Columbia River Interstate Bridge

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/14/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20952

The Columbia River Interstate Bridge is actually two closely adjacent bridges, though they are commonly referred to as one. The first bridge opened in 1917, the second in 1958. Each has three lanes and carries traffic in one direction, with the 1917 bridge reserved for northbound traffic and the 1958 bridge carrying southbound traffic. The bridges are painted medium green, and each has a lift span that allows large vessels to pass underneath when the section is raised. Severe traffic congestion on the bridges by the 1990s led to more than a decade of studies and discussions to replace them, but these efforts were not successful. After a hiatus of several years, discussions were back underway as the 2020s dawned.

Buildup to the Bridge

During the earliest years of non-Native settlement along the Columbia River in the mid-19th century, the only way to get across the river between the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, was by rowboat or a sporadic ferry service. A passenger ferry made the run as early as 1846, but carried mainly foot traffic. Other ferries came and went over the next quarter-century. In 1855 Multnomah County (Oregon) established rates for one ferry operation between Portland and Vancouver: 50 cents for a solo passenger (equivalent to $14 in 2020 dollars); the same for each head of horse or cattle; $1 for a man and a horse; and $1.50 for a horse and buggy.

Ferry service became more regular in the 1870s. One carrier, operated by Captain Frank Stevens of Vancouver, was started in 1879 and would carry passengers across the river until the day the Interstate Bridge opened on February 14, 1917. But ferry travelers still had to contend with occasional delays caused by high water in the spring and ice during the winter.

Traffic crossing the river increased as the local population grew. By the 1890s there was growing talk of building a bridge across the Columbia River. This grew more urgent beginning in 1905, when  nearly 2,000 passengers sought to cross the river from Vancouver on June 30 to celebrate Clark County Day at the Lewis and Clark Centennial in Portland, causing a desperately overcrowded ferry and huge backups onshore. A railroad bridge opened across the river between the two cities in October 1908, but there was still a need for a span that could handle other traffic.

The real impetus for construction came in 1912. By early that year there was a cost estimate for construction of a steel bridge, and the Vancouver Commercial Club (a precursor to the Chamber of Commerce) took the lead in securing $2,500 to hire a survey engineer (about $65,000 in 2020 dollars), half the amount needed. Hundreds of Vancouver residents and the band from the Vancouver (Army) Barracks then ferried across the river to Portland and marched through its streets, challenging that city to match the amount. Portland's business community soon did.

In 1913 the Washington legislature passed an appropriations bill for $500,000 ($13.1 million in 2020 dollars), representing the state's share of construction costs. Vancouverites planned a large celebration, and even made plans to save the pen that Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) would use to sign the bill. Instead, Lister vetoed it. Undaunted, Clark County voters promptly approved a $500,000 bond measure, while Multnomah County voters subsequently approved a $1.25 million bond measure ($32.5 million in 2020 dollars) to cover its share of construction costs. By the end of 1913 funding was in place and an engineering firm had been selected to design the bridge. Preparations proceeded apace during 1914, and by early 1915 the plans were ready.

In January 1915, engineers presented two options to the respective county commissioners overseeing the project. Clearance under the proposed bridge was a scant 38 feet, which was fine for smaller boats but a huge problem for larger ships on the river. There were two ways suggested to address this. One was to build a swing section on the bridge that when activated would rotate 90 degrees on a central pivot, creating two 200-foot-wide channels and unlimited vertical clearance for vessels to pass. The second option was a vertical-lift section that would be hoisted between towers on the bridge to create a single 250-foot-wide channel with 176 feet of vertical clearance when fully raised. The lift-span option was considerably cheaper, provided a wider channel, and had a third major advantage. The main channel of the Columbia River runs close to the Washington shoreline and was where a moveable section had to be located. While the proximity to the shoreline wasn't a problem for a lift span, it was for a swing span. Thus, the lift span was selected.

The First Bridge (1917)

The project was slated to cost $1.75 million ($385 million in 2020 dollars). While construction of the main Interstate Bridge attracted the most attention, the entire project consisted of three bridges, as well as their approaches, which totaled approximately three and one-quarter miles in length. Going north from Portland, a new 300-foot-long bridge would cross the Columbia Slough. Slightly more than a mile north was the Columbia River, which is split into two channels by Hayden Island. The smaller south channel, known historically as the Oregon Slough, would be crossed by a roughly 1,000-foot-long bridge to the southern side of Hayden Island. The southern end of the 3,500-foot Interstate Bridge would be located on the northern side of the island, and from there it would cross the main channel of the river to Vancouver.

