“What in Sam Hill?” This odd expression, of which the origins are unclear but date back at least to the 1700s, became associated with a famous road builder and industrialist—whose name actually happened to be Sam Hill—in the 1920s, when Hill began doing some rather unorthodox things. Hill was famous for having pioneered modern road building techniques and creating many of the scenic highways of the West, but it was his work on his utopian vision that got everyone saying “What in Sam Hill?”
Hill was a Quaker and used his money to organize and fund a Quaker utopian community on the banks of the Columbia River in the early 1900s. Unfortunately no Quakers besides Hill ever moved there and his utopian vision failed after a few short years. Nonetheless, Hill continued with the construction of a French Mansion—in steel and concrete—on a cliff overlooking the Columbia River.
Hill was friends with various socialites and celebrities, including Queen Marie of Romania, who was living in exile at the time. Parisian modern dancer Loïe Fuller convinced Hill to turn his mansion into a museum, and today the museum houses Queen Marie’s throne, crown jewels, wedding dress, and icon collection. You can also find original sketches, statues, and plasters by Auguste Rodin (The Thinker, Gates of Hell), Native American Baskets, one hundred unusual chess sets, and Belle Epoque art in the collection.
The ranch surrounding the museum also contains the Hill Loops Road—the first macadam asphalt-paved road in the Pacific Northwest—which was built by Hill and takes the driver down scenic, but steep, twists and turns.
One can also visit “Stonehenge” at the museum, a replica of the original in England. Hill, a dedicated pacifist, built this concrete Stonehenge as a memorial to the human sacrifice of war, making this is the earliest World War I war memorial in North America. Hill’s grave sits nestled in the hillside just below.
Until recently this was all set miles from civilization in the bleak basalt and cheat grass of Eastern Washington. In the past few years, vineyards and fruit orchards have sprung up nearby, making Hill’s original dream of a utopian community easier to envision.
Know Before You Go
From Portland, Oregon, take I-84 east through the Columbia River Gorge for about 70 miles. Cross the river at The Dalles (the pink bridge) and continue east on state route 14 for another 20 miles.