One of the great Columbia Gorge architectural treasures of the last century was the Mitchell Point Tunnel along the Historic Columbia River Highway. The massive tunnel, with five huge “windows” offering sweeping views of the Gorge, was considered the engineering marvel of the highway when it opened in 1915. By the mid 1950s, the highway was rerouted and the tunnel closed. It was destroyed in 1966 to make room for construction of Interstate 84.
Thanks to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and a host of partners including Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the Mitchell Point Tunnel is being revived and restored as part of the work to reconnect the entire 73-mile Historic Columbia River Highway. The 1986 legislation that created the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area made reconnection a major priority. Once completed, cyclists will be able to ride between Troutdale and The Dalles without getting onto I-84. Friends has been participating in site visits, commenting on development applications and offering advice, writing letters of support for funding, and appearing in promotional materials.
As ODOT worked toward reconnecting the highway around Mitchell Point’s jutting basalt rock face, various options were considered, including building a raised trail alongside the cliff as well as digging a new tunnel deeper into the rock. The project had to undergo the same scrutiny as other development projects in the National Scenic Area, and the tunnel concept was deemed not only the most economically feasible, but also the least impactful option for protecting natural scenic views when the reconstructed segment is viewed from the water and across the river.
The tunnel plans also helped ensure that sensitive plant habitat on the Mitchell Point cliff face would remain undisturbed. Construction began this spring, and when completed in 2023, the 655-foot tunnel with five arched windows will harken back to a bygone era.
The Mitchell Point Tunnel project is just one of three projects that remain to fully connect the Historic Highway. Construction will begin on another segment to the west in 2022, and the last segment, a 1.6 mile stretch from Mitchell Point east to Ruthton Point, is in its design and fundraising phase right now. The Mitchell Point tunnel is destined to become an iconic attraction for cyclists, as will the 20-mile stretch of the Historic Columbia River Highway between Cascade Locks and Hood River. This makes Gorge transportation planning, including alternative transportation planning, all the more important to ensure safe, enjoyable recreation that connects healthy, vibrant Gorge communities.