The U.S. Steel Products Company (now U.S. Steel) was awarded the contract for the manufacture of the metalwork for the bridge, while Porter Brothers of Portland won the contract to build it (as well as the contract to build the Oregon and Columbia Slough bridges.) Groundbreaking for the Interstate Bridge took place in a ceremony on Hayden Island on March 6, 1915.

While construction went relatively smoothly, it was not without incident. On April 26, 1916, the lift span was being placed over its piers when a sudden squall ripped it loose from three tugboats that were securing it. It was shoved upstream about 60 feet before colliding with some construction equipment, which prevented the span from flipping over. Even more fortunate, it was not damaged and was mounted on its piers that same evening. The scheduled completion date of October 31, 1916, was missed by about two months, with the Interstate Bridge's final section put in place on December 28. However, the project was completed with $56,000 ($1.2 million in 2020 dollars) remaining, even after the addition of a few improvements, including an extra approach on the Oregon side of the bridge.

After the final section was placed, the lift span was kept in a raised position until the formal opening of the bridge. This allowed vessel traffic to pass underneath and kept eager explorers from crossing the bridge itself. But the span was lowered for a few hours on December 30, 1916, when snow and ice on the river stopped the ferry. Despite the snow and a sharp wind, dozens of people trekked across the bridge just for the sheer excitement of it.

It can perhaps be said that one Martin J. Burke of Portland was among the first to formally cross the bridge that day, and in style. There was one catch -- Burke was deceased. His funeral service had been earlier that day in Portland, but his interment was to be in Vancouver. When the funeral cortege arrived at the ferry landing on Hayden Island and found it temporarily closed, a nearby foreman offered an electric car to transport the casket across seven sections of the span to the Washington state line near the middle of the river's main channel. From there the pallbearers solemnly carried the casket the remaining way to the Washington shore, where they were met by the county coroner and undertaker with his hearse, and the procession proceeded to the cemetery.

The bridge's official opening was on February 14, 1917, a festive occasion attended by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, who were lucky to have a good-weather day in the middle of February. A ceremony was held on the bridge's lift span, where two girls -- 10-year-old Eleanor Holman (daughter of Multnomah County Commissioner Rufus Holman) and 7-year-old Mary Helen Kiggins of Vancouver (daughter of Clark County Commissioner John Kiggins), formally opened the bridge by pulling apart a ribbon holding a rope that symbolically marked the border between Oregon and Washington.

The Interstate Bridge was 3,531 feet, five and seven-eighths inches long. It was built for two lanes of traffic, and in 1917 it had a speed limit of 15 miles per hour. It also had two sets of streetcar tracks at its center, which were used until September 1940. The bridge had 14 sections, which consisted of a small deck-girder section on the Vancouver end of the bridge and a series of 13 through-riveted truss sections with curved top chords. Ten of the truss sections were 265 feet long and three, which were placed together, were each 275 feet long. The center of these three sections was the lift span, which could rise nearly 140 feet between towers built on the adjacent two sections, providing a channel for boats to pass. There was one downside to the tall towers -- they proved to be an occasional threat to low-flying planes in the bridge's early years, especially in foggy weather. One pilot was killed in a 1929 crash when his plane clipped the bridge's north tower and went spinning into the Vancouver shoreline.

The bridge was tolled until 1929, and it ably met the area's traffic needs into the 1940s. It was built to handle 36,250 vehicles a day, and for its first few decades, traffic was considerably lighter than that. However, by 1950 daily crossings were beginning to approach capacity, and by 1952 they were exceeding capacity on some days. And there was another problem. Vessel traffic on the Columbia River had dramatically increased since 1917, requiring the bridge's lift span to be raised more often, which caused delays both on the bridge and on the river.

The Second Bridge (1958)

The governments of Oregon and Washington had foreseen this problem and responded by beginning a series of studies in 1944 to identify the best solution. By 1953 they had their answer -- a second bridge. It would be built immediately downstream from the original span, and would resemble it as closely as possible. It would be particularly necessary for the new bridge's lift span to closely match the one on the old bridge. As part of the project, a second, 1200-foot-long bridge would also be built across Oregon Slough to the south.

The total cost of the project was $14.5 million (nearly $140 million in 2020 dollars), and completion was scheduled for June 30, 1958. The Guy F. Atkinson Company was awarded the contract to build both spans, and preparatory work began in the summer of 1956. As it had for the 1917 span, U.S. Steel manufactured the steel for the new bridge.

