an almost vertical cliff, nearly 500 feet above the sea.”
Dicken contends that the slope “would be comparatively easy to negotiate if it weren’t so stony.”
“Actually, most of the surface is made up of old rock slides which have been covered with thin vegetation, mostly grasses and salal. The present-day hiker on the slopes of Neahkahnie finds very poor footing.”
In the 1840s, pioneers tended to follow an early native trail that left the beach at Short Sands and followed a gradual climb through a “trough-like depression for some distance.” At the steepest part of the trail, travelers “hovered at the very edge of the cliff.” Early pioneers, including Methodist missionary Joseph H. Frost, who claimed the journey often lasted two days, described the path as being about as wide as a man’s two hands, “stony and gravelly.” (Dicken)
According to Garry Gitzen, “The earliest mail route from Astoria [to Tillamook] was established in August 1870, winding over the hazardous Neahkahnie Mountain. George E.W. Dean…was the first to carry the mail weekly over the route from Astoria. The Neahkahnie Trail remained the principle route into North County until the railroad was completed in 1911.” (Building Tillamook County’s Scenic Highways)
The first mail carriers would blindfold their horses along the steepest part of the trail. In their book Arch Cape Chronicles, authors David and Alma Smith include a story from Mary Edwards who carried mail along the Neahkahnie Mountain route from 1897 until 1901:
“At a sharp turn where it started along the rim, I always got off and hiked because the trail was so hard for the horse. I got off on the side opposite the canyon. My weight, as I slipped against the side of the hill, threw [the horse] off his balance and his hind feet slipped off the trail. He threw himself backwards and lunged to leap back on the trail, but instead, slid down 50 feet, hit a tree and changed ends. The heavy saddle broke his fall so he didn’t break his back, but one rib was cracked. When he turned, he went around the tree and slide down 150 feet more to the bottom of the canyon facing downward toward the ocean 300 feet below. I knew if he tried to get up where he’d landed on a slanting rock, he would slide head first down into the ocean. The mail tied to the saddle probably saved him…”
As a highway made its way along the coast, “settlements sprung up as resort communities.” According to a February 2015 document prepared by Portland-based AECOM for the Oregon Department of Transportation entitled “US 101 Coast Highway Historic Context,” a 1930 report on the highway noted the recreational potential of Clatsop and Tillamook Counties.
“The rugged coast scenery at Neahkahnie Mountain, Cape Falcon, and Arch Cape is unsurpassed anywhere on the Oregon Coast and at Cannon Beach, there is a flat sand beach four miles in length this is an ideal summer resort. Ecola and Cannon Beach are already well built up.” The coastal population grew by more than 13% between the 1920 and 1930 census. With over 65,000 people in 1930, the coastal region made up about 7% of the state’s overall population. Highway access improved the logging, fishing, and recreation economies throughout the coastal regions. The growth of industry, coastal populations, and tourism in coastal towns led to an increased demand for efficient highway transportation.
Though construction of a coastal highway was progressing, by 1930 a gap still remained.
Neahkahnie Mountain…presented a major engineering challenge for completing the highway. Before completion of the highway segment around the headland, wooden foot bridges spanned the mountain’s steep western slope adjacent to the shore line. Most travel in this area occurred along beaches, creeks and ridges, which proved difficult for walking with carrying packs. For short distances, land travel tracked present day US 101 from Seaside to Cannon Beach, moving inland from Cape Falcon to inland from Manzanita, and then onward from Garibaldi to Manzanita. All other intervening routes followed the beach and ridges. (The US 101 Coast Highway Historic Context, February 2015)
While waiting on funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, “Clatsop and Tillamook Counties worked together on the section of coastal highway development between Cannon Beach [north of Neahkahnie] and Nehalem Bay [south of Neahkahnie].”
In 1925, the counties shared the cost of a location survey for the coastal highway route with the intent of planning road construction on future state highway alignment. Tillamook County spent several years with some ‘heavy work on Neahkahnie Mountain.’ Clatsop and Tillamook Counties lamented that they could do no more, requesting that the state take over and complete the route [across Neahkahnie]. Each county offered $1,000,000 spread over a four to five-year period to support the state highway department’s endeavor, and agreed to take over and maintain the present inside route as a county road. The state agreed and, on October 20, 1930, the Highway Commission designated the Cannon Beach Junction, Cannon Beach—Neahkahnie Mountain Unit Section as part of the state highway. (The US 101 Coast Highway Historic Context, February 2015)
An Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) document proposing repairs to the 370-foot retaining wall along Highway 101 at the Manzanita viewpoint includes a brief description of the highway that traverses Neahkahnie:
The Oregon Coast Highway follows “the route of an ancient Indian trail that linked the Clatsop and Tillamook people. US 101, originally the Roosevelt Highway, was opened over the treacherous headland of Neahkahnie Mountain in 1941. It was the final segment of a highway that hugged the Oregon coast from Astoria south to the California border. Not unlike the feat of the series of major coastal bridges built during the 1930s that eliminated river ferry crossings on the route, this technically challenging but stunning ocean-view route around Neahkahnie Mountain replaced a much longer inland roadway, requiring a lengthy series of half-viaducts which bridged a virtual cliff that, previously, had been impassable. Carved from the rock, the roadway accommodated the scenic splendor and natural features of the mountain. Envisioned as both a scenic byway and an artery of commerce, the Oregon Coast Highway incorporated natural features and ample turnouts whereby motorists could safely stop and take in the expansive shoreline view. The highway engineers worked with the terrain, isolating and preserving a rocky outcropping and conforming the pull-outs to the topography.”