written by Peter Murphy | photos by Cameron Zegers
The southeastern portal to Highway 43 begins not so much at a place perhaps but at a time in the past. The other end of the highway lies in the world of tomorrow.
In the 1840s, Dr. John McLaughlin—known as the “Father of Oregon”—built a homestead at the end of what was the Oregon Trail, in Oregon City. Today the site marks the eastern foot of Conde McCullough’s Oregon City-West Linn Arch Bridge, spanning the Willamette River. On the other side, West Linn is the southern portal to today’s Highway 43, also known as Pacific Highway.
As a tribute to Oregon’s most renowned highway bridge builder, Arch Bridge was rebuilt and rededicated in 2012. McCullough designed it as if to frame the special scene from Oregon history at the river the native Clackamas people called “Wal-lamt,” or “Wihlamut” by the Calapooya.
It was here along the shores of the Willamette River that Dr. McLaughlin and his contemporaries set up headquarters for what would become the nation’s thirty-third state in 1859. The course into what was then a fledgling Stumptown and eventually, Portland, came later.
Back then, you would have traveled along the Willamette on a trail blazed by American Indians. Those first Americans were the early pioneers of many a future state highway. During the right season, perhaps while chasing a buck you’d spied on the trail, if you looked out upon the freely-flowing Willamette, you’d see fishermen spearing or netting big spring Chinook and other fish. Today your view might be of a “hog-line” of anglers, boats tied together in a common thread, pursuing that same trophy.
It may all be lost on the daily commuter crawling along on one of the metro area’s busier highways. As many as 28,000 vehicles make the trip every day. Most folks are just trying to get from point A to point B, but there’s a lot in between.
Take, for example, State Recreation Area, Mary S. Young Park, in the city of West Linn. Even in winter, it’s a quintessential refuge from city life. Right by the river, amid a plethora of paths, trees and grass, is a hotspot for birders. On its 128 acres there’s plenty of room for people and pets to roam—even off leash. There are the requisite strip malls along the highway with their pizza parlors, grocery stores and gas stations. There are also stately homes perched over the highway. This corridor is a lush blend of plant life—grass, fir trees and ivy. At times, it appears to be an endless emerald tunnel.
You’ll find Marylhurst University along this corridor, on the southeast city limits of Lake Oswego. It is Oregon’s oldest Catholic University, founded in 1893 by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Marylhurst was the first liberal arts college for women established in the Pacific Northwest. Not just an academic institution, the university provides sanctuary for people, plants and wildlife. The verdant campus is an officially designated National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat.
Downtown Lake Oswego marks a transition from somewhat rural to the suburban bustle of abundant upscale shops. As Tryon Creek and a state park by the same name passes in the distance, the city of Portland spreads out its influence ahead. Trees and ivy give way to four-lane traffic and urban congestion.
Let the traffic abate while you stop in at Buffalo Gap Saloon & Eatery, a fixture along this road for forty years. You’ll find other commuters who frequent this comfortable refuge. “It’s a great place to get stuck during happy hour,” said Kelly Hyta, a server. Moreover, the saloon serves consistent food from an eclectic menu—around the clock. “People have come to depend upon us,” she said. At the nexus of an affluent neighborhood and local college environment, the Buffalo Gap is likely to be a feature of the area for the next forty years.
Willamette Park marks the obvious entry into the city. Urban dwellers find this a great place to launch boats, to swim, to fish and to barbeque in the summer. The highway here has taken on the additional name “Macadam” as in SW Macadam Avenue which, for a select few motorists and historians, may conjure images of black asphalt laid to make way for the automobile. This process of laying asphalt was credited to Scottish engineer John Louden McAdam.
The park here and development nearby have transformed the Southwest Portland waterfront from its early days as a ship and barge building center. For a hundred years or more, this part of the river hosted ship builders, ship breakers, wood treatment plants and lumber mills, steelmakers, bulk fuel storage facilities, gas production, chemical manufacturing and sewer overflows. No more.
At this point, we look to the future—one without cars. Newest is Tilikum Crossing, the Bridge of the People, designed to carry light rail trains, buses, cyclists, pedestrians and streetcars but not private vehicles.
Nearby, high-rise flats jut everywhere. A modern trolley rolls through the core area. This is full-on inner city living, albeit in the most forested city in America. Mixed retail shops fill the understory of high-rise apartments. Urban amenities are plentiful. The South Waterfront Greenway meanders through while the Oregon Health & Sciences University Sky Tram draws slowly up into Portland’s skyline.
It’s easy to imagine John McLaughlin greeting its progress and development with a smile, and bridge builder Conde McCullough considering the elegant lines of Tilikum Crossing with a small tinge of jealousy.