he Columbia River Highway was built between 1913 and 1922, at the beginning of the automobile age. It was a significant technical and civic achievement for its time and showed aesthetic judgment and appreciation for the magnificent Columbia River Gorge landscape. The highest engineering standards were used to locate the road along the most beautiful parts of the gorge. Contemporaries referred to the highway as a poem in stone and the king of roads. The highway is a significant engineering feat because it was an early application of cliff-face road building applied to automobile highway construction. When the Multnomah County portion was first paved in 1916, it was the first major paved highway in the Pacific Northwest.
The engineer for the highway was Samuel C. Lancaster (1864-1941). Lancaster was already established as a respected highway engineer when modern highway engineering was in its pioneer stage. Influenced by historic European roads, Lancaster emulated those styles in the Columbia River Gorge, while also designing and constructing a highway to advanced engineering standards.
As construction moved east from Multnomah County, the newly-formed State Highway Department continued the work in Lancaster's spirit, after his direct participation ended. The early development of the highway contributed to the creation of the Oregon State Highway Commission (1913). The Columbia River Highway was a primary component of Oregon's initial state highway system which was adopted in 1914. When completed, the Columbia River Highway ran 196 miles, from Astoria to The Dalles. The Oregon Highway Commission called the highway "probably the most difficult and costly highway construction undertaken in America," and estimated its cost to be $11,000,000.
In 1983 the Columbia River Highway Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1984 the highway was recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.