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Columbia River (Astoria) Bridge

Colossus of the Columbia

At the completion of the original Oregon Coast Highway in 1932, only the Rogue River Bridge crossed a major waterway along the Oregon coast. By 1936, thanks to the Oregon Coast Bridges Project1, bridges crossed all of Oregon’s major coastal waterways save the mighty Columbia River. For the next quarter century it remained the lone obstacle in completing the long-sought dream of a Trans American Highway—a continuous, uninterrupted motor route between the Canadian and Mexican borders. In 1964, a new Young’s Bay Bridge provided a more direct connection into Astoria, bypassing the older Lewis and Clark River and old Young’s Bay Bridges. Only a Columbia River span remained—the ultimate challenge for regional transportation planners.

By far the longest bridge on the Oregon Coast Highway, the Columbia River Bridge, sometimes known as the Astoria or Astoria-Megler Bridge, required a decade of planning and four years to build. At just over four miles long, it quadruples the length of its nearest coastal rival, the Coos Bay Bridge, and surpasses the length of the seven next-longest Oregon coast bridges combined. Its massive 2,468-foot main truss stretches nearly a third longer and 100 feet higher than the 1,708-foot truss of the Coos Bay Bridge.

Grandstand for Columbia River Bridge opening ceremony.

Grandstand for Columbia River Bridge opening ceremony.

The price tag came in large too. On April 27, 1961, Governor Mark O. Hatfield put his signature on Oregon House Bill 1457 authorizing the sale of $24 million in bonds for the construction of the bridge, a cost virtually equaling that of the entire Oregon Coast Highway.2 That September, the Oregon and Washington State Highway Commissions entered into an agreement to construct the bridge. In the fifty-five years between the completion of the Oregon Coast Bridges Project in 1936 and the new Alsea Bay Bridge in 1991, Young’s Bay Bridge and the Columbia River Bridge were the only major spans built along the coast.

Columbia River Bridge technical data.

The Columbia River span ended the last operating ferry service along the Oregon Coast Highway. The use of ferries at the mouth of the Columbia River began in 1840 when Solomon Smith, Astoria’s first schoolteacher, lashed two canoes together and carried passengers and cargo across the river.3 Ferries intermittently served the area into the beginning of the twentieth century. When the Columbia River Highway (US 30) opened a direct overland link between Portland and Astoria in 1915, automobile traffic through Astoria rose, creating pressure for more dependable ferry service. Seeing opportunity, Captain Fritz Elfving established the first commercial auto ferry service in 1921, when the Tourist I made her maiden voyage. For forty years ferries kept the traffic moving, but there were some drawbacks. For one thing, they were slow. In good weather the 4.5-mile trip took half an hour. Since the boats could hold only a limited number of vehicles, motorists often endured long waits in heavy traffic. And in bad weather, a frequent occurrence during the winter, the ferries often didn’t run at all, forcing traffic to use the Longview Bridge fifty miles upriver. In 1946, to enhance the ferry service, the State of Oregon purchased Elfving’s. At the completion of the original Oregon Coast Highway in 1932, only the Rogue River Bridge crossed a major waterway along the Oregon coast. By 1936, thanks to the Oregon Coast Bridges Project1, bridges crossed all of Oregon’s major coastal waterways save the mighty Columbia River. For the next quarter century it remained the lone obstacle in completing the long-sought dream of a Trans American Highway— a continuous, uninterrupted motor route between the Canadian and Mexican borders. In 1964, a new Young’s Bay Bridge provided a more direct connection into Astoria, bypassing the older Lewis and Clark River and old Young’s Bay Bridges. Only a Columbia River span remained—the ultimate challenge for regional transportation planners. Colossus of the Columbia company and assigned operational control to the Oregon State Highway Department, now Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

Spanning the mouth of the mighty Columbia River challenged modern engineers much like discovering the “River of the West” tested mariners of an earlier age. Spaniard Bruno de Hezeta (Heceta) usually gets credit for first sighting the Columbia River in 1775. British explorer James Cook, who first sighted and named Cape Foulweather near Yaquina Bay, somehow missed the great river as he battled storms on his journey up the coast in 1778. In the spring of 1792, British Captain George Vancouver noted the Columbia’s colorful effluence yet did not pursue its source. A few weeks later, American Captain Robert Gray, sailing out of Boston in his ship Columbia Rediviva (“Columbia Reborn”), first crossed the Columbia bar on May 11, 1792. He named the great river after the worthy ship that brought him there.

The bridge as it appeared during its construction in the mid-1960s.

The bridge as it appeared during its construction in the mid-1960s. (click here to see larger image)

The idea of bridging the broad mouth of the Columbia River certainly would have been beyond the vision of men like Gray and the intrepid Lewis and Clark, whose historic trek reached the Columbia’s terminus only thirteen years later in 1805. In fact, it would take another hundred years and a revolution of industry before such a fantastic idea would be conceived. No one knows who first envisioned bridging the Columbia at Astoria. There is no record of such a bridge being contemplated when the idea for an Oregon Coast Highway evolved during the early years of the twentieth century. We do know, however, that in 1928, E.M. Elliott and Associates of Chicago proposed building a bridge across the Columbia at Astoria.5 By 1930, upriver at Longview, the Columbia River was crossed by another cantilever designed by Joseph Strauss, who later earned fame as the designer of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge. According to ODOT, a bridge at Astoria was strongly promoted during the 1930s as a Public Works Administration project.6 Locally, officials attempted to find money three times—in 1932, 1941, and 1944. By 1944, McCullough and others reviewed various options for crossing the Columbia River below Longview, including a suspension bridge, but finally concluded that such a bridge might be vulnerable to military attack.8 Prior to the completion of the original Oregon Coast Highway in 1932, however, bridging the Columbia at its mouth was at best an engineering fantasy.

