The Mansion on Bonneville RockOct 26, 2020 02:48PM ● By Gary Munkhoff
THE QUIRKY MANSION OF MONA BELL HILL Photo is public domain
An old, crumbling, concrete foundation is all that remains of what once was an impressive 20 room mansion owned by perhaps the most eccentric and independent woman ever to settle in the Gorge: Edith Mona Bell Hill.
The mansion stood atop Bonneville Rock, which, although altered by Interstate 84 and Bonneville Dam’s construction, remains between I-84 and the Columbia River at the exit to Bonneville dam.
Mona Bell’s adventurous, nomadic lifestyle was conspicuously out of step with the time’s norms and doubtless scandalous to many. She left home in 1908 at the age of 18. She was a teacher, a journalist, a country singer, rodeo bronc rider, and because she was a crack shot with pistols and rifles, a wild west show performer. She claimed she even performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
In 1910, she crossed paths with the flamboyant entrepreneur Sam Hill, the man behind what are today the Maryhill Museum and the Scenic Columbia River Highway. Their affair lasted until Sam’s death 21 years later.
Mona was just one of the three known mistresses of Sam Hill. Sam was also married but unable to divorce his wife, a Catholic who did not believe in divorce. In 1928, after years of traveling, Mona settled in Portland. She was then was 38 years old and pregnant with Sam’s child. Sam arranged a quick marriage between his cousin Edgar and Mona so the baby would have the Hill name. The next day, the newlyweds supposedly crossed into Vancouver and divorced.
Both Mona and Sam loved the Gorge, so in 1928, they built the mansion on Bonneville Rock overlooking the Columbia River. Mona loved her home and made it a showplace, but sadly, in 1935, fate took a cruel turn.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers condemned Mona’s beloved property to make way for the construction of Bonneville Dam. Mona rejected their offer of $25,000 (about $475,000 today) and demanded $100,000 (about $1,900,000 today). After a 15-month long legal battle, the courts awarded Mona $78,661.50 (about $1,500,000 today). Mona moved to Minnesota and later to Riverside, California, where she remained until her death in 1981 at age 91.
For more details on Mona Bell and her mansion, get a copy of A Woman Alone: Mona Bell, Sam Hill, and the Mansion on Bonneville Rock by John A. Harrison.