Portal Way/Dakota Creek Bridge

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/27/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11047
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The Portal Way/Dakota Creek Bridge (Bridge No, 500) is a two-lane bridge on Portal Way just south of Blaine in Whatcom County. It was built in 1928 as part of a significant re-routing of the Pacific Highway, also called State Road No. 1. This new Pacific Highway route angled northwest from Ferndale to Blaine, thus cutting five miles off of the less-direct older route. This 335-foot reinforced-concrete girder bridge was built over a tidal section of Dakota Creek by the Seattle firm of P. Manson & Son, and was finished on September 21, 1928. This new section of the Pacific Highway opened for traffic on October 13, 1928. In 1963, Interstate 5 opened from Ferndale to Dakota Creek with a new twin-span bridge, not far from the old bridge. The old highway became a lesser-used route renamed Portal Way and the bridge was transferred from the state to Whatcom County in 1964. In 2015, Whatcom County embarked on a $3.3 million seismic retrofit of the Dakota Creek Bridge. The project was scheduled for completion in late 2015. 

Pacific Highway

The Dakota Creek Bridge (Bridge No. 500) was part of the old Pacific Highway, the most important north-south highway in Washington at the time. This route, from the Oregon border at Vancouver to the Canadian border at Blaine, was one of the key routes in Washington's original state highway system, established when the automobile began to proliferate in 1913.

At the time, the term Pacific Highway was somewhat of a misnomer, since it didn’t resemble a “highway” in the modern sense. It was merely a designation for a series of existing roads -- few of which were paved -- for motorists to follow up and down the most populated corridor of the state, from Oregon to Canada. It went through Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham. Yet the original route did not cross Dakota Creek at today's Portal Way. The early Pacific Highway route jogged westward toward the coastline west of Ferndale and then cut north, crossing Dakota Creek almost at its mouth, near the spot where the current State Road 548 crosses.

As early as 1916, it was becoming obvious to nearby residents that the Pacific Highway’s bridge at that spot was inadequate. A January 1916 editorial in the Blaine Journal and Lynden Tribune complained that the state was planning to spend money on a new bridge over the Nooksack River, while "the Dakota Creek bridge at Blaine, a simple wooden bridge," was in much worse shape ("Bridge Boquets"). The editorial noted that the "bridge has been used since the time of the earliest roads, and would not cost very much to put in shape" ("Bridge Boquets").

A New Bridge for a New Route

This bridge was later improved, yet by the 1920s state highway planners had decided to build an entirely new bridge, upstream from the old bridge. The highway department had conceived a new route for the Pacific Highway, which would cut five miles of the old route’s mileage from Ferndale to Blaine. The new route would angle northwest from Ferndale to Blaine on roughly the same trajectory as today's Interstate 5.

By this time, the official name of the highway had been changed from Pacific Highway to State Road No. 1, befitting its status as one of the most crucial roads in the state. However, it was still widely called the Pacific Highway, a name that lingers in the name Pacific Highway South for the stretch between Seattle and Tacoma.

The bridge was designed by the State of Washington Highway Department. The final design plan lists the architect only under the initials "M.Y." (Valentino and Claussen). State Highway Engineer Samuel J. Humes (1883-1941) approved the bridge design on August 24, 1927. In January 1928, Humes spoke to the Northwestern Contractors Association in Tacoma and outlined the department's 1928 construction plans. At the top of the list, he said, was State Road No. 1, "for paving approximately nine miles from Ferndale to Dakota Creek" at an estimated cost of $350,000 ("Spends Millions on State Roads"). Humes did not mention the Dakota Creek bridge, but the bridge was also part of the project. The bridge contract was awarded two weeks later, on January 24, 1928, to P. Manson & Son of Seattle,

Building the Bridge

Swedish immigrant Peter Manson founded the company in Seattle in 1905 as a pile-driving firm. It built docks and piers in Puget Sound. By 1928, it had expanded into building "small bridges" (Manson Construction). The firm still exists today (2015) as Manson Construction Co. The company started work on February 15, 1928. The separate paving contract for the 8.8 miles of new road south of the bridge was awarded to the Norris Bros. contracting firm of Burlington, which started work on May 1, 1928.

Bridge construction proved to be a challenge. "Pile-driving took longer than anticipated due to the hardness of the sediment" (Valentino and Claussen). Manson had a 2,000-pound pile-driving hammer, yet it proved to be "too light" and it "slowed up the progress of the pile driving throughout the entire job" (Final Record Notes). It "took him until March 29 to drive 24 piles" (Final Record Notes). 

Then, on May 4, one of the concrete forms for one of the bridge columns broke loose and "the column had to be torn out and rebuilt" (Final Record Notes). The original date of completion in the contract was June 15, but "an extension of time to September 15 was granted" ("Final Record Notes"). A photo dated June 16, 1928, shows about half of the span complete. However, by this time "work went very nicely, all phases being carried ahead simultaneously" ("Final Record Notes"). The girders and decks were poured in July and August. By August 28, Manson was "backfilling, finishing and cleaning up around the bridge" (Final Record Notes). September 21, 1928 was the "final day of completion"("Final Record Notes").

