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Fatal collision spurs new calls to complete the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail

Posted by on August 27th, 2014 at 10:30 am

Ellen Dittebrandt.

The death this past Sunday of Ellen Dittebrandt, killed while bicycling on Interstate 84 west of Hood River, has stunned her large community of friends in the Gorge, many of whom are now focused on completing the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail in her memory.

Dittebrandt’s death also comes on the heels of a scary month in Oregon. Just last week we reported that there were four major rear-end collisions in the span of just one week.

This latest collision happened early Sunday morning. According to Oregon State Police investigators, Dittebrandt, a 52-year old volunteer firefighter (named Firefighter of the Year in 2010), artist and triathlete who lived in Mosier, was riding westbound in the shoulder of I-84. Friends say she was training for a triathlon and was riding from Rowena Crest to Crown Point and back.

As she approached the off-ramp to Viento State Park (near milepost 56), a 55-year-old northwest Portland man named John Allman hit her from behind with his pickup truck. The police say Allman was likely drowsy and that “driver fatigue has been identified as a contributing factor.” The Hood River County DA’s Office is now reviewing the case and will consider whether there was any criminal wrongdoing.



Ellen Dittebrandt (center, in yellow) and friends in a photo taken in July.
(Photo courtesy Mark Frost)

As we first shared back in 2007, there’s a major effort to re-establish the Historic Columbia River Highway as a state trail, which would give people an option to riding the shoulders of I-84. While progress has been made — and the project was recently named a top priority by the Oregon Transportation Commission — two major gaps (totaling about 10 miles) remain.

“We’re late to the party but now there are a couple hundred people in this town that suddenly have a vested interest.”
— Mark Frost

Dittebrandt was riding through one of those gap when she was hit.

Mark Frost, a friend of Dittebrandt’s, has started a Facebook Group named Ellen Memorial Connector – Complete the Historic Columbia Gorge HWY. The group’s mission is to remember her by “enabling cyclists to ride the Columbia River Gorge safely.”

I spoke to Frost on the phone this morning. “I think for us,” he said, “We’re singularly focused to completing that trail.”

Frost described Dittebrandt as someone who had just recently taken up cycling and running and had lost 60 pounds in the last year. This year, he said, “She was like a steam train. She was out there every day. She was crossing things off her bucket list faster than any of us.” She had run her first marathon this summer and wanted to do a seven mile swim in the Columbia River. Frost said he warned her about how difficult that swim would be and how she shouldn’t do it without kayak support. So instead, she decided to do the Crest-to-Crest bike ride, a 120-mile out-and-back from Rowena to Crown Point.

“She headed out Sunday morning,” he recalled, “then jumped onto I-84 at Hood River, then six miles later near Viento… Well, you know what happened.”

Now Frost hopes he and others will come together to advocate on her behalf. The plan is to memorialize Dittebrandt by having the final link in the State Trail named after her. “We know it’s not going to happen overnight; but if we could move the date up just one year and save one more life it would be worth however much energy and money we could put into it.”


Scene from a memorial held last night at Mayer State Park.
(Photo by Clint Bogard)

Up until this point, the effort to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway rallied around the economic and tourism benefits that would come with a scenic road (much of it open only to biking and walking) that would connect many Gorge communities. Now with this tragedy, there’s an added element of urgency.

Jeannette Kloos is a retired Oregon Department of Transportation employee who is now President of the Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway, a group working with the State of Oregon to complete the project. “This tragedy,” Kloos wrote via email yesterday, “highlights the need to complete the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.”

Kloos estimates they need about $30 million to connect the path’s final two sections between Viento State Park and Hood River, and between Wyeth and Starvation Creek. Even with a high-level endorsement from the State of Oregon and a daunting financial figure, Kloos says grassroots advocacy is still important.

“The resolution from OTC [Oregon Transportation Commission] is excellent, but it didn’t have any dollars to go along with it. Advocates should continue to remind the OTC to act on that resolution and actually provide funding. We need to keep pushing.”

And that’s just what Frost and the many people in the Gorge who were touched by Dittebrandt’s life and art, plan on doing. “We’re late to the party but now there are a couple hundred people in this town that suddenly have a vested interest.”

— Join the Ellen Memorial Connector Facebook group to stay updated on their efforts.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • GlowBoy August 27, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Ms. Dittebrand’s death was so senseless in so many ways, and I agree it highlights the need to find money to finish this trail.

    Besides saving lives, being able to ride to Hood River without having to ride on the shoulder of I-84 will be a huge tourism draw.

    Between the Columbia Gorge trail, the proposed Salmonberry trail, the Banks-Vernonia-Crown Zellerbach loop and a possible rail-trail to Astoria, Northwest Oregon is poised to become a world class bike touring destination.

    I’ve often yearned to tour through the Gorge myself, but the fact that Shellrock Mountain looms just beyond Herman Creek has kept me from riding out there anywhere near as much as I would.

