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Notable Oregonians: Samuel Hill - Good Roads Pioneer

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Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill, 1857-1931

Samuel Hill was born on May 13, 1857 in Deep River, North Carolina. His Quaker family was prominent in the community and played a part in the anti-slavery movement and the underground railroad. After receiving death threats for their abolitionist activities, the Hill Family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota in the wake of the Civil War. Samuel Hill graduated from Haverford College and earned his law degree from Harvard University before returning to Minneapolis to practice law. In 1886 he joined the legal office of the Great Northern Railway, working for its head, James J. Hill. Two years later, he married Hill's eldest daughter. Over the next decade, Samuel Hill's role with the railway expanded, along with his wealth and civic standing. His work took him to the Northwest and by 1902, he had decided to build a house and live in Seattle, Washington. Meanwhile, his wife moved back to Minneapolis with their two children after six months in Washington.

 

Hill spent much of the rest of his life applying his prodigious energy and talent to his vision for a better society, particularly through advocating for good roads in Oregon and Washington. Challenging the general belief that the rugged landscape was not suited for a highway, he launched a public relations campaign calling for a paved road through the Columbia River Gorge. Among other things, Hill saw the road as a link to his dream of building a Quaker utopia based on farming along the north bank of the Columbia River. In 1907, he purchased 6,000 acres about 100 miles east of Portland and began building a community called Maryhill. He even built, at his own expense, ten miles of demonstration road there to experiment with road building techniques and surfaces. It was the first macadam asphalt-paved road in the Pacific Northwest.

 

The farming aspect of his dream at Maryhill failed due to lack of rainfall, but in 1913 Hill convinced the Oregon governor and the entire legislature to visit Maryhill and see his roads. They were impressed enough to authorize the construction of the Columbia River Highway, which was immediately described as an engineering masterpiece upon its completion in 1916. Inspired by the success, Hill also advocated for the construction of the Pacific Highway (Highway 99, the main north-south route through Oregon and Washington), Highway 101 along the coast, and a road to scenic Crater Lake.

 

Hill's legacy also includes two significant monuments and an art museum. In 1918, he began construction of a replica of Stonehenge near Maryhill as a memorial to local men who lost their lives in World War I. He also built the Peace Arch in 1921 where the modern-day Interstate 5 freeway crosses the border with Canada. The arch commemorates the peace and open border between the United States and Canada. In 1919, Hill began transforming his failed farming community and its impressive mansion into the Maryhill Museum of Art, hoping it would become a center of art and culture in the region. The museum continues today, featuring more than 80 works by French sculptor Auguste Rodin among its other works.

 

Samuel Hill died on February 26, 1931 in Portland, Oregon. The Sam Hill Memorial Bridge over the Columbia River on Highway 97 near Maryhill is named for him.

 

(Sources: Oregon Experience | HistoryLink | Maryhill Museum of Art | Wikipedia) Revised 1/2013

 

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