B.G. firm repairing Benson Bridge at Multnomah Falls

Rock fall damaged it in January; work set to be done by Memorial Day

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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MULTNOMAH FALLS — The project is expected to be finished by Memorial Day weekend.

The truth is, Doug Stetler wouldn't mind staying a little longer. That's because his office is currently one of the best-known landmarks in the Columbia River Gorge.

"Every time I'm in the Gorge, the jobs always go better than I think, and I have to leave," said Stetler, a project manager with Battle Ground-based Catworks Construction.

Catworks and its crews last week began repairing the Benson Bridge, the historic arched span at Oregon's Multnomah Falls. The bridge was damaged by a rock fall in January. It's been closed ever since.

That hasn't stopped crowds from coming to a site that sees some 2 million people stop by each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. For the next month, visitors will take in a different view than they're used to seeing in postcards and photos.

The century-old span is covered by a temporary enclosure built to protect the site from the constant spray of the waterfall, which sends Multnomah Creek hurtling down 620 feet over two main drops. The structure also gives crews the ability to stand and work immediately under the bridge, built in 1914.

The rock that damaged the Benson Bridge fell about 400 feet from the cliff face above, said Stan Hinatsu, a recreation program manager with the U.S. Forest Service. No one was on the bridge at the time, but the rock left a large hole in the bridge deck and knocked out several supports under the concrete handrail.

"We've had rock falls before, but that's the first one that's caused damage to the bridge to that extent," Hinatsu said.

Catworks Construction is doing more than just repairing this year's damage. The company is also cleaning the bridge, resurfacing it and applying a new seal coat to prevent deterioration. Also helping with the $319,000 job is subcontractor Selby Bridge Co. of Vancouver.

Catworks has completed several projects for the forest service in the past, including other bridge work, Stetler said. But the Benson Bridge presents the most high-profile job of all. Crews know the project — and the end result — will have thousands of eyes on it every day, he said.

"It's pressure, but it's a good pressure," Stetler said. "Everybody knows this bridge."

Repairing a historic landmark in a national scenic area also means a lot more scrutiny. The plan had to pass muster with the U.S. Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge Commission, Oregon State Historic Preservation Office and others before construction began.

Workers are employing different techniques than they may otherwise use to protect the historic integrity of the bridge, Stetler said. While they plan to sand-blast the underside of the arch to clean and restore it, crews will use a less intense water treatment on the surface. The idea is to prevent blasting away too much of the original material on the span, he said.

"We've got to be really careful because if we go gouging into that concrete, we've got a problem," Stetler said.

The bridge is showing its age in many places. Standing under the span Tuesday, Stetler and Catworks foreman Patrick Bachmeier surveyed several spots that will be repaired and resurfaced as part of the project.

While the bridge remains closed, visitors can't make the popular hike from the main plaza to the top of Multnomah Falls. The loop connecting nearby Wahkeena Falls to Multnomah Falls is also closed, Hinatsu said.

Crews may end up finishing the job before the Memorial Day target. That's when the crowds, driven largely by weather, really pick up, Hinatsu said.

"It kind of is the kickoff to the summer visitation (season)," he said. "And Memorial Day weekend tends to be very busy."