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    • JOH August 27, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      Agreed & my heart goes out to all of her family & friends.

      RE: Shellrock Mtn.: This is one of the scariest segments of Interstate shoulder I’ve come across, & I’ve ridden lots. At one point he shoulder, both E & W-bound, is only 1.5 ft. wide for about 1/2 mile. Originally ODOT had ground rumble strips down the middle of both shoulders, forcing cyclists into the right lane along with 70 MPH semis. Efforts by Dick Weber of PWTC and later an e-mail campaign by riders from the Columbia Gorge Explorer succeeded in getting the rumble strips repaved, but at 1.5 ft. the shoulder is still way substandard and very hazardous.

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  • q`Tzal August 27, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Nice to see that the police aren’t blaming this on “invisible recumbent bike”.

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    • Mark August 27, 2014 at 10:58 am

      On the day Ellen was riding, she wasn’t on her recumbent.

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    • Alan Love August 27, 2014 at 10:58 am

      The police aren’t, but at least some members of the general public are. Reading the comments in some of the online articles reminds me why I shouldn’t ever scroll down. So much victim blaming it makes me sad. She didn’t do anything wrong, but the vitriol is dense, even among those claiming to want to “protect” cyclists by banning them from using 84 (nevermind that there isn’t any other way to get between Hood River and Wyeth road).

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      • q`Tzal August 27, 2014 at 11:18 am

        Annnd…. the lead picture changed.

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      • Pete August 27, 2014 at 11:22 am

        As you can tell I got sucked in over there… normally I can ignore the vitriol but this was close to home for me. The poll ticks me off too.

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  • Garlynn August 27, 2014 at 10:56 am

    We need to push hard for the completion of the Columbia River Gorge Historic Highway trail, in honor of Ms Dittebrandt. I would propose that a third goal, after eliminating the need to ride a bicycle on the I-84 shoulder, should be to construct a parallel pathway to the historic highway for as much of its length as possible, so that bicyclists could access the Gorge without having the share a lane with auto traffic through the most congested section (Crown Point to Multnomah Falls / Ainsworth State Park). A river-elevation connection trail between Troutdale and Latourelle would be a great first step; continuing this path from Latourelle to Ainsworth would be an awesome second step.

    I believe that our generation must prevail over small-mindedness and fiscal conservatism, and articulate a vision for building and maintaining world-class bicycling, pedestrian and transit infrastructure to reduce the need to use the automobile or be threatened by it when not using it.

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    • Jason H August 27, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      The Historic Highway between Crown Point and Multnomah Falls is one of the most spectacular roads I’ve ever ridden on. I’ve found the vehicle traffic surprisingly light, and mostly slow and easy going (after-all they purposely took the scenic route themselves), in fact it’s the SLOW auto traffic/people crawling along looking for road-side parking at the biggest tourist attractions that is far more annoying than any high speed or dangerous driving. I wouldn’t want to discourage biking on this section at all, but if proposed as a flatter, straighter alternate to the HCRH then a freeway elevation side trail might be a good idea. But let’s close the gaps before worrying about making an alternate to a world-class route.

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      • PorterStout August 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm

        Boy Jason, I agree it’s beautiful and the traffic isn’t usually too bad but that certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday; the tourist vehicles were so thick I bailed at Bridal Veil Falls and had my wife pick me up there instead of Cascade Locks. I had a bad feeling about it. Good weather and a weekend really changes things.

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        • Jason H August 27, 2014 at 1:00 pm

          Yeah, I was sucking exhaust and actually had to come to a complete stop a couple times riding past MF coming back on a Bridge of the Gods loop on a Sunday earlier this month. But I really think it’s literally a handful of summer weekend days a year. I even rode out to CL on Fri. 7/3 on a holiday weekend and it was clear sailing all the way, only had to slow for peds at BVF & MF.

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  • Pete August 27, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for this followup Jonathan! (Hoping to avoid FB but this is worth it).

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  • Dan August 27, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Need to look into carrying an explosive load on my rear rack so when an inattentive driver rear-ends me, I don’t go alone.

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  • jfiliohr August 27, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Last summer I rode from Portland to Hood River. The last 10 mile stretch on 84 into HR was terrifying. I would never in a million years ride on 84 again. Really hope the last few stretches of the old highway are restored. Would love to ride west from HR every once in a while. Would also be nice to have something close to a flat ride out here in HR too.

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    • Pete August 27, 2014 at 1:51 pm

      Ehrck Hill Drive… 😉

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  • Jason H August 27, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Looking at Google Street View at the WB approach to Viento SP, it looks like the shoulder rumble strips end really prematurely before the offramp (by a few hundred yards it appears ). It would be even more tragic if it was the lack of these strips, which are designed exactly for drowsy/inattentive drivers, for this short stretch that contributed to this tragedy. They really should run all the way to the exit ramp.

