Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sam Hill and "Where the rain meets the sun"

When I first moved to Washington State On the way to my new home in eastern Washington (DT pointed out he thought I moved) my first good look at my new landscape included a bit of Sam Hill's legacy in Washington State. We had driven down into the Columbia Gorge meeting the river at Biggs, Oregon. Looking across the big river at my new home state I was struck by the huge size of the Columbia River, the treeless hills, and expansive fields of golden wheat stubble. We also spotted Sam Hill's Maryhill mansion on the bluff across the river.

Sam Hill's path to financial fortune started in Wisconsin where he routinely sued the newly built railroads for killing farmers' cows and over eminent domain claims. James Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railroad (no relation at the time) asked Sam if he would be interested in working for the railroad. Sam declined but said he would like to work with the railroad thus getting a piece of ownership at a time when railroads made a group of people very wealthy and Sam indeed became very wealthy. Sam Hill later married James Hill's daughter Mary.

Sam Hill fell in love with the Columbia River Gorge and in particular loved the setting "Where the rain meets the sun". He had big dreams for the site and began building his mansion. Unfortunately his wife was not so keen on the idea and the utopia he envisioned was never completed. However, Hill left a lasting legacy in the Columbia River Gorge. The old mansion houses his art collection including a collection of Rodin sculptures gifted from the Queen of Romania. After a period of mismanagement and lack of funds in the 1980s, the mansion has been fixed up and is a frequent stop for tourists that are now also attracted to the new wineries in the vicinity. 

Hill also built a Stonehenge replica as a memorial to Klickitat County soldiers killed in World War I. He also spearheaded the construction of the first highway in the lower gorge helping make the gorge a famous tourist attraction. This attraction later led to the area being designated a National Scenic Area. However, Maryhill is outside the Scenic Area and hence the wind turbines on the sides and ridges of gorge in this area. Hill had a fair bit of impact on my current home area in Whatcom County with the construction of the Peace Arch at the Canada-U.S. border crossing in Blaine and as a primary investor in Seattle Gas and Electric - a company that for a time mined coal from the Blue Canyon area at south Lake Whatcom  park-store.

Sam Hill was a bit eccentric and eclectic in his tastes and visions and Sam Hill: The Prince of Castle Nowhere John Tuhy (1983) suggests that he was manic-depressive as an explanation of a number of odd projects Hill pursued and abandoned. Maryhill can be easily viewed as a monument of folly standing alone in an empty landscape. I sometimes think that Hill may have fallen in love with the place on a rare calm day and it may have taken awhile before he realized the problem with the location: it is very very windy. But for those of us that lived in the treeless windy expanses of eastern Washington, the fact that a wealthy tycoon of the early 20th Century viewed eastern Washington as a possible utopia always gave us some satisfaction.     

Sam Hill Memorial Bridge

The Peach Beach area and former townsite of Columbus below Maryhill

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm from the Gorge originally. A little piece of trivia; Sam Hill originally wanted to build the mansion in White Salmon, WA (further west, and greener). He was given land by the wealthy Jewett family, on their property. Mrs. Jewett was a staunch prohibitionist, and said Mr. Hill could only have the land if there was no drinking there. Ever. Well, at the ground breaking party, they toasted the land with champagne. Mrs. Jewett promptly threw Mr. Hill off the land. Wishram was his second choice.