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Rural highway will get '30s-style tourist signs

When future visitors head east along the old Oregon Caves Highway toward the spectacular caverns, they may feel like they're going back in time.

Way back to the early 1930s.

The U.S. Forest Service has received $115,000 from the Federal Highway Administration to design and install rustic wood signs reminiscent of the early 1930s signs found along state Highway 46 to guide tourists. The picturesque highway is about 20 miles long, running from Cave Junction through the Rogue River National Forest to Oregon Caves National Monument.

Intended to boost tourism while reflecting the looks of the 1930s, the signs will be replicated from original plans and photographs for those built during the Great Depression when the highway was first built, said forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons.

"This is to increase recreation and tourism in the area," she said. "It will help folks experience the history of the area while providing more directional signage to the caves."

The signs will include a large one at the Illinois Valley Visitor Information Center in Cave Junction and another at the old Grayback Ranger Station, which was the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the 1930s. Log mileage signs along the highway, used in the 1930s era, will also be erected.

"These will reflect the historical character of what was in place in the '20s and '30s, continue a scene that is tied in to the historical district in the park and chateau," said George Herring, chief of interpretation at the monument.

Moreover, the new "old" signs will lead more people to the caves, he said.

"One of the real benefits of the historical signage plan is that it will help tourism," he said. "There is confusion among a lot of motorists now on how far they are going and much farther the caves are."

Roger Brandt, chairman of the Illinois Valley Community Development Organization which manages the concession at the monument, agreed.

"When you go up to the caves now, the only caves sign on Highway 46 is at the monument boundary itself," he said of the boundary more than a dozen miles east of the Cave Junction. "But when you look at historic pictures, those old signs were real common in the area. This is what people would have seen in the 1930s."

The signs will also help in marketing the Illinois Valley, he said, adding that about 50,000 people go through the caves annually.

In addition to the organization, the forest staff has been working with the Oregon Department of Transportation and the National Park Service on the project, which isn't expected to be completed until 2014.

"This will make the whole corridor more inviting and attractive," said forest archaeologist Janet Joyer, noting the forest staff has old photographs of the original signs as well as blueprints.

"Our idea is to take plans for signs that existed and have them fabricated, using the same materials and basic techniques that were used in the 1930s," she said.

The highway was built in conjunction with other major developments at monument, including the dramatic cedar-bark sided chateau now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Interpretive information at the visitors center will explain the history of Depression-era public works projects by the CCC and their importance to the local history and economy, Gibbons said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.