Slow landslide plagues Old Siskiyou Highway

A 200-foot stretch of Old Siskiyou Highway is sliding down the mountain, carrying mud and trees with it and spurring weekly visits by state road crews with new gravel to keep it driveable.

Over 600 feet from head to toe, the slump in the mountain, a mile below Callahan's Restaurant, will be fixed when the Oregon Department of Transportation can come up with $600,000 to $800,000, says District Manager Jerry Marmon.

The slide, on a hairpin turn, isn't dangerous and doesn't threaten any homes, but it's persistent in its slippage, especially after a hard rain, says Marmon.

"The road is falling apart," says 35-year resident Ron Roth, former owner of Geppetto's Restaurant in Ashland. "You have to slow down for it. The lower part has been an issue for years and the upper part for just a year."

The acre inside the curve is broken into giant, soggy chunks, with fir trees leaning every which way. The upper arm of the hairpin is gravel road, not pavement, and lets water pass under it in a culvert.

Callahan's owner Ron Bergquist owns some of the uphill land and sold the land inside the hairpin six years ago to out-of-state buyers who are "not too pleased," he says.

Bergquist has his theories about why the slide is happening. The road was built a century ago with the culvert under it, and that's what funnels water inside the hairpin. That spot was logged some decades ago, so roots of the forest no longer hold the soil in place, he says.

Marmon says "it's basically water that makes it move — and it moves in its own time."

Earth has often slumped onto the lower arm of the hairpin, and Bergquist says ODOT erred by removing it, thus opening the way for more of the slide to move downhill — and, he adds, they should have put in big steel piles to stop more sliding.

It's been a very wet spring and ODOT won't be able to do anything about the slide till the soil dries out, says ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming in Medford.

Piles are sometimes used to stop slides, but they may not be the best solution in this case, Leaming says. "We've got geologists who are experts about how hillsides move, and if it were as simple as that, wouldn't we be doing it?" he says.

Finding the money to stabilize the slide could be difficult, as "it's not our highest priority road, though we know it's important to residents," Marmon says. "It will have to compete with the most chronic slide areas on (highways) 101, 138 by Crater Lake and 42 on the Coos-Douglas County line that have caused delays and closures."

ODOT is keeping Old Siskiyou Highway open now by removing slide material and repairing it "as it sinks," Marmon says.

"What we're doing now is a band-aid," he says.

Marmon couldn't provide a time line for repairing the road, but says it would involve technical engineering design, building an abutment on the lower hairpin, and putting rocks below the slide.

"The 100 percent fix (with rock and abutment) has proven to be effective everywhere else," Marmon says.

"The rocks aren't going to help," Bergquist says. "They will keep sliding, too."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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