Visiting Maryhill: Washington’s best Clonehenge

A view towards “Stonehenge” from the very edge of the bluff it stands upon.

Guess where I got to go today?  If you said “Stonehenge”…well, you’d be a little right.  Two hours east of Portland along the Columbia Gorge, a replica of Stonehenge sits on a high bluff above the river just outside of Maryhill, Washington.  It’s a very impressive sight, if you’re lucky enough to be paying attention if you’re driving along that stretch of I-80, and a thousand-fold more impressive if you take the time to venture into the structure itself.  It’s the most picturesque joining of the elements I can imagine, and certainly a more dynamic site for such a structure than the wide plains where the original can be found.

As it’s surprisingly difficult to find anything but the basic facts of Maryhill’s Stonehenge online, I took pictures of the small essay about it that was laminated and posted in a ‘tourist board’ structure at the head of the monument’s parking lot.  It is certainly more descriptive, and so–even though it is a clearly dated source–I have transcribed it below:

“Stonehenge at Maryhill must be the strangest monument ever erected anywhere in modern times.  There on its precipice, silhouetted stark against the desert sky, it is both impressive and remote: a thing apart, something out of its time and place.  Always it creates interest and curiosity.”

These word of Lois Davis Plott’s are as true today as they were in 1929 when the monument was completed.  Builder Sam Hill, a life-long Quaker businessman, announced that he intended this monument “to remind my fellow men of the incredible folly of still sacrificing human life to the god of war…At the same time, I wanted to pay tribute to the heroic dead of Klickitat County, Washington.”

Hill’s family background had instilled in him a passion for peace.  During World War I (1914-1918) he traveled throughout Europe urging and end to its hellish trench warfare and poison gas attacks.  Along with others, he felt that terrible war must be “a war to end all wars.”  During his travels in England in 1915, Hill was deeply impressed by the original Stonehenge’s ancient circle of massive stones on Salisbury Plain.  Legend has it that Druids had made human sacrifices there to appease the war gods.  This fit in with Hill’s belief that mankind had longed for peace for centuries.

Hill returned to his Maryhill, Washington ranch, determined to build a replica of Stonehenge.  He brought together surveyors and engineers to plan his monument, selecting Professor W. W. Campbell of California’s Lick Observatory to calculate the proper site.

On July 4, 1918, a desert-hot day, the altar stone was dedicated “To the memory of the soldiers of Klickitat County who gave their lives in defense of their country…”  Neighbors and friends came from throughout the Pacific Northwest to honor the twelve men who lost their lives in the war.

“Sam was unperturbed by the heat,” wrote Lois Plotts.  “In very formal attire he was jovial, talking with everyone, pleased with the words of praise for himself and his noble undertaking.  But it was not until eleven years later that Hill was able to complete his Stonehenge.  Dedicated on Memorial Day, 1930, the project was a replica of the third phase of England’s Stonehenge completed by Stone Age people about 1500 B. C.

The mythological magic of the ancient name and the beauty of the site attracts thousands to Stonehenge at Maryhill.  They are a heterogeneous mix:  busloads of tourists who are whisked in and out of the monument; children who play hide and seek among the pillars; hand-holding couples completely oblivious to the spectacular landscape around them; cyclists who welcome a reprieve from the burning-hot asphalt roads; “druids” who sing to the sunrise at the summer solstice; a trio of musicians who pose dramatically for an album cover.

A gregarious man like Sam Hill would have welcomed them all to his monument, a haven from the wind, its Sarsen pillars framing snow-mantled Mt. Hood, the ocean-bound Columbia River, and miles of ancient raw vistas.

The high desert country around Hill’s replica is in sharp contrast to the green, gently rolling Salisbury plains surrounding the original Stonehenge.  At Hill’s location, the nearby Columbia Hills obscure the true horizon, slightly changing the angle of the rising sun’s rays.  Stonehenge at Maryhill lies at 46° north latitude, 400 miles further south than the original’s.  Consequently, at the solstice the angle of the sunrise’s rays is slightly different at Maryhill.

Because of these differences it was first thought impossible to get an accurate reading of the summer solstice.  However, in 1978, Ernest Piini along with two colleagues, James Kousbrugh and John Crocker, conducted an on-site investigation and found that with certain adjustments an accurate reading could be done.  They found “that by re-specifying certain points of orientation and adopting alternate viewing positions for certain measurements, the moon and the stars could indeed be seen to rise and the sun set…in identical aspects to those observed (and presumably intended) by the builders on the plains of Salisbury.”  And at the summer solstice, the sun rises “nearly in line with the heel-stone marker…”

Hill was not lucky enough to have a ready supply of massive stones available as did the Stone Age builders in England.  Instead, he used about 1650 tons of reinforced concrete lined with crumpled tin, a modern-day innovation.  Measurements of the replica are the same, so the monument has a diameter of 108 feet.

