Where in Sam Hill are we, anyway?

Columbia River Gorge travelers might be forgiven for asking themselves that question, as they cross the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge on U.S. Highway 97 and climb the hill overlooking the hamlet of Maryhill.

Online dictionaries, including the “Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins,” say that “Sam Hill” was a 19th-century euphemism for “hell” that was used in mixed company.

But it would not surprise me if the expression could be traced to a wealthy Pacific Northwest railroad attorney and businessman, one who plotted to build a grand Quaker farming colony in the middle of nowhere.

Then again, Washington’s Sam Hill Country is a lot more like heaven than hell.

Samuel Hill (1857-1931) bought 5,300 acres of river-view land in 1908 and named the ranch for his wife, Mary. At the same time, Hill was actively lobbying the Oregon Legislature to build a highway from Troutdale to The Dalles.

The 74-mile road, now known as the Historic Columbia River Highway, was constructed between 1913 and 1922 and remained the principal route upriver from Portland until Interstate 84 was opened in 1963. It was a primary reason for the establishment of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer.

About the time that work began on the Oregon highway, Hill set to work on a three-story Beaux-Arts manor, perched on a bluff 900 feet above the river. A few years later, after a tour of Europe during World War I, he broke ground on a concrete replica of Britain’s Stonehenge as a memorial to the futility of war.

Adjacent to the monument, he surveyed a 34-block town site and built a church, hotel, general store, post office and other public buildings to serve his planned agricultural community.


The town was never occupied — its remote location and lack of irrigation were obstacles too large to overcome — and the buildings were eventually destroyed by fire. But the Stonehenge replica remains, an eerie presence on a desolate bluff overlooking the Columbia. Beside it, the oldest paved road in the Pacific Northwest, another Hill legacy, winds above unincorporated Maryhill village, surrounded by orchards and flanked by expansive Maryhill State Park.

As a Quaker pacifist, Hill had toured the original Stonehenge during travels through Europe in 1915. Told the Neolithic monument, a circle of massive stones, had been used for human sacrifice to pagan gods, he mourned “the incredible folly of still sacrificing human life to the god of war,” according to biographer Lois David Plott.

When he returned to his Maryhill ranch, he set about building a full-scale replica of Stonehenge as it would have appeared on Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain when it was erected between 1900 B.C. and 1300 B.C. To help in the planning, he gathered engineers and surveyors, as well as an astronomer from California’s Lick Observatory, to determine the proper site.

On July 4, 1918, the altar stone was dedicated to 13 young men from Washington’s Klickitat County who had died in the conflict; it was the first U.S. memorial to World War I soldiers. The completed memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day 1929.

Today the human-sacrifice story is regarded as a myth. Modern historians consider Stonehenge to have been a Stone Age astronomical observatory, where early man could mark the seasons by observing the positions of the sun and moon. Although Hill’s Stonehenge has a different latitude and topography than the original, it is perfectly aligned for the sunbeams of the summer solstice at dawn and the winter solstice at sunset. It’s no wonder the monument still attracts 21st-century druids.

Rather than natural stone, the Columbia Stonehenge was constructed with 1,650 tons of reinforced concrete, lined with crumpled tin. Otherwise, the design of the observatory, 108 feet in diameter, is the same as the original.

Two concentric circles of 30 pillars each — the outermost stones 15 feet high, the next ring 8 feet high, all connected by capping lintels — form the perimeter. Within these circles are two inner, horseshoe-shaped ovals of archways and pillars, their tallest stones nearly 25 feet high. Fifteen more pillars almost enclose the rectangular altar stone, a mere 3 feet high, 6 by 18 feet in dimension.

When Hill died two years after the dedication of his Stonehenge, he was buried nearby. His tomb may still be seen 50 yards south of the monument, overlooking the Columbia.

The art museum

By the mid-1920s, when it became clear to Hill that his Quaker utopia would not achieve fruition, he turned his attention to his unfinished mansion, four miles downriver from Stonehenge (off Washington state Highway 14). Encouraged by two friends — modern-dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who lived in Paris, and Queen Marie of Romania — he began to transform the structure into an art museum where he could exhibit his diverse collections.

Queen Marie, who was the granddaughter of England’s Queen Victoria, dedicated the museum in 1926 and donated Russian Orthodox icons and royal Romanian regalia, including the gilt throne upon which she sat and her coronation gown and crown. Fuller added her own collection of works by famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin, including original plaster studies of “The Thinker” and “The Burghers of Calais.”

After Hill died in 1931, unpacked crates of art stood inside the building for six years. Then another of Hill’s women friends — Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of a San Francisco sugar magnate — took up the cause of completing work on the museum. She added her own collection of European and American oil paintings before the Maryhill Museum of Art opened to the public in May 1940.