The second bridge met its scheduled completion date, and on July 1, 1958, there was an opening ceremony that was far smaller than the one in 1917. The two young girls -- now middle-aged women -- who had pulled the ceremonial ribbon at the opening of the 1917 bridge were back to repeat the ceremony. Shortly before 11 a.m. Eleanor Holman Burkitt of Portland and Mary Helen Kiggins McAleer of Vancouver tugged the ribbon apart, and the new Interstate Bridge was open for business.

The new span was separated from the old one by a scant 30 feet, and though it was built to resemble the original as closely as possible, there were differences. Its roadway was 40 feet wide, two feet wider than that on the old bridge. At 3,538 feet, it was slightly longer than the original, and had one 531-foot-long section that was nearly twice as long as any on the old span. Also, it was made up of 16 sections, two more than on the 1917 bridge. A far more obvious difference was a hump in the roadway south of the lift span, which gave a clearance of 72 feet that allowed smaller boats pass underneath without having to raise the movable section.

After the new bridge opened, the old bridge was closed for remodeling. This included replacing two 265-foot spans with a single 531-foot Pennsylvania Petit through-truss span, identical to the one on the new bridge. This section had a matching hump that allowed more river traffic to pass underneath. The nearly $3 million project (more than $26.5 million in 2020 dollars) was scheduled to be completed on December 31, 1959, and this was largely accomplished, with one exception. The old bridge's reopening took place as scheduled at 1 p.m. on January 8, 1960, but a surprise storm that morning unloaded up to three inches of heavy wet snow in the area. The snow delayed a painting job planned for that morning to mark each of the roadways for three lanes of traffic.

The two bridges were each one-way, with the 1917 span carrying northbound traffic and the new one carrying southbound traffic. Tolling began on the bridges two days later, despite considerable efforts to prevent it. The tolls lasted until 1966, when they were formally ended in a ceremony where, once again, Eleanor Holman Burkitt and Mary Helen Kiggins McAleer were on hand to untie the ceremonial ribbon.

Traffic Tie-Ups

By the late 1970s traffic on the twin spans was exceeding 100,000 vehicles a day, roughly the combined capacity of the bridges, but a solution was already under construction. Another bridge across the river had been under informal consideration as far back as the 1950s, and in 1969 Oregon and Washington signed an agreement for its design and construction. Work on the Glenn Jackson Bridge, six miles upstream from the Interstate Bridge, began in 1977, and the eight-lane span opened in December 1982.

For about a decade traffic on the Interstate Bridge dropped to more manageable levels, but by 1992 traffic was again bumping up against the levels seen in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Part of the problem was the Glenn Jackson Bridge itself. Though it had relieved traffic congestion on the Interstate Bridge, it had also spurred growth both in eastern Portland and on the other side of the river in Clark County, which saw its population leap by more than 100,000 (about 45 percent) just during the 1990s. Many Clark County people commuted to jobs in Portland across either the Interstate Bridge or the Glenn Jackson Bridge. The Interstate Bridge reached its capacity to handle traffic without significant backups in the early 1990s, while the Glenn Jackson Bridge reached this unfortunate milestone by the mid-2000s.

By the early twenty-first century, studies were underway to replace the Interstate Bridge. In 1999 Metro (the regional government for the part of the Portland metropolitan area located south of the Columbia River) and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council created the Bi-State Transportation Committee, which was tasked with reviewing transportation issues across Portland and Vancouver. In 2000 it issued a report that included recommendations to either replace or supplement the Interstate Bridge. A task force later established by the governors of Oregon and Washington issued further recommendations in 2002, and these provided the foundation for the creation of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) in 2004.

The Columbia River Crossing

The CRC was established to further explore the recommendations from the task force for the replacement of the Interstate Bridge. A project team, led by members of the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Washington State Department of Transportation, was created to explore design options for the project and to begin the environmental-review process. This required a detailed analysis of the project's impact on the environment, as well as its economic and social impacts. The review took six years and cost $139 million. The two states had planned to share these costs equally, but they ended up relying on federal funds to cover them. The funds came with a catch, however: If there were no solid plans to replace the bridges by the end of 2014, the federal government would have to be repaid.

The Environmental Impact Statement was completed in September 2011 and marked a significant milestone, and after considerable debate over various designs, one was finally approved. It consisted of two new adjacent bridges, each with a conventional deck-truss design and a clearance of 116 feet over the river, eliminating the need for lift spans. The plans called for a total of 10 traffic lanes on the bridges, the inclusion of light rail, and a widening of Interstate 5 on both sides of the river. The total cost was estimated to be between $3.1 and $3.5 billion, and the project would take five to seven years to complete.

