Fire on the Mountain

Thinking of iconic American lodges, particularly for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, Timberline Lodge certainly takes center stageit has been featured in half a dozen major motion pictures and mini-series. But Timberline, built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) between 1936 and 1938, is the relative newcomer to Mount Hood. Cloud Cap Inn had been in business at the timberline on the opposite side of the mountain for nearly half a century before Timberline Lodge opened its doors. So, in 1889, before automobiles, how did this 30-guest hotel (with running water and toilets no less!) get constructed all the way up here? And how has it endured all this time?

  My son George stands on the elevation marker at Cloud Cap Inn.

My son George stands on the elevation marker at Cloud Cap Inn.

It was the vision of William M. Ladd, son of Portland banker, philanthropist, and business tycoon William S. Ladd (most Portlanders will recognize the neighborhood he created called Ladd's Addition), and C.E.S. Wood, a colorful attorney and poet, the very man who, in 1877, recorded Nez Perce Chief Joseph's famous surrender, "I will fight no more forever." Ladd and Wood bought up the rights of the Mount Hood Trail and Wagon Road Company and set up the Mount Hood Stage Company with the intent to control the area's roads and railroads, timber, flumes, farms, parks, mills, stage lines, steamboats, and hotels. They used Chinese labor to rebuild the Ghost Ridge wagon road by hand, which served to access Cooper's Tent Camp, the established point for exploring Mount Hood at the time. They then commissioned Whidden and Lewis to design the inn and James Langille to build it. Wood's wife Nanny came up with the name Cloud Cap. (Interestingly, Ghost Ridge was named for the fire-killed snags left over from an 1886 forest fire but that is another story...) 

Its logs were harvested a few miles downhill and drug up to the site. Its foundations and chimneys are stone from the mountain. It is literally restrained from the wind by anchoring steel cables.

  My son George standing next to the notched log corner and stone foundation of Cloud Cap Inn's guest wing.

My son George standing next to the notched log corner and stone foundation of Cloud Cap Inn's guest wing.

In its first few years of operation, visitors would reach Cloud Cap Inn via open stage coach from the train station in Hood River, a six hour journey with multiple stops to switch horses. The first automobile transportation, a Pierce Arrow, did not arrive until 1906 and then only went as far as "China Fill," a spot where laborers without the aid of machinery had filled in a gulch with stone to continue the road up the mountain at a steep grade. Many used Cloud Cap as a base from which to summit Mount Hood. The building even featured a viewing platform on the roof (no longer extant) called the "widows' watch." Water was piped from nearby Tilly Jane Creek, the same water system which serves it today. Telephone service was even added within a few years of opening. Despite the amenities and its beautiful setting, the inn was never a big financial success.

Plans to replace the inn with a multi-storied Art Deco hotel by A.E. Doyle were (gratefully) cut short by the Great Depression. By the time the WPA built Timberline Lodge, interest had all but fled from the Cooper Spur area. Cloud Cap Inn had passed through several hands before eventually being purchased by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1940 for $2000, whereupon it sat in disuse, closed to the public.

In the 1950s, pressure was mounting within the Forest Service to burn down languishing assets, including Cloud Cap Inn. Enter the Hood River Crag Rats, a mountain rescue group. They successfully petitioned the Forest Service to give them a long-term lease to use the building as their clubhouse and base of operations in exchange for providing the maintenance crucial to any structure in such a harsh location. So the inn found a devoted caretaker in the second half of its life so far. Had it not been for the Crag Rats, Cloud Cap would have been consumed by flames then . . . and, as it turns out, in more recent history as well.

  Cloud Cap Inn sits shuttered, flanked by trees killed by the 2008 Gnarl Ridge Burn.

Cloud Cap Inn sits shuttered, flanked by trees killed by the 2008 Gnarl Ridge Burn.

In 2008, the Gnarl Ridge forest fire consumed acres of tinder-dry forest across the northeast side of the mountain. The burn marched relentlessly toward Cloud Cap Inn. Each time a new flare-up would rise above the advancing flames, Crag Rats, rangers, firefighters, and other distant onlookers would ask themselves if that one was the inn. As the fire killed trees just feet away, a helicopter crewed by a husband of one of the Hood River Crag Rats flew in and perfectly dropped its payload of fire retardant on the building. Its timbers were stained red but Cloud Cap Inn was saved.

In 2011, it was threatened again by the Dollar Lake fire but crews had time to sheath Cloud Cap in sheets of reflective Mylar like a leftover in Reynolds Wrap to protect from freezer burn.

The USFS recently renewed the Crag Rats' lease on Cloud Cap Inn. This is sure to mean that it will be cared for and endure many more years. But increasingly dry conditions and wildfire will always be a concern for the oldest alpine lodge this side of the Mississippi.