4. A LODGE AT THE TIMBERLINE

Far to the west, in Portland, Oregon, skiers attracted to the snowy escarpments of 11,239-foot Mount Hood had been kicking around the idea of building a ski facility on the mountain since at least the 1920s. At first it was just a shelter where they could take overnight respite. But in 1926 the U.S. Forest Service decided it wanted to attract more visitors to the million-acre Mount Hood National Forest, which stretched south from the Columbia River through sixty miles of mountains, streams, and woodlands, and started sketching drawings for a lodge for skiers and mountain climbers and trying to find funds to build it. In 1934, a group of well-to-do local skiers formed the Mount Hood Development Association to support construction of a lodge. With that, two of the elements needed to push the idea forward were in place.

And the creation of the WPA produced the third component.

Emerson J. Griffith was Oregon’s WPA administrator. Griffith, who was fifty in 1935, was a California native with a dapper thin mustache. He had married well, and spent the early part of his career as a newspaper reporter before setting up a steamship brokerage and shipping agency, the profits from which allowed him and his wife to travel and improve their bridge games. They also allowed Griffith to become active in Democratic politics; he headed Al Smith’s Oregon campaign in 1928, and Roosevelt’s in 1932, and was the state Democratic treasurer both years. After taking the WPA job, Griffith fit into the Hopkins mold, laboring to keep Oregon’s WPA administration free of party hacks. He was also probably the only WPA administrator to have authored a mystery novel, 1933’s The Monkey Wrench, which he wrote with his wife during a trip around the world.

Griffith, a skier himself, knew of the efforts to locate a ski lodge on the south face of Mount Hood. When the Forest Service stepped up as the sponsoring agency and the Mount Hood Development Association sold $12,290 worth of bonds to finance the purchase of plumbing and electrical supplies and other materials, thereby allowing the WPA budget to be spent on labor, the proposal advanced quickly.

The Advisory Committee on Allotments approved funding for the lodge in December 1935. It was WPA project number 1101. The budget of $275,513 included a grant of $246,893 from the WPA, a “public donation” of $20,000 from the Mount Hood Development Association, and $8,620 from the Forest Service for truck and machinery rentals.

Linn Forrest was among the many architects hit hard by the depression. He had earned only $120 in 1932, and with a wife and young child to support, he had taken a job with the Forest Service designing fire watch towers and ranger stations. It was late in 1935, as he later recalled, that the Forest Service’s regional engineer, Jim Franklin, came into the office Forrest shared with two other architects and asked them all a question: how much would they spend to build a lodge at the timberline?

Forrest answered, “Nothing.” He had been to the timberline, more than two-thirds of the way up the mountain at 8,540 feet. Above it, bare rocky crags rose to a spectacular peak, while below, the pine forest softened the steep landscape. It was beautiful but barely accessible, and he thought the lack of access would keep visitors away.

But with the WPA’s approval in hand, the Forest Service architects began a series of drawings that shuttled back and forth between them and Griffith at the state WPA headquarters in Portland. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, an architect with a long history of designing lodges and hotels in the national parks and an expert at blending them into the natural terrain, was brought in as a consultant. At Griffith’s urging, the lodge kept getting larger. As it took shape, two wings branched off from a central axis. Cedar shake and clapboard walls rose above a first floor faced with stone. It had steep rooflines that rose sixteen inches for every twelve inches they covered horizontally, so as to shed winter snows that averaged a formidable 250 inches. Dormer windows were set into the roof, and chimneys rose from the roof peak.

Far below the timberline at a spot called Summit Meadows lay the site of an abandoned CCC camp, used by the young corpsmen as a base for planting trees and building hiking trails in Mount Hood National Forest. Here in March 1936, with the calendar if not the weather promising the approach of spring, WPA crews started clearing snow as a prelude to refurbishing the camp to house workers on the lodge. It would also provide a starting point for crews to improve the switchback roads that would carry men and materials up the mountain to the building site, and eventually tourists to the lodge. Plans called for cold-weather tents raised off the ground on wooden platforms, as well as mess tents, cookhouses, a machine shop, a sawmill, and sanitary facilities. Summit Meadows lay near the path of the old Oregon Trail; below it at the base of the mountain was a village called Government Camp, on the highway between Portland and points south and east. It was here that the climb to the timberline, several miles by road and trail, began.

The cold and snow on Mount Hood were apparently more daunting than joblessness as supervisors tried to get construction under way. It was the WPA’s practice to use, wherever possible, native materials so as to save money for labor costs. For the Timberline project, this meant cutting native cedars and hewing cedar shakes for the lodge’s roof and walls, a subproject requiring twenty-seven men to live and work in a remote mountainside camp for sixty days. But by March 12, only two men had appeared, and before the month was out the shake camp was scrubbed and bids for cedar shakes put out on the open market.

On April 23, the snow at Summit Meadow now cleared, twenty WPA hires arrived to begin the camp’s refurbishment but found something missing. This oversight started a chain of telephone calls that went all the way to Harry Hopkins in Washington, and from Hopkins back to the Forest Service at Mount Hood. His request: to borrow some camp stoves to heat the workers’ tents, since WPA procurement had failed to requisition any.

While a shipment of camp stoves was being assembled, a classically trained chef named Albert Altorfer roamed a government warehouse in downtown Portland, checking off chairs, tables, stoves, pots and pans, and dishes and utensils from a list of things he needed. It was a long list. Altorfer had been hired as the head chef for the Timberline work camp, and he would be cooking for 200 or more men at a sitting. These were numbers he was used to; a native of Switzerland who had trained at the Hôtel du Lac in the resort town of Neuchâtel, he had landed in Portland in 1923 and cooked at some of the city’s best restaurants, hotels, and private clubs. He was working as a private chef to Aaron Frank, who owned Meier and Frank, a leading department store, when the stock market crashed in 1929. Even people such as Frank had to tighten their belts, and by 1935, with his resources exhausted, a wife and two daughters to support, and no private jobs available, Altorfer turned to the WPA. The day he applied, he found himself mingling with doctors and lawyers he had seen in his restaurants and dining rooms.

Altorfer followed his pots and pans to Summit Meadow. The stoves from the Forest Service had arrived, and the camp soon took shape. By May it was ready for full-time occupation.

Up the mountain at the timberline, the snow was still eighteen feet deep, but drivers had managed to reach the construction site with snow shovels and tractors and clear the working areas so that the architects and a team of surveyors could map out the final location of the lodge. Each day’s work began with the men riding up the mountain on a sled towed behind a tractor on alligator treads. Where deep snow still remained, the team used probes to detail the site’s topography. They deemed snow cornices jutting over the Salmon River canyon near the original site too dangerous to build near, so they moved 300 yards west to solid ground, where the shape of the land was roughly the same. At the end of their workdays, they skied back down the mountain.

Construction began at last on June 13. Snow still clogged the road up the mountainside, and it fell to Captain C. G. Jones, a Forest Service engineer, to see that it was cleared each day for the transportation of materials and a growing complement of men. He oversaw the job with such a sense of urgency that he quickly acquired a nickname: “Hurry-Up” Jones. The official groundbreaking came a month later. The site was finally clear of snow by then, and officials gathered as Griffith of the WPA and Major James Frankland of the Forest Service wielded ceremonial shovels, cameras snapped, and work on the Timberline Lodge was declared properly begun.

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