The Nehalem River Highway

Jeffrey Butts

Oregon Hwy 47 is one of the truly great sports car roads available to those living in the Portland Metro area. Starting at the junction with 99W just outside of McMinnville, it goes all the way north to the Columbia. Check for the Hwy 99W to Vernonia summary in another story in this section.

On a recent Sunday, I picked up Hwy 47 at the Sunset and headed out to Vernonia. Traffic was reasonable for my lane but it was fairly heavy in the oncoming direction. I had picked the same day as the SCCA had scheduled a ProRally on the logging roads of Columbia County. I never saw so many Subaru's in one place at one time.

Vernonia rests astride the Nehalem River, whose headwaters are nestled in Larch Mountain in western Washington County. The river flows (sometimes) lazily westward, finally draining into the Pacific at Nehalem Bay, near Manzanita. Vernonia has a long history in Oregon, settled in the mid 1870's it was a timber town for sure. In the 1920's Vernonia boasted that it had the largest sawmill in the world. The rail lines that moved the timber to market are still visible along Hwy 47, marked here and there by impressive trestles. The Nehalem floods now and again. The first flood recorded was in 1895 and it swamped the town. In 1996 we had floods all over this part of the state. Downtown Portland had to build a sandbag wall along the Willamette, which luckily crested only two inches from the top of the seawall. Yours truly did flood duty in Tualatin that year and filled hundreds of sandbags in that city and Beaverton. Vernonia didn't get away that year either and the town was devastated as the Nehalem overran its banks. To give you some perspective, the ProRally Headquarters was at the Vernonia High School football field. In 1996, the water level was at the goalpost crossbar.

This particular Sunday was not a problem. The sun was shining brightly and the weather was in the high 70's, perfect for top down motoring. Leaving Vernonia, the road ambles north, following the Nehalem. Within a short distance of the city limit is the cut-off for Scappoose, the path of my previous story. I continue on 47 and find myself behind a line of three cars. Immediately in front of me is a Geo Tracker. Once the others turn off at their respective destinations, it becomes obvious that the driver of the Geo is a local. He has the little 4WD moving along right smartly. I catch a glimpse of headlights in my mirror and, when the road hits a straight section, I can see three bikes behind us about a quarter mile. Eventually the Geo also departs and I start to open the 914 up. Again I catch a glimpse of light in my mirror. One bike has pulled away and begins to catch up. The chase is on. I push harder and hold my own in the curves but he catches me a little more with each short straightaway. On a couple of occasions we are pushing just short of a ton. As we approach Mist, signs warn of speed zones ahead and we slow to legal speeds.

Mist was once the site of the oldest continuously operating business in Oregon, the Mist Store. Opened in 1874, it was a local landmark until just recently. I stopped here on one trip and had a greasy burger and bought a T-Shirt. I wish I still had it...the shirt. The Mist Store burned to the ground a couple of years ago. It's easy to figure out why. Balloon construction, very seasoned timber, and a volunteer fire department several miles away, it was lost as soon as the alarm came in. In spite of promises to rebuild, all that remains is a clear spot along the road. I had a chance to visit with the rider of the Ducati who had been dueling with me. Well, I had been dueling. I doubt that he broke a sweat. The Ducati and his two partners joined up with a couple of Harley riders and headed out Hwy 47 to Clatskanie. I loaded up and continued up Hwy 202, heading mostly west now, to Birkenfeld.

Birkenfeld sits on the Columbia-Clatsop county line. Its store has not burned down yet. It has quite a few houses (say, as in comparison to Mist) and a tavern. I didn't stop. A little over two miles out of town, on the north side of the road, sits a pretty little church. No signs mark the services or denomination but it is shown in my history books as Emanuel Episcopal Church. It was worth a stop and a photo. It was so quiet there. The sun was warm, there was no traffic during the ten minutes or so that I sat on the steps. Very peaceful.

Not so far up the road is the town of Jewell. Also dating back to the mid 1870's this logging town is pretty much gone. At the intersection with Hwy 103 sits the old Jewell Store. It is nearly overgrown now. Barely discernable in the photo is the post in the center of the porch roof that once supported the sign. Traffic is a little heavier here since I am only a few miles north of the Sunset (Hwy 26). As I head that way I am behind another local, this time in a diesel crew cab truck. He is flying. I can see his eyes glance back frequently in his mirror, challenging me to pass. No thanks.

I hook up with Hwy 26 at the bridge near Elsie and join the looooonnng line of cars traveling back from the coast. What a day. The total distance was just under 140 miles from my driveway and back again. It took about three hours. Great drive. Fabulous scenery. The only thing missing was the greasy burger.


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