Building a bridge over the lower Columbia River was never easy, not even the first time. Then, as now, the chief engineer had to juggle the conflicting desires of two different states and the separate demands that two cities might concoct. Fortunately, Ralph Modjeski (1861-1940) gained considerable interstate bridge experience before starting the first lower Columbia River crossing.
After working with bridge builder George Morrison, the Polish-born Modjeski launched his own practice in 1893. His first significant contract was the construction of the Government Bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa. Then, in 1905, he built a second Mississippi crossing linking Illmo, Mo., and Thebes, Ill., before taking on the Vancouver-Portland railway bridge. Both bridges over the Mississippi perhaps prepared him for the differing viewpoints he encountered while building one over the Columbia.
Between 1905-1908, Modjeski served as the primary engineer constructing three swing bridges across the Columbia and Willamette rivers and the Oregon Slough. A swing bridge opens like a turnstile for ships to pass and then closes for traffic to resume. The slough bridge was shortest, just 1,466 feet. The Portland-Vancouver railway bridge was the first to cross the lower Columbia and the longest, at 2,807 feet. This bridge includes a 467-feet swing span that pivots on its base for tall ships to pass. The bridge crossing the Willamette held the longest swing span of the era, 521 feet.
Two contentious railways desired the Columbia crossing. James J. Hill’s Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway built the bridge while also competing with E.H. Harriman in a race laying tracks along the Columbia toward the bridge. Harriman’s crews resorted to dirty tricks, including exploding dynamite to scare off Hill’s workers near Carson and buying up small but strategic bits of land along a narrow route paralleling the Columbia River to slow the SP&S efforts.
Hill sued Harriman and his Columbia Valley company. Superior Court Judge W.W. McCredie settled the case by ruling that Harriman’s Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company was the “guiding hand” behind the Columbia Valley land purchase operation. McCredie held that Harriman’s Columbia Valley was guilty of not acting “in good faith and was merely attempting fragmentary construction at strategic points.” Further, he noted Harriman had spent just $16,000 acquiring portions of the railroad bed, while Hill spent $500,000. Hill prevailed, and on Nov. 5, 1908, traveled on a celebratory train through Vancouver and crossed over the Modjeski-designed bridges to Portland for the first time.
Based in Chicago, Modjeski traveled North America conducting his life’s work. In his lifetime, he designed and constructed 40 bridges. His achievements were honored in 1929 when he was awarded the highest American engineering medal, the John Fritz Gold Medal, which cited his genius for combining strength with beauty.
But early on, his love of music nearly edged out engineering. A talented pianist, Modjeski considered a musical career before entering engineering school in Paris. Yet, despite his choice, he kept music in his life. At the end of each workday and on Sundays, he sat playing his piano for hours, bridging one set of his technical skills into another.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.