ODOT@100: 'Roads in Oregon were simply improved paths'

ODOT@100: 'Roads in Oregon were simply improved paths'

EUGENE, Ore. - The first horseless carriage arrived in Oregon in 1899.

Early motorists shared the dirt roads with horse-drawn buggies and pack animals.

"Essentially most of the roads in Oregon were simply improved paths," said Chris Bell, Oregon Department of Transportation historian. "In some cases they just dropped down logs, which is the term 'corduroy' roads."

So in 1913, out of the mud came the Oregon State Highway Department, later renamed ODOT in 1969.

Road building didn't pick up steam until another Oregon first in 1919: the gas tax. At 1 cent per gallon, Oregon was the first state in the United States to tax fuel. The tax caught on nationwide.

The tax revenue funded construction of the Pacific Highway, completed in 1926 and later named Highway 99.

Roads spread across the rugged Oregon landscape, spanning rivers and bays with bridges designed by Oregon's master builder, Conde McCullough.

"He was essentially the Frank Lloyd Wright of bridge building," Bell said. "He understood the design. He also understood engineering."

McCullogh's masterpieces along the Pacific Coast Highway 101 still stand 75 years later.

Construction of Interstate 5 got going in the 1950s. Finished in 1966, the interstate cost $300 million.

Warren Neer remembers it well.

"We used machetes and brush hooks," said Neer, a retired ODOT surveyor. "We didn't have chain saws in those days."

The surveyors used machetes to clear the riverbank brush as crews built the original I-5 bridge across the Willamette River.

"I can not believe that that bridge needed replaced," Neer said.

ODOT also played a role in Lane County's network of covered bridges, the most in any U.S. county west of the Mississippi River.

The county used housing designs for all the bridges, furnished by ODOT.

In a century, ODOT has had its share of troubles.

Like the dead whale on a beach near Florence. It fell to the transportation department to remove it - and dynamite didn't exactly do the trick.

But the agency that got Oregon out of the mud is continuing to carry transportation into the future with an extensive network of electric car charging stations.