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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Oct. 3, 2023

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Clark County History: Salmon Creek Bridge Collapse


While walking along Highway 99 at about 7 p.m. on his way to a Boy Scout meeting at Salmon Creek School, 16-year-old Fred Smith didn’t have a potential tragedy on his mind. But that night he became a hero.

On Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1956, melting snow combined with a heavy storm knocked out power and fueled landslides. As Salmon Creek screamed under its bridge, Smith heard a whumping. He saw a driver stop and check all four tires, looking for a flat. Then Smith walked onto the bridge to check it out.

On the bridge, Smith watched drivers slow, then creep across the bridge as the whumping continued. Finally, he decided to look closer at the expansion joint at the bridge’s center. Its gap was too wide. Putting the whumping noise and the widening expansion joint together, he figured out what was happening and started stopping traffic.

He knew crossing the bridge could be deadly. At the center of the bridge, he started waving his arms wildly when a car heading north sped by. Then he noticed a friend’s car. He yelled at Herm Miller, “Call the cops. The bridge is going out!” Miller sped to a nearby residence and called.

Smith got four southbound cars stopped when a freight truck rolled downhill toward the bridge stopping behind the four vehicles. The driver was frustrated by this kid backing traffic up. When Smith approached him, he complained with strong language. Smith de-escalated the situation by alerting the trucker to an alternate route, so he turned around. By the time the Washington State Patrol arrived, Smith had backed traffic up in both directions, but still, the bridge stood.

Around 7 p.m., the bridge’s south side slumped 3 feet. By 10 p.m., a crowd had gathered near the bridge, watching the south end break away and tumble into Salmon Creek, dragging the north side with it. The following day, state highway engineers examined the V-shaped breach.

Detours around the bridge were long and unacceptable. North-south traffic flow was too important. At the time, Highway 99 was known officially as Primary State Highway No. 1. Before Interstate 5, it was the major north-south route between San Diego and Seattle.

Looking for a better fix than long detours, state engineers approached the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis for a Bailey bridge, a portable, prefabricated bridge used in World War II. By the end of the day Friday, it was assembled, in place and ready for traffic.

Two days later, a five-column-wide headline in the Clark County News read, “Two Teenagers are Heroes at Bridge Washout.” Theron Newell, the editor of the newspaper, was so impressed by young Fred Smith’s presence of mind that he contacted the governor.

Smith received two letters of commendation before the month was out. Both congratulated him for his fast thinking that saved lives. One was a commendation from Gov. Arthur Langlie and the other from B.J. McKay, state highway commission engineer. The governor’s praise for Smith was high. He wrote, “No one can do more than jeopardize his own life to preserve the life of another.”

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.