Forest Service Celebrates 100-Year-Old Campground
By Dave Ramont
The Eagle Creek Campground in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area turned 100 this past July, and the USDA Forest Service threw a birthday party at the northern Oregon site. The anniversary is significant because Eagle Creek was the first Forest Service campground developed to provide basic amenities for campers, such as a comfort station (restroom), picnic tables, cook stoves, parking areas, Eagle Creek Trail, a trail register and interpretive guide map, and a ranger station with a full-time ranger—Albert Wisendanger—on duty during the summer season.
The purpose wasn't just to enhance visitors' enjoyment, but to protect the landscape from long-term impact by containing people's footprint on the land. National Forests had already been used for years by campers, hikers, anglers, climbers and picnickers, but it was here that the Forest Service first recognized that they could promote recreational use while also sustaining the health of the forest.
Rachel Pawlitz of the Forest Service shared some of the history of Eagle Creek.
In January 1916, the Portland Chamber of Commerce sent a request to the Chief Forester that the Forest Service spend $12,855 that summer on park improvements—including trails and campgrounds—and specifically, a park to be used as a model for other parks around the country. This was the first campground allowing campers to park their car in their campsite.
Previously, outdoor enthusiasts were dependent on railroads and steamboats, but now they could pack the car and visit attractions at their convenience. The Historic Columbia River Highway—which also turned 100 this year—brought crowds of motorists.
That first summer of 1916 saw more than 15,000 people visiting the campground, and there were around 100 campsites. Camp stoves helped contain fires to designated areas, and parking lots helped protect the forest from cars driving among the trees. And the Forest Service provided their first flush toilet, nicknamed "Big John."
By the 1920s, cars had become more affordable and car camping really took off, and the Forest Service began planning and developing recreation areas in earnest.
Today, none of the original 1916 structures exist at Eagle Creek, having been replaced by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. However, the CCC-era log and stone structures are still in use, including their updated version of "Big John." The still-popular campground is much smaller now—only about 15 campsites—and the parking area is greatly reduced, providing a cap on the number of visitors.
The Eagle Creek Trail—carved out of the basalt cliffs 100 years ago—is still very popular, offering spectacular viewpoints and waterfalls. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area spans more than 290,000 acres of southern Washington and northern Oregon, where the Columbia River cuts a river canyon through the Cascade Mountains.
The Centennial Rededication Ceremony that took place in July included period music, a Forest Service archaeologist and other employees speaking about the site's history, a "camping then and now" exhibit showcasing old gear, Forest Service uniforms, and historic photographs, and an appearance by Smokey Bear.