The bridge as it appears today.

The bridge as it appears today. (click here to see larger image)

Once the Oregon Coast Highway was completed, civic leaders and transportation officials in Oregon and Washington began repeated Columbia river Bridge Technical Data Location: Astoria, Clatsop County (Oregon) and Megler vicinity, Pacific County (Washington); Oregon Coast Highway (US 101), Milepost 0.00 Year completed: 1966 Type: Steel through truss (cantilever); at the time of construction, it was thought to be the longest continuous steel truss series in the world. Length: 4.1 miles (21,677 feet) (2011 Bridge Log) Deck to streambed: 260 feet Description: The main span of the structure is a 2,468 foot steel cantilever through truss made up of two 618-foot outer truss sections and a 1,232 foot central truss span. The cantilever truss is flanked by five steel deck trusses 140 eighty foot concrete deck girder spans and, at the Washington end of the bridge, seven 350 foot steel through truss spans. The bridge design was a joint effort of the state highway departments of Oregon and Washington. Bridge engineer: Ivan D. Merchant Cost: $24,000,000 Ownership: State of Oregon and State of Washington attempts to generate interest and funding to bridge the mouth of the Columbia. Finally in 1953 the Port of Astoria formed a partnership with the Oregon State Highway Department, the Washington Toll Bridge Authority, and Pacific County, Washington, to assess the feasibility for building such a span. In 1957 the Oregon and Washington legislatures appropriated $100,000 to prepare plans, and in 1961 they agreed to fund the project as a joint venture.

On August 9, 1962, Oregon Governor Hatfield, employing a gold shovel, turned the first dirt along the riverbank in Astoria. This act officially commenced the project, although actual construction didn’t begin until November 5. The concrete foundation piers were cast at nearby Tongue Point, just four miles upriver from the bridge site. The steel superstructure components, built in sections ninety miles upriver in Vancouver, were then barged to the construction site and boosted in place by giant hydraulic jacks. From start to finish, the job took 1,356 days and consumed gigantic amounts of material: 158,785 linear feet of steel piling; 134,090 linear feet of timber piling; 76,496 linear feet of prestressed concrete piling; 97,995 cubic yards of concrete; 6,005 tons of steel reinforcing bar; 12,500 tons of structural steel; 25,290 linear feet of aluminum parapet rail; and 440,000 board feet of treated lumber.

One of the largest cantilever bridges in the world, Astoria’s main span reaches an impressive 1,232 feet in length, yet it is actually shorter than the Fremont Bridge in Portland that measures in at 1,255 feet. Designers created the bridge to withstand a harsh coastal environment of high winds, fierce winter storms, and river floods. Prestressed-concrete beam spans, set on massive concrete piers and located so as not to overload the slide-prone Astoria Hills, were designed to take on flood debris—even whole trees that often rush down the swollen waters of the Columbia.

Central spans of the Columbia River Bridge looking north.

Central spans of the Columbia River Bridge looking north.

Although successful from a utilitarian point of view, aesthetically the bridge proves difficult to assess. Since the river’s shipping channel runs close to the south bank, the southern approach of the main span lands high up on the bank,
somewhat overpowering the western end of Astoria and making the bridge appear out of balance. Lacking adequate room for a more conventional ramp approach, the southern connector twists into an awkward 360-degree, counterclockwise corkscrew that rises nearly 200 feet. Also, the long series of trestles, accounting for most of the bridge’s length, is commonplace, as are the steel through truss spans that connects the bridge to the Washington mainland. Still, its great size, various bridge types, and overall length combine to make it a very impressive span.

View of the bridge trusses as the bridge makes connection with the state of Washington.

View of the bridge trusses as the bridge makes connection with the state of Washington.

On August 27, 1966, four years and two weeks after Governor Hatfield officially commenced the project with his shovelful of dirt, he and Washington’s governor Daniel Evans, ably assisted by Miss Oregon Estrellita Schid and Miss Washington Sandra Lee Marth, cut the ribbon that formally opened the bridge. More than 30,000 people attended
the dedication ceremonies, including some who were transported from Portland on a special train provided by the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway.

Widely hailed as an engineering triumph, the bridge also had its detractors. The Los Angeles Times coined it the “Bridge to Nowhere,” which became its long-time epithet. Others predicted that toll receipts would never pay off the huge cost of the bridge. Tolls ranged from $1.50 for cars to $4 for large truck-trailers. Early on, when toll collections failed to meet bond obligations, annual deficits often rose into the milliondollar range. Because of the initial agreement between Oregon and Washington, Oregon shouldered approximately 80 percent of the deficit, which it paid off through gas tax funds.

View looking west of the 1,232-foot central truss span

View looking west of the 1,232-foot central truss span.

Over time, bridge critics were proven wrong. As a connector between the lonely but appealing coastal corners of northwest Oregon and southwest Washington, the bridge began to attract visitors. While the bridge didn’t create the economic boom that some of its backers had predicted, civic leaders on both sides of the river agreed that the bridge helped grow business. Jean Hallaux, manager of the Astoria Chamber of Commerce when the bridge opened, believed that the bridge improved commerce more than it did tourism in Astoria. In his words, “There’s a lot of things that can go across the bridge that couldn’t go across the ferries.”

During its opening year, 206,216 vehicles crossed the bridge. By 1993, the annual crossings had risen to more 1.6 million, allowing the bonds to be paid off and the tolls eliminated two years early. Today, about 6,000 vehicles a day cross the Columbia River Bridge, and US 101 remains unbroken between the Canadian and Mexican borders. The “Bridge to View looking west of the 1,232‑foot central truss span. Nowhere” has become Astoria’s—and Oregon’s—“Bridge to the World.”