NW Life | Music

Man-Made Waterfall Blocks Natural Fall in Columbia Gorge

OPB | Oct. 25, 2012 7:15 a.m. | Updated: Oct. 26, 2012 6:28 a.m.

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Waterfall lover Tom Kloster was stunned when he learned a few years ago that the Columbia River National Scenic Area features a waterfall that’s not natural in the slightest. Hole in the Wall Falls is man-made. He felt even more offended to discover that the creation of the falls actually shut off a natural cascade known as Warren Falls.

Kloster says, “Hole in the Wall Falls is kind of sad. Because you had this incredible waterfall and to take the water from it and put it through a pipe and spit it out just seems wrong.”

Why would anyone block a waterfall?

To save a highway. The original historic highway was put in expressly to bring people to see nature. But Warren Creek  caused flood damage to the highway and a bridge. Rather than move the highway, planners decided to move the waterfall.

A Dept. of Transportation memo from 1941 shows the creation of Hole in the Wall Falls cost $14,896.27.

A Dept. of Transportation memo from 1941 shows the creation of Hole in the Wall Falls cost $14,896.27.

Oregon Dept. of Transportation

In the late 1930s and early ‘40s, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) blasted a tunnel several hundred feet long through the rockface to divert Warren Creek before it could tumble over the basalt. They installed a “trash rack” of 50 sections of railroad irons at the top of the cliff in the middle of the creek. Water flowed right through it, took an abrupt turn under the rack and flowed into the tunnel. The far end of that tunnel became the “hole” in Hole in the Wall Falls.

That trash rack did its job well. When Warren Creek roared to river strength during heavy winter rains it continued to wash wood and rocks downstream, but the iron rack kept them from clogging the new tunnel. Instead, most of the debris landed, and continues to land, in a pile at the bottom of the cliff.

ODOT is restoring a trail along the historic highway near Warren Creek but it has no plans to restore Warren Falls, nor does anyone know how much it would cost.

Only when very heavy winter rains overwhelm the diverter at the top does Warren Falls run.

Only when very heavy winter rains overwhelm the diverter at the top does Warren Falls run.

Vince Patton / OPB

During one of Kloster’s many hikes to the area, he discovered he could still see Warren Falls, as a waterfall. It turns out that after really heavy rains that diversion rack can’t swallow all the water. So a trickle falls down the cliff where it flowed for millions of years.

Kloster says, “In this case especially where you’ve got this waterfall that was diverted for a reason that has absolutely no purpose now, I’m a little bit on a mission to make that right again.” 

Watch our story on Oregon Field Guide about Tom’s mission and what ODOT thinks today.

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