    I am personally pretty comfortable riding even pretty busy highways if the shoulder is decent (have ridden stretches of both 6 and 26) but limited access freeways like this with entrance/exit ramps are beyond my comfort zone. The completion of the HCRH really needs to be a priority. I hope the pressure really stays on the state until this gets done.

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    • Pete August 27, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      The rumbles also help delineate the road edge during winter snowfall. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to drive that damned road in 2nd gear with white knuckles and wipers on high…

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  • kyle August 27, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Condolences to all her many friends and family. It’s great that she had such a kickass year. I hope that’s some comfort to those who loved her.

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  • Joe August 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    RIP:( bet she would want what we want and building the trail would be one way to keep her dream alive…. awesome!

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  • spencer August 27, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    This is a case of negligent driving, and the driver should be convicted of manslaughter. We need to strive for vision zero on all our roads. This should not happen, PERIOD.

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    • wsbob August 27, 2014 at 7:54 pm

      “This is a case of negligent driving…” spencer

      I don’t think there is a ‘negligent driving’ law, but there are laws for ‘Careless Driving’ and ‘Reckless Driving’. The person driving may have been guilty of either.

      I think it’s fair to say that people tend to know whether or not they’re tired and sleepy, before they actually doze off in the midst of a demanding activity driving or otherwise. People driving have a responsibility to be aware of whether they are in sufficiently condition to safely drive a motor vehicle.

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    • 9watts August 27, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      I agree with spencer. This is not about infrastructure but about carelessness on the part of yet another person in a car. The same thing can and does happen on all types of roads, with bike lanes, and without shoulders. Enforcement and real penalties that drive home the point that folks driving need to take their responsibilities very seriously could come a lot cheaper than $30M.

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    • wsbob August 27, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      “This is a case of negligent driving…” spencer

      I don’t think there is a ‘negligent driving’ law in Oregon, but there are laws for ‘Careless Driving’ and ‘Reckless Driving’. The person driving in this collision may have been guilty of either.

      I think it’s fair to say that people tend to know whether or not they’re tired and sleepy, before they actually doze off in the midst of a demanding activity driving or otherwise. People driving have a responsibility to be aware of whether they are in sufficiently condition to safely drive a motor vehicle.

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    • wsbob August 28, 2014 at 12:05 am

      Sorry about the previous, double post.

      Humans are far from perfect, so how to effectively dissuade them from doing something that would seem obviously important to most people of some intelligence, not to do, such as trying to drive safely while fatigued and or sleepy, could be quite a challenge.

      Not to hijack the discussion, but in answer to the question of how difficult it can be for police to arrest a person that drove while drunk. And, how serious limitations can be, that police have a right to go to, to apprehend and cite someone suspected of driving drunk. Link to story in today’s Oregonian, Beaverton Leader edition:

      For many years, serious safety campaigns have been conducted to raise awareness to the hazards of driving fatigued, but people continue to do so anyway. The problem may be harder to deal with than DUII, because how is it possible to test somebody to determine whether they’re driving insufficiently rested? I remember a collision from a few years back, someone driving a van full of 13 or so firefighters, person driving fell asleep, with catastrophic consequences.

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  • KristenT August 27, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I really hate that it takes this sort of tragedy to provide impetus for things like completing connections. And I really hope that people do what needs to be done to get this trail connected and finished, so more people can feel safe riding through the gorge.

    (Personally, I won’t ride in the Gorge because it means riding on I-84. Which means I’m missing a huge, beautiful chunk of riding– and that makes me sad.)

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  • Joe August 27, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Yes but I’ve always said if anything happens to me on a stretch of road that I know needs to be safe but something positive comes from if that’s great for all.

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  • Dwaine Dibbly August 27, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    When I moved out here 4 years ago, I couldn’t believe that people were riding on the Interstate highway, and the practice was endorsed by the State. WTF!?! In many places they would never let you get near those roads on a bike (and I wouldn’t WANT to be there, anyway). The irony is that people complain about unprotected bike lanes on streets with 35mph speed limits in-town. Let’s get this Gorge route built now, and let’s name it after Ms Dittebrand. She sounds like she was a wonderful person and I’m saddened by the fact that I never met her.

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  • Opus the Poet August 27, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    On a related note I see that many of the old US Route System highways are being repurposed as interstate bike routes after they are made redundant for motor vehicle traffic by roughly parallel Interstate Highways, but the big problem is bridging the gaps created by building the Interstates directly over the old highways. Bike Route 66 is having that problem in NM and OK.

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  • angela krause August 27, 2014 at 11:34 pm

    Help fund the completion of the historic highway buy purchasing a Tri Like Ellen or bicycle t-shirt from the Ellen Connector Memorial on or find the link of The Ellen Connector Memorial Facebook page.

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