17 Road Location

Design and Construction of Circuit Roads


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Road Location

The idea of better positioning the park for through travel in reference to the location of U.S. 97 drove Superintendent Thomson’s priorities in his report about possible road and trail projects in 1926. A rerouted East Entrance Road received top choice for the time being, but Thomson wanted the west Rim Road improved “as soon as appropriations would permit” in order to better “take care of travel from Crater Lake to Diamond Lake.” He reasoned that this section received more use than any other on the Rim Road, thereby meriting consideration when more money became available, especially since a new location near the Watchman might help get the entire circuit open earlier in the season. Given the park’s short season, Thomson emphasized the importance of the Rim Road to the visitor experience by describing the circuit as “easily one third of the value of our Park and until it is fully open, thousands of people are denied” what he called “their greatest reaction.”

The BPR reconnaissance survey not only allowed Thomson to reference the construction estimates in his priorities, but also allowed him to comment on proposed road locations. It designated the Rim Road as Route 7 in the park and divided the circuit into five segments, labeling them as A, B, C, D, and E. Thomson took an immediate dislike to what BPR proposed as 7-E, a road segment 4 miles long and running from Sun Notch to Crater Lake Lodge by way of Garfield Peak. In addition to being very expensive, the proposed road location necessitated two tunnels and a “gash across the face” of Garfield Peak, which, as Thomson stated, was “altogether too beautiful to be subjected to the unconscious vandalism of ambitious engineers.”

Oddly enough, given his comment on the location of 7-E, Thomson endorsed what BPR proposed for segment 7-D. He envisioned that “all travel will enter the pinnacles (East) entrance” and then proceed to the rim to enjoy what Thomson thought to be the preeminent view of Crater Lake at Kerr Notch. In spite of the cut required across the face of Dutton Cliff on two sides, he enthused about how vehicles might travel “practically on contours” to Sun Notch. Visitors could thus enjoy a panorama of the Klamath Basin and the “tumbled” Cascade Range.

In urging that segment 7-A be given first priority for fiscal year 1929, Thomson stated that the stretch of road between Rim Village and the Diamond Lake (North) Junction constituted “practically a main stem for us.” It not only carried traffic to and from Diamond Lake, but also was the most traveled section used by visitors who did not go all the way around the rim. He believed construction of this 6.7 mile segment might take only one season, to be followed by the other segments over the next four years. In response, BPR conducted a preliminary location survey as another step toward construction during the summer of 1928. Beginning from Park Headquarters in Munson Valley, they went over Thomson’s preferred line for 7-E to Sun Notch in July and then pushed toward Kerr Notch on the reconnaissance line for 7-D. The location crew left Crater Lake at the end of September, having run a P-line for those two segments as well as the one connecting Rim Village with the Diamond Lake Junction. They did so abruptly, after receiving word from Albright that there would be no funding for road construction at the park in 1929.

The delay may have been fortuitous since Thomson transferred to Yosemite National Park in early 1929 and the new superintendent, E.C. Solinsky, wanted additional study of the P-line and segment 7-A in particular. One of his reasons pertained to a plan for building a new administration building at Rim Village. Solinsky believed that such a structure obviated the need for a ranger station there, so the latter could be located at the Diamond Lake Junction. Since he intended it to serve as an entrance (checking) station, Solinsky recommended postponing the building programmed for 1929 until the location of the junction could be finalized.

Another reason for further study pertained to Merriam’s desire for designing roads and trails “with special reference” to presenting park features and those in the surrounding region “which have been determined by experts to be of outstanding importance.” The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial supplied a grant for a study of the educational possibilities of the parks in 1928, one administered by a committee headed by Merriam. Most of the field visits associated with the study took place over the next summer, followed by recommendations to congressmen well positioned in the appropriations process. At Crater Lake the study effort translated into money for building the Sinnott Memorial with a special $10,000 appropriation as well as funds to hire a permanent park naturalist and an expanded summer staff of naturalists.

Merriam visited the park in August 1929 and paid special attention to the location of Rim Drive. He then wrote to Albright about the need for someone who understood the park’s geological features to assist with locating segment 7-A. The recommendation brought about an on-site inspection of the P-line in October 1929, beginning at Rim Village and going clockwise on the old road to Kerr Notch. Arthur L. Day, volcanologist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and head of its Geophysical Laboratory, served as Merriam’s representative. Joining him at the meeting were the district and resident BPR engineers (J.A. Elliott and John R. Sargent, respectively), as well as NPS chief engineer Frank Kittredge, chief NPS landscape architect Thomas Vint, and Solinsky.

The group recommended keeping the road as close to the rim as possible over the first mile from Rim Village, but with additional easy curvature to the first volcanic dike visible at the Discovery Point Overlook. They suggested elimination of a tight radial turn at the foot of the Watchman, and then chose a line that kept the road away from views of Crater Lake until the Watchman Overlook. Kittredge noted how BPR appeared to have “solved” the snow problem around the Watchman, presumably by running a lower line than the one adopted by the old Rim Road.

