The northbound span of the Interstate Bridge, a relic from a different America, will mark 100 years of spanning the Columbia River on Tuesday.
The bridge vastly improved the quality of life for generations of Pacific Northwesterners and helped facilitate economic growth in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon. Its opening marked the first time travelers on the Pacific Highway could go from Mexico to Canada without having to take a ferry.
The bridge opened with great fanfare at 12:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day 1917. The Vancouver Daily Columbian called it “the biggest day and the greatest day in the history of Vancouver.”
Together, Clark and Multnomah counties paid $1.75 million — equivalent to around $41.6 million in 2016 dollars — for its construction.
Under the banner headline “With Iron Bands We Clasp Hands,” The Columbian called the bridge “a monument to the industry and energy of the citizens of this section of the United States. The history of the dreams of it, the history of the struggle in civic affairs for it, the history of the work that brought about its construction and completion is interesting indeed.”
The paper estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 people and 5,000 automobiles came to town to celebrate the bridge’s opening. (While there appears to have been no official count, the newspaper ran two front page stories on Feb. 15, 1917, explaining its math and challenging “the expert mathematician and dreaming statistician” to figure out the weight of crowd the bridge supported that day.)
Vancouver had a population of only about 12,000 in 1917, and its residents agitated to be connected to the 250,000-person city of Portland.
People dreamed of a bridge across the Columbia River almost as soon as they settled in Clark County. But dreams turned to a clamor after Portland hosted the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in June 1905 and throngs of visitors overwhelmed the ferry “City of Vancouver” that originally shuttled people between the two cities.
Initially, citizen committees advocated for a wagon bridge, but before long, groups pressed for something more substantial.
Research done by Oregon Department of Transportation historian Robert Hadlow found the former president of the Portland Commercial Club, J. H. Nolta, was one the first advocates for building a bigger, more substantial span, arguing it would play a crucial role in the local economy.
“We should not build the bridge for today, next week or next year, but for the next 40 years,” Nolta wrote in 1912.
That same year, the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce raised $2,500 in cash, half the amount needed, to hire a survey engineer, according to accounts from The Vancouver Daily Columbian. Then, hundreds of Vancouver residents and the Vancouver Barracks band marched through the streets of Portland and challenged them to match it. Two weeks later, the Portland business community did.
In 1913, the Washington Legislature passed an appropriations bill for $500,000, with Clark County paying $250,000 and Vancouver paying $100,000. Local residents organized a big celebration and planned to save the pen that Gov. Ernest Lister would use to sign the bill — but instead, he vetoed it.
Undaunted, Clark and Multnomah counties pressed on. That summer, Clark County voters approved a $500,000 bond measure — the maximum allowed — to contribute to the project. County voters approved the measure 7 to 1. In Vancouver, the measure passed by a 62-to-1 margin. Multnomah County followed by issuing $1.25 million in bonds.
An American classic
The bridge the counties bought was a 3,500-foot-long Pennsylvania (Petit) truss-type lift bridge. It had a 38-foot-wide roadway with enough room for both directions of traffic and two sets of street car tracks in the center.
Just before construction began in 1915, The Morning Oregonian announced the ambitious project to its readership and tried to put its magnitude into context: “It is of interest in examining the map to see that there are only four great rivers breaking through the ranges of mountains and flowing from the back country to the Pacific Ocean between Bering Strait and the Panama Canal . . . and of those four rivers, only one has a bridge providing for highway traffic anywhere in its lower reaches. That one is the Fraser River.”
About two weeks before the Interstate Bridge opened, The Sunday Oregonian hailed it as “the longest structure spanning a stream anywhere in the world” and a “bridge of the gods,” taking the place of that other fabled bridge that Indian legend declares once spanned the Columbia River.”
The day of the grand opening, thousands of people on foot, in cars, from both sides of the river paraded across the bridge and met in the middle.
Two girls, Mary Helen Kiggins of Vancouver and Eleanor Holman of Portland, untied a knot barring traffic. As adults, the pair would untie the ribbons on the new southbound span in 1958. They’d cut one more ribbon in 1966 to celebrate cessation of a six-year round of tolls.
When the ropes were separated that Valentine’s Day, a mortar on shore fired in salute, and the mills in Vancouver blew their whistles long and loud, as did the boats in the harbor — including the Vancouver ferry, which never again crossed the Columbia between Vancouver and Portland.
In a symbolic gesture, the Portland and Vancouver mayors clasped hands, as did Gov. James Withycombe of Oregon and ex-Gov. Miles Moore of Washington. Gov. Lister didn’t attend.
After the ceremony, two street cars led the parade of people and cars making their way across the bridge into Vancouver for more celebrations.
In their final report, engineers John Lyle Harrington and Ernest E. Howard complimented the Columbia River Interstate Bridge Commission and the commissions of Clark and Multnomah counties in their successful collaboration.
“Although composed of the commissions of two counties situated in different states, having different laws and different interests, differing greatly in wealth and population, and contributing different sums of money,” they wrote, “we have found the commissioners, while jealous of the rights and tenacious of the prerogatives of the community each represented, always fair and reasonable and ready to find some common equable ground for adjusting differences so as to permit the work to go forward.”
The road more traveled
The Interstate Bridge was erected when cars were still somewhat of a luxury, but that was soon to change.