In March 2013 the Oregon legislature approved $450 billion in funding for the project, but three months later the Washington senate failed to follow suit, primarily because of opposition to putting light rail on the bridges. For nearly a year Oregon considered taking on the project by itself, but finally abandoned it in May 2014. By then the two states had spent $199.8 million on the CRC, and $139 million of that was federal funding that was now due for repayment. The states negotiated a five-year extension with the Federal Highway Administration, which elapsed with little additional activity or progress.

More Traffic, More Talk

Meanwhile, traffic on the Interstate Bridge continued to increase. By the late 2010s more than 135,000 vehicles were crossing on most days, and a 2019 report by the Oregon Secretary of State's audit division found that morning travel times had nearly doubled just since 2011. A report that same year by the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council found that I-5 in the area of the bridges was congested for 11 hours on weekdays, with the afternoon backup sometimes starting as early as 1 p.m.

In addition to the traffic tie-ups, driving on the bridges themselves, especially the 1917 bridge, could be risky. The three traffic lanes on each span were 10 feet wide -- narrower than today's 12-foot standard -- and there were no safety shoulders, which meant that any accident or stall resulted in blocked lanes. Limited space for merging caused problems for drivers attempting to access the bridges, while pedestrians and bicyclers complained of their narrow sidewalks. Finally, the bridges were built on liquefiable soils, did not meet current seismic standards, and had the potential to collapse in a major earthquake.

In 2019, with time running out on the extension to begin repaying the previous federal funding, Oregon and Washington revived the project. In September 2019 the Federal Highway Administration granted the states another five-year extension for repayment, with the understanding that aggressive efforts to resume the project would soon follow. Two months later, Oregon Governor Kate Brown (b. 1960) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) met in a high-profile meeting in Vancouver to announce a new commitment to begin construction in 2025. If this occurs, and if the previous estimate to complete the project proves accurate, this would mean a new Interstate Bridge would open sometime in the early 2030s.


Sources:

HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "First vehicles cross the Glenn L. Jackson Bridge over the Columbia River on December 15, 1982" (by Gregg Herrington), http://www.historylink.org (accessed December 21, 2019); Bill O'Neal, "New Bridge Opened With Ceremonies," The Columbian, July 1, 1958, p. 1; Dameon Pesanti, "Interstate Bridge Turns 100: 'With Iron Bands,' a Century Spanned," The Columbian, February 12, 2017 (https://www.columbian.com/); Jeffrey Mize, "Inslee, Brown to Sign I-5 Bridge Agreement Monday in Vancouver," Ibid., November 15, 2019; Peter Robinson (Bloomberg News), "Columbia River Bridge of 1917 Remains Deathtrap as Infrastructure Crumbles," Everett Herald, December 20, 2014 (https://www.heraldnet.com/); "1000 Cross Bridge," The Sunday Oregonian, December 31, 1916, p. 8; "Columbia Span Is Formally Opened," The Morning Oregonian, February 15, 1917, p. 1; "Vancouver Elated at Bridge Opening," Ibid., February 15, 1917, p. 1; "Vancouver Ferry Quits Run Today," Ibid., February 15, 1917, p. 8; Andrew Theen, "Oregon and Washington: We'll Start Building a New Bridge by 2025," The Oregonian, September 24, 2019 (https://www.oregonlive.com/); Andrew Theen, "No Option But to Build a New Interstate Bridge, Governors Say," Ibid., November 18, 2019; "Mail Pilot Rams Span, Badly Hurt," The Oregon Daily Journal, December 1, 1929, p. 1; Colleen Bauman, "Clark County History -- Crossing the Columbia River," The Columbian Clark History website accessed November 6, 2019 (https://history.columbian.com/early-crossing-3/); John Lyle Harrington and Ernest E. Howard, Consulting Engineers, "Final Report -- The Columbia River Interstate Bridge, 1918," Internet Archive website accessed November 6, 2019, (http://www.archive.org/stream/finalreportcolu01howagoog/finalreportcolu01howagoog_djvu.txt_); Vancouver-Portland Interstate Bridge -- Written Historical and Descriptive Data, Photographs (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record, August 1993), copy in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington; United States Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, "Southbound Interstate 5 Columbia River Bridge," June 30, 2001, copy in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington; "Columbia River Bridges," Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council website accessed November 7, 2019 (http://www.rtc.wa.gov/data/traffic/bridges/daily.asp); "Decennial Census Counts of Population for Cities and Towns," Washington State Office of Financial Management website accessed December 21, 2019 (https://www.ofm.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/dataresearch/pop/april1/hseries/pop_decennial_census_series_1890-2010.xlsx ); "CPI Inflation Calculator," Bureau of Labor Statistics website accessed November 17, 2019 (https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm).


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