Spreckels later contributed a collection of post-World War II fashions, which toured the world in 1946 as the Théâtre de la Mode. It features one-third scale mannequins dressed in clothing created by France’s finest designers of the time.

Also in the eclectic collection are Hill’s own assemblage of Native American basketry, beadwork and ancient petroglyphs; more than 100 chess sets from all over the world; art nouveau glass work; and, of course, a gallery with details about Hill’s own rich life. A temporary exhibit of selections from Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft is being featured through July 4 of this year.

Maryhill’s big news is a museum expansion — the first in its history — currently under way and scheduled for completion in April 2012. The $10 million Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing will add new space for the museum’s permanent collections along with an art-education center, a full-size café and an outdoor plaza overlooking the Columbia Gorge. Currently, the museum has only a tiny café in the basement beside the Rodin collection.

Surrounded by 26 acres of gardens, accented by sculpture and patrolled by loud and colorful peacocks, the Maryhill Museum of Art is open from mid-March through mid-November. A small gift shop is located near the main entrance.

Maryhill Winery

There’s art in winemaking, too, as Columbia Gorge winemakers will attest. One of the Northwest’s largest wineries, its acreage abutting the old Hill ranch, is the Maryhill Winery, just two miles west of the art museum on the hills above the river.

Craig and Vicki Leuthold established the winery in 1999 and released their first vintage in 2001. In the 10 years following, Maryhill’s annual production has grown to between 67,000 and 80,000 cases, and its 24 varietals (and six blends) are distributed across 20 states.

Of 10 wineries on the Washington side of the Columbia, only Maryhill could be considered a destination winery. A hairy Potter — that’s the name of the winery dog, a 130-pound Great Pyrenees — welcomes visitors to the 3,000-square-foot tasting room and gift shop. Samples of current pours are served across a 20-foot oak bar that dates from the 19th century. Adjacent are a broad arbor-covered patio and picnic grounds.

Winery employees are glad to take visitors on a tour of the facility, by request. In particular, the barrel room is an impressive sight, with as many as 4,000 barrels of French, Hungarian and American oak stacked one atop another, aging the numerous vintages.

But Maryhill is more than a winery. Its 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater hosts a summer concert series that has brought such artists as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne and Emmy Lou Harris to perform in this beautiful location. In 2011, the schedule features Yes and Styx (July 30), the Gipsy Kings (Aug. 6), and Michael McDonald and Boz Skaggs (Sept. 17). Prices range from $45 to $150.

From petroglyphs to planets

Travelers continuing west on meandering state Highway 14 soon will find themselves passing through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. A worthwhile diversion is Columbia Hills State Park beside Horsethief Lake, notable for its petroglyphs.

When Celilo Falls, a famed Native American fishing ground and inter-tribal rendezvous location, was submerged by The Dalles Dam in 1957, so too were hundreds of sacred petroglyphs. Some of these rock etchings, depicting tribal legends and hunting scenes, were rescued and stored at the dam. But they didn’t have a permanent home until 2004, when 43 of the rocks were moved to the newly created Columbia Hills State Park, six miles upstream from the dam. Today the wheelchair-accessible Temani Pesh-wa Trail provides a public viewpoint.

According to anthropologists, Celilo was continuously inhabited for more than 10,000 years before it was erased by the dam. At Wishram, just three miles west of the Maryhill Winery, stood another ancient Native American village. The small town standing here today was built around a railroad siding, and a 1923 steam locomotive in the community park is its pride and joy.

Ten miles north of the Maryhill junction, beside U.S. Highway 97, the bucolic town of Goldendale has fewer than 4,000 residents, but it’s the Klickitat County seat.

Its isolation has made it an ideal site for one of the largest public telescopes in the nation.

Located atop a 2,100-foot hill, Goldendale Observatory State Park features a 24 1/2-inch scope, dedicated in 1973. Between April and September, public viewing sessions are offered Wednesdays through Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight. There is no admission charge, although donations are welcomed. Winter sessions are also scheduled.

Also in Goldendale is the Presby Mansion, a three-story, 22-room house built in 1902. Owned by the Klickitat County Historical Society, it features detailed staircase woodwork and ornately carved mantels on its four fireplaces. Pioneer and Native American artifacts and a rich collection of historical photographs are displayed within.

Goldendale is the nearest community with substantial visitor services to the Maryhill area. Several motels and restaurants serve travelers. In Oregon, Biggs Junction, where U.S. Highway 97 crosses Interstate 84, has basic truck-stop facilities.

For longer stays, The Dalles — 16 miles west of Biggs off I-84 — offers a wide range of lodging and dining choices. I like to park my bags at the hillside Celilo Inn, a lovely renovated motel overlooking The Dalles Dam at the east side of town, and dine at the historic Baldwin Saloon, a downtown landmark in The Dalles since 1876.