BPR opted for a low line around Llao Rock, though the group favored a spectacular “ledge route” involving sidehill excavation and a series of “window tunnels” on the lake side to obtain better views and reduce 2 miles of travel in reaching Steel Bay. Everyone came to agreement over leaving the Rock of Ages (Mazama Rock) undisturbed. All of the group members wanted the road to reach the top of Cloudcap, but no one thought of marring the fringe of whitebark pine overlooking the lake. This portion of the circuit required further study, the group advised, especially if it stayed close to the rim. The group endorsed the surveyed line between Cloudcap and Kerr Notch, with the stipulation that visitors should be able to reach the viewpoint for Cottage Rocks (Pumice Castle), as well as the Sentinel Point and Kerr Notch localities.

Although the group did not review the P-line between Kerr Notch and Sun Notch, Kittredge characterized it as requiring heavy blasting to make a roadway across sheer cliffs. He saw no way around blasting, but thought damage could be limited if care was used in preventing material from “flowing” down slopes. Kittredge also mentioned two prospective routes beyond Sun Notch, with a decision needed about whether to bypass Park Headquarters and go to Rim Village by way of Garfield Peak instead. One route that did just that came to be known as the “high line.” The other route, a “low line,” largely utilized the existing road connecting Lost Creek to Vidae Falls.

Andesite boulders quarried at the base of the Watchman during the 1930s became a conspicuous part of designed cultural landscapes at Rim Village, Park Headquarters, and along Rim Drive.

With segment 7-A scheduled for bid in the fall of 1930, the next phase of location work focused on it. Resident BPR engineer John R. Sargent took charge of the L-line survey for the initial part of Rim Drive after NPS landscape architect Merel Sager found the P-line unsatisfactory in “numerous” places. Sager effected revision of the old line with advice from Merriam, Harold C. Bryant (assistant director of the NPS as head of the branch of research and education in the Washington Office), and Bryant’s deputy, geologist Wallace W. Atwood. Sager and Vint went over the revised line with Sargent in August, with Sager returning in October to meet with Sargent about designating certain places along segment 7-A with Class B excavation. Clearing by NPS crews under BPR supervision commenced shortly thereafter as a way to allow the prospective grading contractor the benefit of a full working season in 1931.

L-line surveys continued over the following summer and proceeded quickly enough over segments 7-B and 7-C for the NPS to pre-advertise bidding on them in November 1931. The location work covered a new road of just over 13 miles, one now routed almost to the base of Mount Scott. This line avoided the 10 to 12 percent grades on the old Rim Road’s ascent of Cloudcap through use of a dead-end spur road to the top. After some discussion, the NPS chose a line having a gentler grade routed away from the rim down to the Cottage Rocks viewpoint, instead of going down the south face of Cloudcap. The portion of segment 7-C between Cloudcap and Kerr Notch then became known as 7-C1 and subsequently divided into two grading contracts, units 1 and 2.

Park Superintendent David Canfield could thus confidently assert by November 1934 that the award of two grading contracts in 7-C1 brought the Rim Drive three-quarters of the way around the caldera. Anticipated construction, Canfield noted, would provide the planned connection with the East Entrance and U.S. 97, leaving only a quarter of the circuit “untouched” except for survey work. Location of that remaining quarter became contentious, beginning with a salvo launched in May 1931 by Park Commissioner William Gladstone Steel. He wanted a road built from the base of Kerr Notch to Crater Lake Lodge inside the caldera at a 4 percent grade, a route to be accompanied by a tunnel leading to the water. Horace Albright, now director of the NPS, dismissed the idea as “chimerical.” Bryant wrote to Steel and attempted to point out that the new road’s alignment was aimed at preventing it from being visible at a distance to those standing on the rim.

In any event, Sager pointed to a pair of big problems associated with any “high line” route proposed for connecting Sun Notch with Rim Village, starting with the outlay needed for obliterating scars on the sides of Garfield Peak. He also called the construction of a tunnel proposed by BPR “inadvisable,” owing to the prevailing rock types on the ridge above Crater Lake Lodge. Albright intended to study the high line in relation to the low line favored by Sager and other landscape architects in July 1931 as part of his stop to attend the dedication of the Sinnott Memorial. The director ran out of time to make a field inspection of segment 7-E on that visit to the park, then deferred a decision on it, finally decideding not to build a road into Sun Notch by the end of June 1933. Albright wrote to Solinsky on his last day as director in August and ordered that a “primitive area,” a roadless tract prohibiting vehicular access, be shown on master plans for the lands north of the old Rim Road between Lost Creek and Park Headquarters.

