OREGON CAVES CHATEAU

We got up early, loaded the car, bade goodbye to the Zane Grey Society members who were staying at Crater Lake Lodge en route to Gold Beach; then, reluctant to leave both the lodge and the lake, we headed down the serpentine route to our first stopping point, the legendary Beckie’s Restaurant in Union Springs.  Since all four of us had eaten here before, breakfast here trumped even the one in Crater Lake Lodge.  The little rustic restaurant, legendary for its pies, is known even in Europe.  Outside we could hear the creek tumbling down to the Rogue River.

After one of the best breakfasts of the trip, we followed Zane Grey’s beloved fishing river all the way down to Grants Pass; there we connected with hwy 199 (the Redwood Highway) and angled down to Cave Junction; here, we veered left and began the long climb to Oregon Caves National Monument.  We’d first heard about the Chateau while watching Barnes’ PBS Series on National Park Lodges; then, after reading her commentary in her Great Lodges of the National Parks, we were intrigued enough to take a “look-see.”

There was so little traffic on Highway 46 that we wondered if we’d made a mistake.  We really began to wonder when we reached the last segment of corkscrew road that wound up, up, and up into the heart of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.  Finally, we reached what appeared to be the end of the road—an almost deserted parking lot.  We decided to walk in, not knowing whether it would be worth the effort.

Lodge

Then we saw it—like something out of a dream: Oregon Caves Chateau.  It was so quiet—all we could hear was the soft wind in the old growth forest (defined as being at least 250 years old) and the cascading waters of Cave Creek flowing out of the Oregon Caves, tumbling over the great retaining wall into the Chateau’s pond; then gurgling its way through the dining room, and on down the ravine below.  Above, a deep blue sky so rare in today’s industrialized world.  The shaded lower parking lot was full.

It seemed like a national park lodge—yet, it didn’t.  Perhaps it was the old growth forest that made it such a magical place—almost primeval.  We entered the hotel from the parking lot into the chateau’s fourth floor.  Though there were people inside, voices were hushed.  It was almost as though we were in a great Gothic cathedral—perhaps we were; reminding me of lines from William Cullen Bryant’s “Forest Hymn”:

“The graves were God’s first temples. . . .
  As now they stand, massy, and tall, and dark,
  Fit shrine for humble worshiper to hold
  Communion with his Maker.  These dim vaults,
  These winding aisles, of human pomp or pride
  Report not. . . .  Thou fillest the solitude. 
  Thou art in the soft winds
  That run along the summit of these trees. . . .”

THE STORY OF THE CAVES AND CHATEAU

In 1874, Elijah Davidson discovered a cave entrance while hunting high up in the Siskiyou Mountains.  As word spread of the wonderland hidden within, adventurers came from far and wide, each exploring with candles or burning branches to light the way.  Vandals came too, ripping out stalagmites and stalagtites just to prove to their friends that they’d been here.

For here in what the Poet of the Sierras, Joaquin Miller, would later label “the Marble Halls of Oregon,” deep in the heart of Mount Elijah, were caverns such as “Paradise Lost,” with calcite flowstone and drapery formations in a room 60 feet high.  The largest room—about 250 feet in length—was created by underground streams.

Through the years its fame would grow.  In 1906, the Siskiyou National Forest was established; and in 1909, with a stroke of his pen, President William Howard Taft established the Oregon Caves National Monument (the nation’s 20th).  But the first road didn’t reach it until 1922.

Unlike most national park lodges, the plans for this one were drawn by a local contractor rather than a well-known architect: Gust Lium of Grants Pass.  Lium, far ahead of his time, envisioned a chateau that would be an integral part of the landscape, so natural it would seem to have sprouted from the gorge into which Lium wedged it.  It would be a refuge from the outside world, anticipating Frank Lloyd Wright’s later Fallingwater House at Bear Run, Pennsylvania.

Construction began in September of 1931.  Lium and his small crew constructed a stout structure anchored to a reinforced concrete foundation.  Building materials were local: redwood, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, madrone, and white oak, as was the limestone and marble.  The exterior is slathered with Port Orford cedar bark.  The first floor housed the furnace, sprinkler system, machine shop; the second, storage and employees’ dining room; the much larger third floor housed dining room, ballroom, coffee shop, and kitchen; the fourth floor lobby, unlike most other park lodges, is only one story high—instead of looking up, guests look out into the old growth forest (indeed, they feel part of it).  The roofline is as jagged as the mountains themselves.  Everything was hand-crafted—even the furniture, the largest surviving set of Monterey furniture (a line that once graced the mansions of celebrities such as Will Rogers, Walt Disney, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.

The hotel opened in May of 1934.  Thirty years later, in December of 1964, after a record snowfall, suddenly a freak rainstorm blew in.  According to Barnes, then-manager Harry Christiansen, looking out the window of his second-floor apartment, suddenly noticed a trickle of water coming through.  Sensing disaster, he ran, followed by a deluge, a 48-inch-in-diameter log chasing him.  When the storm subsided, the two lower floors had been filled with tons of rocks, gravel, silt, and logs.  The entire foundation had slipped.  It looked like the end.  Next week, he told his board of directors in Grants Pass, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, ladies—it’s too bad, but the chateau is gone. . . .  I wouldn’t give you a nickel for the place.”

But the directors disagreed: They insisted he bring the chateau back to life.  Gust Lium, then in his 80s, was called back to direct the reconstruction; he and his crew “gently moved the mammoth structure back into place.”

Six months later, on May 26, 1965, the Chateau reopened.  Lium had accomplished a second miracle.  Only months later, he died.

* * * * *

We wandered through the Chateau almost in a daze, castigating ourselves for our failure to book rooms.  How could we leave such a pardise without fully savoring all it had to offer?  After extensive rambling, I sat down on a sofa next to the massive double fireplace.  Off to the side a gleaming grand piano.  The only light the flickering flames, the chandeliers with their fragile parchment shades, and the subdued light muted by the giant trees.  A couple came in, hand-in-hand and very much in love—What a place for a honeymoon!  I sank into a reverie.

Then it was time to go.  But none of us in the car found words easy to come by—each of us vowed to return.  And stay.  Lucy sighed, “Coming back must be a blessing for another time.”

For the Chateau is the very antithesis of crowd–magnets like Old Faithful and El Tovar.  And herein lies its uniqueness.  Barnes sums it up in these words: “Oregon Caves development is a lesson in ‘less is more.’  This small canyon, cut into the Siskiyou Mountains by Cave Creek, accessed by a twenty-mile-long, winding, two-lane road, is unlike the panoramic settings of other great lodges.  It is an introspective experience to stay in Oregon Caves Chateau.  Here, a cocoon-like setting pulls visitors into nature’s fold, much like descending into the caverns.”

(This section: Barnes, 74-81).

Before leaving, Connie got serious about national parks: she purchased a National Park Passport in the Oregon Caves entrance building designed by Lium to match the chateau. The Passport can be stamped with place and date just as is true with regular passports.  Thanks to it, we’ll now have a record of each park visit from this point on.

SOURCES:

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002). [By all means, get her book!]

“Cave Echoes,” Vol. 22—The Centennial Edition (Washington, D.C., The National Park Service, 2009.

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Wahington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).

* * * * *

Next week, we’ll move on to Mount Hood’s Timberline Lodge.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Is this the ice caves mentioned in ZG’s Forlon River, and Nevada?

  2. Dear Kathleen,

    I don’t think so. I believe those ice caves are in the Modoc area of Northern California.

    Joe


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