Two outer circles and two inner horseshoe-shaped ovals form the basic pattern.  The outermost ring, the Sarsens, has 30 pillars, each 15 feet high, capped with connecting lintels.  The next circle, the Bluestones, also has 30 pillars, but each is only 8 feet high.

Within these two circles, in the shape of a horseshoe, are five massive trilithon archways ranging in height from 18 1/2 to 24 1/2 feet, east to west.  Next, closest to the core of the replica, is another horseshoe-shaped series of 15 Bluestone pillars almost enclosing the altar stone, a rectangle measuring 6 x 18 feet and 3 feet high.

Stonehenge at Maryhill was only one of Sam Hill’s accomplishments in a lifetime full of dreams and a remarkable number of successes.  “I have seen wonderful progress in the last 71 years…,” he remarked to a reporter in 1928.  “…I am a Quaker and I hope to see during the next 71 years an era of peace and goodwill that will make war impossible.”  Stonehenge stands as an example of his hopes for the future, a “sermon in stone.”

Clearly Sam Hill was misled when told that the original Stonehenge was a sacrificial site, but as it was one of the leading theories of the time and it did inspire him to create such a wonderful place for all to enjoy, I can’t fault him too much.  Instead, I am grateful for his impressions.

Though it may appear that Scott is prepping for ritual, he’s actually just being particularly victorious after a long round of tag between him and Johnathan, who is walking up toward him.

I first heard about this particular “Clonehenge” (stealing some terminology from the eponymous blog) back when I was a teenager, if you can believe that.  I had just seen Oberon Zell’s then-latest Mythic Images sculpture:  The Millennial Gaia.  I was smitten at once with the sculpture, and as I saved up my report card money to be able to afford my own, I learned more about the Zell-Ravenheart group and history.  One factoid that made a great impression was that Oberon–then named Tim Zell–had organized a very large pagan eclipse gathering at Maryhill’s Stonehenge in 1979.  The mental image of 3,000 of my people within a full-scale replica of Stonehenge made my heart catch in my throat, and I knew that someday I would try to find this site.

Who knew that it would take me four years after moving to Oregon to get the time to go there?  Thankfully, I’ve got a couple of really great friends who decided to take the mini-road trip with me.  Scott and Johnathan seemed to have a really great time.  We really had a blast chatting on the drive out there, and Scott and Johnathan really had a great time at the site, playing tag, pretending to be Satanists, and other soundly “boy” fun.

I, however, was more taken with the land.  I have to admit, I’m no fan of deserts but this experience definitely let me see their appeal.  The land is so charismatic, and the sky falls to meet you on its surface with no interruption.  It’s almost like you could get sucked right into space.  Of course, that makes for killer gusts of wind.  I think the last time I’d been so windswept was when I was traveling along the bluffs of the Aran Islands!  Johnathan and I didn’t want to edge much closer to the bluff edge than we already were (though it was just a 15 foot drop to the next edge) lest we be blown over!  Though it was early March (and therefore slightly chilly), I could tell that summers in this area must be unbearable.  All in all, it was certainly a dramatic junction of land, wind, heat, and the gorgeous river.  The elements were all assembled, and I could certainly feel the magic afoot.

Johnathan is standing at the edge of the Stonehenge Bluff. You get a good idea of how dramatic the landscape is with this picture. It’s even crazier looking west, where you get a wide view of the river and Mt. Hood looming in the distance. Alas, the afternoon light would not permit a decent shot of the west.

Despite that strong elemental presence, though, I doubt I would ever want to do any ritual work inside the monument…unless, of course, it was with a large assembly of pagans!  Typically, I find a lot of power in working within a stone circle:  we had one of a fashion at my undergraduate university which I frequented, and I did have the opportunity to visit a remote, older one when I was in Ireland.  Neither of these were incredibly elaborate.  In fact, the stones in both were barely more than knee-high.  But maybe that scale is better.  Standing in this enormous circle, I couldn’t help but feel a bit claustrophobic.  There were so many stones, and they were all so tall, that it was definitely a little difficult to see out.  In a respect, it did create a sense of being “between worlds” as we were really neither completely indoors nor completely outdoors, but it was weird.  It was also really easy to lose people in the circle, as there were so many places to hide…which you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate in what seems to be such an open space.

All in all, then, the place is BREATHTAKING, and I would definitely encourage all my pagan pals to put it on their destination radar.  It is an incredible place to visit…but even though I’d love to eventually construct a circle of my own, I can’t say I’ll be building a massive replica like this at any point in my lifetime.

This was my last shot of the replica. I made Johnathan stop the car so that I could try to capture this juxtaposition of carefully tended orchard with the circle separating it from untamed nature. I think there’s a lot to be said with this image.

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