BPR engineers, and Sargent in particular, did not easily give up on the high line. Sargent persuaded Lange and the new superintendent, David Canfield, to walk the surveyed line of roughly 3 miles between Sun Notch and the lodge in July 1935. Lange went into considerable detail about the many construction and landscape problems posed by going through with the high line project in a memorandum to the NPS office of plans and design in San Francisco. He also pointed to the face of Dutton Cliff in segment 7-D as offering the “outstanding” problem, since the road location through large slides of loose rock would be difficult to camouflage. To put a road into Sun Notch around Dutton Ridge struck him as contrary to the park idea of “preserving those areas which are worthy of protection and keeping out any possible development.” Dutton Ridge in particular seemed to Lange to be a “spectacular creation,” while the primitive area around it gave him the impression that he was the first person to visit. He concluded the memorandum with a plea to keep any road at least several hundred feet below the rim at Sun Notch in the event that the higher line of segment 7-D won out over the low line.

Kittredge and the resident NPS engineer, William E. Robertson, also walked the high line within days of Lange’s field trip. They did so in response to a news article appearing in a Portland paper that came in the wake of Concessionaire Richard W. Price taking his case for the high line to the chamber of commerce in Klamath Falls. The local congressman contacted Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes at roughly the same time, and Ickes then referred the query to NPS director Arno B. Cammerer. Albright’s successor dispatched Associate Director Arthur Demaray to Crater Lake for an on-site inspection of the two road locations, and told Ickes that the matter would receive further consideration upon Demaray’s return to Washington. Kittredge’s assessment of the high line from Sun Notch to Rim Village focused on the impact to Garfield Peak, though he offered the possibility of two one-way roads traversing the cliff face in line with Frederick Law Olmsted’s recommendation for that type of construction “for certain places.”

In his reply to Kittredge, Demaray dismissed the high line location for 7-E due to its impact on Garfield Peak. He told Kittredge that further consideration should be given to the high line in 7-D, one that ran “from Kerr Notch around Dutton Ridge to Sun Meadows, then joining the present road [from Lost Creek] at the Vidae Falls. This amounted to a “combination line,” one that Canfield strongly supported when he asked Cammerer to transfer funds originally programmed for the low line route and instead put them toward building segment 7-D. Lange again warned that such a road would “deface and permanently injure” the cliffs of Dutton Ridge, though he injected some levity into the situation by offering BPR the paraphrase “You take the high line and I’ll take the low line,” sung to the tune of “Loch Lomond.”

Vidae Falls
Vidae Falls.

Cammerer went ahead with recommending the “combination line” of a high 7-D and a low 7-E to Ickes on November 16, 1935. The secretary approved it several weeks later and his office issued a press release to that effect. Sargent confidently anticipated the decision by completing the fieldwork for what he called the “final located line” between Kerr Notch and Vidae Falls by late October, so that plans could be completed over the winter. Engineers estimated this stretch of 5.5 miles as the most time consuming portion of Rim Drive to build, so BPR divided it into three units (as 7-D1, 7-D2, and 7-E1) for the purposes of bids on future grading contracts. Sargent also ran a P-line of 4.3 miles for the last segment of Rim Drive, one connecting Vidae Falls with Park Headquarters, in the fall of 1935. His successor, Wendell C. Struble, revised the line over the following summer to eliminate about a mile of road construction, mainly because he and Lange agreed that the new line effectively reduced the scar width of 7-E2 as seen from Crater Lake Lodge.

The problem of how to approach Vidae Falls from Sun Notch and then cross the creek remained since, as Vint pointed out, Sargent’s line came too close to the falls and made any road crossing involving a fill too noticeable. He recommended that the line follow an approach road down to the proposed Sun Creek Campground (a development aimed at the interfluve between Vidae and Sun creeks near the old Rim Road), so that any fill used to span Vidae Creek might then be less obvious. A higher location required a bridge, Vint noted, one preferably built of logs. Canfield questioned the cost in relation to an expected life of fifteen years, while also suggesting some revisions to a design used for the log bridge built over Goodbye Creek (located south of Park Headquarters) in 1929.

Resolution to the Vidae Falls dilemma did not come until January 1938, after Cammerer wrote to Canfield’s successor, Ernest P. Leavitt. Not only did he want the new superintendent’s views on the controversial location of segment 7-D, but also he took that opportunity to express a preference for a bridge at Vidae Falls. Leavitt responded with rather emphatic reasons for why the line from Kerr Notch to Vidae Falls constituted a serious mistake, then gave Cammerer a number of reasons why a fill made better sense than a bridge at the falls. Demaray informed Leavitt in January 1938 that a fill had been approved, largely due to the “depleted condition” of funds for roads and trails during the current fiscal year and the small allotment anticipated for 1939. At this point the associate director regarded any lingering questions over the location of Rim Drive as “closed,” since a contract for grading 7-E2 had been awarded the previous fall.

Wizard Island

Wizard Island from the Watchman Overlook.