The bridge's engineering details are described as follows in a Historic Property Inventory Report prepared in 2014:

"The bridge ... is a reinforced concrete girder structure consisting of seven main simple spans of monolithic, cast-in-place concrete deck resting atop six concrete bents. The bents consist of four rectangular column piers. In the case of the central four bents, the piers are set in elongated oval foundations that are visible at low tide. In the case of the two end piers, the four columns are all that is visible above ground. The outer two girder haunches adjoining the outer two columns of each bent are arched while the inner two are flared. The bents are monolithic and cast-in-place in their construction as with the bridge deck. The bridge has a concrete, decorative railing along its east side, directly adjacent to the pedestrian walkway, consisting of a series of arches set between square columns that adjoin at each span joint. The west side of the bridge features a utilitarian metal guardrail affixed to wooden posts which are in turn affixed to concrete inverted cross-shaped braces which are then bolted to the original concrete superstructure of the bridge ... . The bridge has a total length of 335 feet. The roadway is 24.6 feet wide between curbs and the total deck length is 31.5 feet" (Historic Property Inventory Report). 

Manson had missed his deadline by a few days, but apparently it wasn’t crucial because the rest of the nine-mile paving project from the bridge south to Ferndale evidently wasn’t finished. It wasn’t until October 13, 1928, that the "new Pacific Highway cutoff," including the Dakota Creek bridge, was "opened to through travel" ("Paved Cut-Off to Blaine"). The Seattle Times told its readers that the cutoff "reduces the distance between the two towns (Ferndale and Blaine) about five miles" and that the road's pavement was 20 feet wide and cost about $300,000, of which "approximately $50,000" was for the new Dakota Creek Bridge ("Open Cut Off"). The Bellingham Herald noted that the new cutoff was opened "without any attendant ceremony" ("Paved Cut-Off to Blaine").

From Highway to Byway

For decades, the Dakota Creek Bridge carried traffic on State Road No. 1, a designation that was changed in 1937 to Primary State Highway No. 1 (although it was still commonly referred to as the Pacific Highway). In the 1950s, the federal interstate highway system was launched and it became inevitable that the old Pacific Highway would be replaced by a modern freeway. In 1960, bids were let for a new twin-span freeway bridge -- today’s Interstate 5 bridge -- just upstream and within sight of the old Dakota Creek Bridge. In October 1963, Washington Governor Albert Rossellini (1910-2011) officially opened the Ferndale-to-Dakota Creek segment of Interstate 5. The old Pacific Highway would become a lesser-used auxiliary route and was soon renamed Portal Way in this stretch, since it led to the Peace Portal Arch at the Canadian border. On January 23, 1964, this portion of Primary State Highway No. 1 was transferred from the state to Whatcom County, which then became responsible for the Dakota Creek Bridge.

The bridge was inspected and maintained regularly, and a 1985 inspection reported that "by and large, the structure has functioned very well during its almost 60 years of life"(Arnold). It has remained essentially unchanged from its 1928 origins. The deck has been replaced with a new surface with expansion joints and some utility lines have been attached to the bridge, yet all of these "changes were minor" (Historic Property Inventory Report). A Historic Property Inventory Report prepared in 2014 by the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation said the Dakota Creek Bridge is a "well-preserved example of a common historic bridge style," the concrete-girder bridge. It was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, although it has not been formally listed.

The Seismic Retrofit

In 2010, a structural assessment of the Dakota Creek Bridge showed that the bridge needed strengthening to bring it up to current seismic standards. As a result, Whatcom County planned a seismic retrofit project for 2015, including installing steel jackets around the existing support columns as well as "pier diaphragm bolsters, traverse restrainers, longitudinal restrainers, girder strengthening, abutment wall strengthening, ground improvement at bridge approaches and repair of corroded areas" ("Portal Way/Dakota Creek Project Background"). The project was estimated at $3.3 million, and will be largely funded with $3 million federal grant. The bridge will be closed during construction and traffic re-routed.

When the project is completed in late 2015, the Dakota Creek Bridge will be better able to withstand an earthquake, yet will retain many of its historic 1928 design characteristics.

Sources: "Bridge Boquets," Lynden Tribune, January 20, 1916, p. 4; "Spends Millions on State Roads," Twice-A-Week Spokesman-Review, January 13, 1928, p. 1; "Commissioners of Whatcom County Ask Bridge Work," The Seattle Times, April 17, 1928, p. 15; Alicia Valentino and Erin Claussen, "Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) Level II Mitigation Documentation, Portal Way/Dakota Creek Bridge #500," January 2015, on file at Whatcom County Public Works, Bellingham; "History," Manson Construction Co. website accessed March 12, 2015 (http://www.mansonconstruction.com/history); "Historic Property Inventory Report, Portal Way/Dakota Creek Bridge #500," Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, November 24, 2014, on file at Whatcom County Public Works, Bellingham; "Open Cut Off Between Ferndale and Blaine," The Seattle Times, October 14, 1928, p. 18; "Final Record Notes, Dakota Creek Bridge," State Highway Department notebook, October 11, 1928, on file at the Whatcom County Public Works Department, Bellingham; "Paved Cut-Off To Blaine Open To Traffic," The Bellingham Herald, October 13, 1928, p. 1; "Portal Way/Dakota Creek Bridge #500: Project Background," Whatcom County Public Works, Whatcom County website accessed March 19, 2015 (http://www.whatcomcounty.us/523/Portal-Way-Dakota-Creek-Bridge-500); Jim Kershner interview with Douglas Ranney, Whatcom County Public Works, March 16, 2015; Cecil Arnold, letter to the Whatcom County Bureau of Engineering, July 15, 1985, on file at Whatcom County Public Works, Bellingham.

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