“When the bridge opened . . . you probably didn’t own one, but you knew someone who did,” said Carl Abbott, Ph.D., Portland State University professor emeritus. “By the end of the 1920s, a normal household would have one. It was part of everyday life.”
According to his research, there were about 10,000 cars in Multnomah County in 1910; by 1920, that number grew to 36,000.
Initial tolls ranged from 3.5 cents for streetcar passengers to 50 cents for some motorized and animal-drawn vehicles. Tolls recouped costs so quickly that the bridge could have been paid off and the tolls lifted in just a few years. But Clark County used half the toll revenue to fund other road projects for about a decade.
Again, the citizenry agitated for change. Washington and Oregon purchased the bridge from the two counties and abolished the tolls Jan. 1, 1929.
On New Year’s Eve 1928, The Columbian wrote: “Such a wave of joy as surged over the city with the news today probably has not been equalled since the night of the Armistice more than 10 years ago. … Every watch party in the city; every family sitting up to await the New Year; every motorist within easy range, in fact, will feel the impulse to celebrate by driving as free as air across the bridge that has been a barrier to him ever since it was built.”
During the era of tolls, 10,000 crossings would have made for a day of chaos on the bridge. By the time the second span opened in 1958, an average of about 36,000 cars crossed the original span every day. Last month, an average of just under 60,000 vehicles per day crossed the northbound span alone.
The rise of the personal automobile also meant decreasing public support for the street cars that crossed between Vancouver and Portland since the bridge’s creation.
In 1940, the old tracks were paved over.
River traffic grows
Traffic wasn’t limited to what was rolling over the bridge. The region’s growing maritime traffic further complicated the situation.
The original bridge was flat, so the lift section had to be raised in order for boats or barges of any significant size to pass under it.
In 1953, The Columbia Basin River Operators, a trade association of towboat operators, filed a complaint with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calling the bridge an obsolete hazard to navigation. The group claimed that just under 250,000 tons of cargo in 1920 passed through the bridge. By 1952, that figure jumped to more than 3 million tons.
• Original cost: $1.75 million (equivalent to about $41.6 million in 2016).
• Total length: 3,500 feet.
• Height: 230 feet.
• Spans: The northbound span trusses were assembled with rivets. The southbound spans are bolted.
• Liftspan: 275 feet long; 175 feet of clearance when lifted; weighs 3.264 million pounds.
• Northbound crossings: About 60,000 per day.
• Before its 1958 overhaul, the Interstate Bridge was flat. A hump was added to better serve marine traffic.
• Streetcars ran on the bridge until 1940.
In 1960, The Columbian reported the bridge opened 4,255 times the year before– 710 of which were in the middle of rush hour. All combined, the openings resulted in 400 hours and 15 minutes of traffic delays.
Tug boat operators agreed to stop requesting bridge lifts during rush hour in 1973.
A twin arrives
The bridge was originally part of what was then U.S. Highway 99. But in 1957, it was made part of the new interstate highway system.
The Washington and Oregon highway departments shared costs to build the southbound span, which opened in 1958. Although largely identical to its predecessor, the southbound span was a product of a new engineering era. It featured a large humpback designed to better accommodate river traffic. Its steel beams were held together with high-strength bolts rather than the hot rivets used on the northbound span.
That year, the northbound bridge was closed for a two-year remodeling project to install a matching hump, clearing the way for more vessels to pass under both bridges without the need for a bridge lift. Workers also applied a new coat of paint and overhauled the lift system. Adding the new bridge and remodeling the old one cost $14.5 million — or a little over $120 million in current dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index inflation calculator.
By January 1960, both spans were open to the public. But, much to the chagrin of politicians and the public alike, tolls — 20 cents for cars — returned and stayed until 1966.
In 1982, the Interstate Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also that year, the Glenn Jackson Bridge on Interstate 205 opened. As a result, about 25,000 commuters opted to use the I-205 Bridge to the east. Almost immediately, I-5 commuters rejoiced over lighter traffic and smoother commutes. But the region continued to grow and their celebrations were short-lived.
Through the 1980s and up to the mid-1990s, repairs and roadway upgrades periodically stymied traffic. The region’s population has continued to grow, and traffic jams have steadily grown worse. Now more than 130,000 vehicles per day cross the bridge.
While all that traffic, and the fact the bridge even reached its 100 birthday, is a point of contention for many in Southwest Washington, local journalist and author Sharon Wood Wortman still sees a lot to appreciate in the old structure.
Only 10 bridges stood in Portland before the Interstate Bridge was erected. And although it’s taken for granted today, being able to drive between Portland and Vancouver was a huge boon in 1917. Its lift design was an American invention that allowed travel on the road and on the river.
Today, it’s the only place on Interstate 5 between Mexico and Canada that cars stop for marine traffic.
“That’s its claim to fame, on the whole I-5 corridor, you get to stop for sailboats,” Wortman said.
Wortman describes the Interstate Bridge as a showpiece of the Industrial Era during which it was built, even though it may not meet our modern needs.
“It’s a new world and it’s an old bridge,” she said.”It’s a classic of its time, but it’s underappreciated because it’s not doing its job like it’s supposed to. It’s like grandpa isn’t getting around the way he ought to.”