Beacon Rock Trail Henry Biddle, Charlie Johnson, and the making of an iconic Pacific Northwest trail

In October of 1915 a small team of workmen, and two donkeys set to work on an ambitious project. Their goal, under the leadership of Henry Biddle, was to build a trail to the top of Beacon Rock. Earlier that year Biddle paid $1 to buy Castle Rock, as it was known at the time, from Charles Ladd. Threats of development concerned both men, so much so that the bill of sale contained a clause barring destruction or development of the property. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had plans to destroy the rock outcrop and use the material to build jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River. The Corps had gone so far as to blast three tunnels into the rock in preparation for its destruction.C

Castle Rock, photo by H. J. Thorne, Portland Ore., 1914 Mazama Annual

Beacon Rock, the remnants of a 57,000-year-old volcano, was long known by Native Americans as marking the last set of rapids on the river and the beginning of the Pacific Ocean's tidal influence. Native American lore tells of a princess named Whehatpolitan who climbed the rock with her baby to escape her angry father. Unable to climb back down, both she and the child perished atop the rock. Their cries of anguish, carried by the wind, can still be heard along the river. U.S. Corps of Discovery explorers Lewis and Clark named Beacon Rock in 1805. They camped at the base of the rock on their journey to the Pacific and again on their return in 1806. Sometime after 1840, the name Beacon Rock disappears, replaced by Castle Rock. The outcrop of rock would remain Castle Rock until Henry Biddle convinced the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to restore it to Beacon Rock in 1916.

Henry Biddle, during trail construction

Henry J. Biddle was educated at Sheffield School and Yale University before receiving a degree in geology in 1885 from Kaiserlich Bergakademie in Freiburg, Germany. Besides his training in mining and geology, Biddle was also a naturalist, botanist, and avid hiker. He worked for the Smithsonian Institution for a time and was informally attached to John Wesley Powell's survey of the American Southwest. In 1912 Biddle retired to pursue botanical studies and promote conservation. He was a friend and traveling companion of noted Mazamas Rodney Glisan and Martin Gorman. Together they traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest. There is some indication that he may have assisted William Steel in his efforts to establish Crater Lake as a national park.

Views from atop Beacon Rock, ca 1914

Biddle was well aware of the sweeping views available from the summit of Beacon Rock. In his brief history, he writes that many, "climbers left their names, inscribed on a bit of paper, in a tin tobacco box on the summit; but so many of these names were obliterated that it would be impossible to give any complete list." He does mention, however, a climb on Oct 11, 1914, when 47 Mazamas reached the summit. It was, Biddle remarked, "undoubtedly the largest party to climb the rock before the building of the trail." The interest in getting to the top drove his motivation for a trail.

Excerpted from “Climb of Castle Rock” Mazama Annual, 1914

“On October 11th, 1914, the Mazamas made an official climb of the rock and 47 person’s reached the summit, this being by far the largest party which has ever stood on its summit at one time...With little difficulty we found the dim trail up the west side of the rock, this being the only practical route to the top. ... The rock overhangs in places and the rest of the way is just about perpendicular. It is only by working back and forth along the narrow ledges and occasionally pulling yourself up sheer faces of rock by means of the scant shrubbery or a tuft of grass (and sometimes what your nose and eyebrows) that you are able to reach the top. The most difficult part of the climb is met when about half way up the rock, or about 600 feet above the ground. ... There are no crevices for hand or foot holds, and to negotiate this chimney and rock face the first climber's had drilled holes and set some iron spikes, by which one could pull himself up.
This dangerous place one surmounted, the balance of the climb is made without especial difficulty, though one must constantly be on the alert for falling rocks and least he make a misstep, anyone of which might prove fatal. ... On the official climb, because of the large number of women who were inexperienced in difficult rock climbing, our leader, Mr. Simmons, hung a number of ropes over the more dangerous places. ... In the main climb one or two persons were struck by small rocks dislodged by the climbers above, but otherwise what is probably one of the most ambitious climbs on the ‘Local Walks’ schedule of the Mazamas came off successfully and with credit to the organizations. One official Mazama record box and register were left on the summit. The owners of Castle Rock contemplate blasting a winding horse trail to the summit, that tourists may have the advantage of that most wonderful view of the Columbia River. The view from the rock is magnificent, one being able to see for miles up and down the Columbia River Gorge.”

Image composite on left from Mazama, 1914, p.94

Biddle was fortunate to hire Charles Johnson as foreman on the trail project. Johnson had a well-earned reputation having held a similar position in the building of the Columbia River Highway.

They began work in the fall of 1915 and completed the trail in April of 1918. Allowing for downtime in the winter, it took roughly two years to build it. While it may seem like a long time, Biddle described the work like building a tunnel: only one workman had space to work at the leading edge of the trail at any given time.

During construction, Johnson employed two mules to carry tools and supplies up to the work-site. Loaded in the morning, they would start up the trail at a slow and steady pace. The workmen would go on ahead, and the mules would proceed on their own. If, along the way, they became tired they would lay down and rest, then continue to the work site. Once there, they were unloaded, fed, and rested until needed to carry materials back down at the end of the day.

Biddle and Johnson conferring on trail construction

Johnson, with his highway experience, was able to advise Biddle on many minor details of the engineering. He completed the project without the loss of a single life or even minor accident. The finished three-quarter mile trail with its 52 switchbacks, handrails, and bridges was considered an engineering marvel at the time.

Views of the trail, ca 1917
Views of the trail, ca 1918

Henry Biddle passed away in 1928. Four years later, in 1932 Biddle's heirs offered Beacon Rock to the State of Washington for use as a state park. Washington State rejected their offer on the grounds that the family was trying to avoid paying taxes on the land. Word of the rejection got around to Sam Boardman, parks engineer for the State of Oregon, who conceived of the idea of having the State of Oregon accept Beacon Rock as a gift and creating an Oregon State Park in the state of Washington. Area newspapers quickly picked up on the story. Several Washington papers accused Oregon officials of "overstepping recreational boundaries." The resulting uproar caused the state of Washington to create Beacon Rock State Park in 1935.

Visitors on Beacon Rock trail, ca 1915

All images, unless otherwise noted, are from the Rodney Glisan Collection, VM1993.001 Mazama Library and Historical Collections.

Created By
Mathew Brock


VM1993.001 Rodney Glisan Collection, Mazama Library and Historical Collections

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