Sunset Highway

A bowl full of cherries from Orchard View Farms in the Columbia Gorge. / Photo by Andrea Johnson

The Road Reconsidered explores sections of Oregon roads and rivers through history, geology and ecology to make your next trip more enlightened. In this Road Reconsidered, we look at Portland’s gangway to the coast, Sunset Highway, also known as Highway 26

1) Because it leads west and other fallacies …

Portland’s beach gangway, Sunset Highway, was originally called Wolf Creek Highway, as construction by WPA began in 1933 and was completed in 1949. In 1946, Wolf Creek Highway was renamed Sunset Highway, not because it leads west, as most Oregonians assume, but for the sunset emblem worn by the 41st Infantry Division, based in Portland. This division was the first of U.S. troops to deploy in WWII, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (Oregon Historical Society)

2) What monkeys don’t know …

The Oregon Zoo sits atop Mount Sylvan, a dormant shield volcano—a low profile volcano that erupts with fluid basaltic lava. (In Search of Ancient Oregon)

3) Life beyond Earth?

Alien ships have an affinity for American farms and crops. And so it was that in June 1994, The Oregonian reported, hundreds of people with cameras and video cams flocked to a crop circle just west of the exit for 185th Avenue off Sunset Highway to record what some called a UFO landing spot.

4) The storied life of Joseph Meek

Meek drove one of the first wagon trains down the Oregon Trail in 1840, and actively pursued statehood for Oregon, then a provisional government. In 1847, he led a delegation overland to Washington, D.C., where he petitioned his cousin’s husband, President James Polk, for Oregon statehood. In 1848, President Polk appointed Meek the new territory’s federal marshal. Married to three Indian women in succession, Meek’s half-Indian children were treated as outsiders by the society he helped orchestrate. (Washington County Museum, Winnifred Herrschaft)

5) Sagging real estate

The first Washington County jail was built by New York transplant William Brown around 1853. The undersized 16-by-12-foot wooden jail was built for $1,175 ($192/square foot) and sold 17 years later for $75 in gold coin, or 40 cents per square foot. It’s now on display at the Washington County Museum.

6) First inhabitants?

The Kalapuya Indian tribe was estimated to be about 15,000 strong and lived in this region in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This tribe raised to an art- and trade-form the making of cakes from camas flowers, which they sold at regional events. Experts with fire, they also burned fields for productivity and hunted deer by encircling them with fire rings. (Washington County Museum, Sonja Gray)

7) Shelled

In Vernonia, geologists found fossils of turtles estimated to be 40 million years old.
(Roadside Geology of Oregon)

8) Fallen giant

The Klootchy Creek Giant sitka, in Klootchy Creek Park just southeast of Seaside, Oregon on Hwy 26, was the largest sitka spruce in the country at 216 feet tall and 56 feet around! The first known documentation of this towering tree was noted in the journal of Meriwether Lewis on Tuesday, February 4, 1806. On December 2, 2007, a windstorm snapped the tree along an old lightning scar, cutting it down to 80 feet but leaving it alive to nurse more giant sitkas. Klootchy Creek Giant was the first Oregon Heritage Tree. (, Oregon Travel Information Council

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  1. What printed history is available about the “Military Road ” from North Plians to Seaside?
    Where is there a map ? My ancestors were in the U S Army in 1896 . To secure an access to Seaside there very few ,but some , expositions across the coast range . Those expositions were a family event we talked about . According to [Hearsy] , the “Company ” strong detachment would cross the Nehalem River near what is now on State highway 103 , at Meekers Corner . In the 1940’s there was a log dump in the same vicinity . The company was -Van Fleet Logging Company .
    One friend of our family, was accidentally killed at that log dump. [ Albert Enivoldsen Sr. ]Related to a Pilot ,somewhere, and related to a grandson Donald and Joanne and a wife/ mother- Mary Enivoldsen .[1970] I know stories about those [Trips ] I could relate to the right entities , but so far, all my efforts to contact State entities has fell on DEAF — or NOT interested– EARS! John T. Rinkes .7-24-18 [email protected]

  2. Actually, according to the Oregon State Highway Commission minutes from January 17, 1946, the Sunset Highway was indeed named because it headed west. Granted, it was the secondary reason, but the full quote from the minutes spells it out clearly:

    “Commissioner Chessman suggested that the Wolf Creek Highway be renamed ‘Sunset Highway’ as a tribute to the Sunset Division of the U.S. Army, which is composed largely of men from the Pacific Northwest. It was his thought that this is a natural designation, not only as a tribute to this division, but because this highway leads toward the setting sun. In any event, ‘Wolf Creek Highway’ is a misnomer because there are so many places known by that name in the State of Oregon.”

    The motion to rename the highway was carried unanimously

  3. says: Michael Stahly

    As I drive over Hwy 26 and through the Nehalem valley I can see how the roads ran through the countryside, forded the rivers and took a very different path in order for people to get from one place to another. Does anyone have a good description of where the roads traveled before Hwy 26 was built? Was it all logging roads? Were there paths that followed the rivers that the pioneers used? I would love to talk with anyone with information. Thanks.

    1. says: Jim jeter

      Interesting topic. When I was 21, in 1982, I was starting a restaurant in Corvallis, Or. the city engineer who helped me with permitting was a young man named Walter Hite. (Try different spellings, I just remember the name phonetically) He was a trained cartologist (map maker). He had published and produced lithographs of the road system in Oregon pre-Hwy 99.

      I bought one and proudly displayed it in my living room for many years. I haven’t been able to find it for 20 years, sadly.

      Track him or his work, you may answer your question.