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Neahkahnie Viewpoint Provides Fun History, Unsolved Mystery on N. Oregon Coast

Published 01/21/21 at 4:46 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Neahkahnie Viewpoint Provides Fun History, Unsolved Mystery on N. Oregon Coast

(Manzanita, Oregon) – Neahkahnie Viewpoint, above Manzanita on the north Oregon coast, has been a scenic stunner for 80 years now. Often known as the Neahkahnie Overlooks, it’s really a series of them, and they’ve probably provided millions with eye-popping views through more than four generations. That stone wall going around each of them, with signage at the largest parking lot, have made for a lot of interesting atmosphere as well, creating almost an ancient castle vibe. (All historical photos courtesy ODOT)

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The history of Neahkahnie Viewpoint and its overlooks is a fun one to take a look at in pictures, and the historical arm of Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently provided Oregon Coast Beach Connection with some interesting glimpses into the past. However, those very stone walls and the history of the place have a little mystery built in – a puzzle of a feature that just can’t seem to be solved.

From the mid 1920s to 1932, the Oregon coast was slowly building all of Highway 101, originally known as the Roosevelt Military Highway (named after Teddy, not the later Franklin D.). From Brookings to Astoria, all of it was finished that year. Except at Manzanita: the stretch around Neahkahnie Mountain between Nehalem and the junction of U.S. 101 and U.S. 26 wasn’t there yet, and for a time it seemed like the highway was completed without it. The only way between Cannon Beach and Manzanita was winding, twisty and annoying Highway 53.

The road around Neahkahnie followed an old native trail, according to ODOT documents. Other historical photos of the spot before the road show those trails.

Whether or not the Arch Cape Tunnel was part of the entire package is unclear, but the go ahead to build that came in 1936. It wasn’t started until at least 1937 and opened up somewhere about 1940.

Above: work on the rock wall in 1940

What is known is that – according to ODOT librarian Laura Wilt – paving and major construction on the Neahkahnie Mt. area was started in early 1940 (photo at bottom of article). However, the viaducts and the chasm bridge started work in 1937, and photos clearly show a primitive road inching around what must’ve been a precarious bend.

“The contract for the section of the Coast Highway along Neahkahnie Mt. was awarded to K. L. Goulter Co. on 12/08/1939,” Wilt told Oregon Coast Beach Connection.

Indeed, newspaper coverage at the time shows some work in August of 1938, such as Coos Bay’s The World writing about grading work being done around Neahkahnie and the stretch from Arch Cape to Cannon Beach.

ODOT historical documents show the overlooks and the highway here were officially opened up in 1941. Newspaper coverage around Oregon gets a little all-over-the-place in the summer of 1941, with some saying it was partially opened up on August 16, then a full opening in September, and another paper writes it officially opened on August 3.

According to ODOT:

“The concrete curbing and the masonry stone wall that line this stretch of road were designed to be scenic as well as functional. Carved from the rock, the roadway accommodates the scenic splendor and natural features of the mountainside. Envisioned as both a scenic byway and an artery of commerce, the Oregon Coast Highway construction incorporates natural features and ample pullouts whereby motorists and cyclists can safely stop and take a moment to appreciate the natural beauty. This approach comes from the Bureau of Public Roads (now FHWA), who adopted these designs from the National Park Service.”

ODOT documentation says this was the largest highway rockwork done in the state, and “they reflect the spirit of an era.”

The mysterious stairway at Neahkahnie Overlooks

Yet those rock walls also present a bit of a mystery. At the main overlook parking lot, if you look close, there’s an odd little set of steps descending through the brush, but on the other side of the wall. There’s no gap there, so it takes a little climbing to get over and get down to the steps. The steps then lead to a footpath out onto a dangerous outcropping of Neahkahnie.

The fact the wall is closed there – and the pure dangers inherent in the spot – make it clearly evident state officials don’t want you going out there. So why are the steps still there? When was this walled off?

Finding the steps is truly finding something hidden. Yet when Oregon Coast Beach Connection asked around, no one knew what the story was. Oregon State Parks and Recreation knew nothing of the steps or their history. They deferred to ODOT, who technically run the overlooks at Neahkahnie. ODOT management sent Oregon Coast Beach Connection to its historical librarian, and Wilt knew nothing of it.

Wilt, however, did find it in the blueprints for the overlooks, dated 1940. You can see the footpath clearly taking off from the rock wall, but the document doesn’t necessarily show an opening or not. (The footpath is the dotted line)

It’s now like finding a hidden compartment in an old house. Cool.

“The contract plan for the project, 3V-095, shows that parking area on sheet 5, but doesn’t indicate that there would be a gap in the masonry wall,” Wilt said. “One item of note is that the parapet wall ended with that parking area. I wonder if there was originally a path around the outside end leading to the foot trail?”

The history of Neahkahnie Viewpoint may be clear, well mostly clear. But that footpath and any opening that might’ve been there remains a mystery. See more historical photos below:

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Under construction, dated February 1940

After the construction, circa 1941

Caption on photo: "Construction activities near Sta. 223. 4/10/40 – Neahkahnie Mt. Section, showing inclination of rock sloping towards future wall. This inclined plane is found beneath each layer."

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