A Woman Alone: Mona Bell,
Sam Hill... Mansion on
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Author: John A. Harrison
Living alone in the woods of northern Minnesota, Mona Bell once amazed a neighbor by shooting a dozen clothes pins off a line at 25 yards, firing revolvers from both hands in rapid succession. "You tell the boys there's a woman back here who knows how to shoot, and will shoot," she said, calmly. He did.
Eccentric, aggressive, frugal, and friendly to a point, Mona's few neighbors sensed she was a woman with a past, perhaps a notorious past, but no one asked. In fact, her reclusive life in Minnesota was stark contrast to her earlier life in Oregon, where she had a brief, public role in Pacific Northwest history, battling the federal government after the Army commandeered her hilltop mansion and surrounding riverfront acreage in the Columbia River Gorge to build Bonneville Dam.
Mona's impressive mansion 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon, was built in 1928 as a gift from her lover, the flamboyant entrepreneur Sam Hill, whose lasting works include the Maryhill Museum and the Columbia River Highway. That same year, their child, a boy, was born in Portland.
Three years later Sam, 33 years Mona's senior, was dead. The government condemned the mansion she loved, offering compensation Mona would deride as a pittance. For 15 months she battled the government in federal court with two of Sam's longtime friends at her side, a former Oregon governor as her attorney and the current governor as a witness.
While she won three times more than the government offered, she never outgrew the pain of losing both the man and the place she loved in quick succession. Her son was her obligation, but with her new wealth, travel and flowers, particularly lilies, became her passion. Later, her daughter-in-law would say, "she just was not cut out to be a mother. She was a woman alone, and she was OK with it."
6 x 9 Inches, 139 Pages, Color Insert
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
John Harrison lives in Vancouver, Washington, where he was a reporter at The Columbian newspaper in the 1980s. For several years his beat included the Columbia River Gorge. Having read about Mona Bell in a biography of Sam Hill, John decided to look for the mansion that Sam built for Mona in 1928. He found it-or, more precisely its remains-on an overgrown hill overlooking Bonneville Dam.
Intrigued, John decided to write Mona's story. He found people in the Portland, Oregon/Vancouver, Washington area who worked on the construction of Bonneville Dam in the 1930s and who, surprisingly, had strong memories of the controversial Mona even after 50 years. The story launched John on a search to find out more about this mystery woman of the Gorge, her relationship with Sam Hill, and what happened to her.
Today John is the Information Officer at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a Portland-based regional energy-planning agency. He is the author of an almanac-style history of the Columbia River that is posted on the Council's website at www.nwcouncil.org/history. He has a bachelor's degree in communications from Washington State University and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. John and his wife, Dawn, are the parents of two grown sons.