Washington rebuilds an historic steel cantilever bridge as the Lyons Ferry Bridge across the Snake River in 1968.

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/17/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5638
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In 1968, Washington Department of Highways rebuilds an old steel cantilever bridge as the Lyons Ferry Bridge across the Snake River. The rebuilt bridge spans the Snake near its confluence with the Palouse River on State Route 261, in the vicinity of Starbuck. The historic structure, originally built in 1927 to cross the Columbia River at Vantage, was dismantled and put into storage in 1963.

The narrow two-lane bridge had served since 1927 as the crossing of the Sunset Highway over Columbia River at Vantage.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Wanapum Dam downriver from the Vantage Ferry Bridge, as it was then called. This caused the rising Columbia River to flood the town of Vantage and its bridge. Rather than rebuild the bridge in that location, the Washington Department of Highways decided to replace it with a four-lane bridge better able to carry the increased traffic on what would become Interstate-90.  The old bridge was dismantled and put into storage.

A New Old Bridge

Lyons Ferry, at first known as Palouse Ferry because it is at the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers, became an important ferry crossing in 1862 when the Mullan Road was opened. For many decades a private toll ferry powered only by the current carried traffic across the river. When the Army Corps of Engineers built the Lower Monumental Dam (1969) downstream from Lyons Ferry, the waters rising behind the dam slowed currents in the Snake River, increasing crossing-times.

Under these circumstances, the Washington Department of Highways decided to re-erect the stored bridge at the new location. The narrow two-lane bridge was suitable for the secondary road (State Route 261) that would cross the river.

Pier, Deck, and Truss

The bridge appears much the same as it did at Vantage. Ten tall reinforced concrete piers were built, founded on rock just below river bottom. They are similar (battered, squared dumbbell-shaped) to the old Vantage piers. New approach spans were built and the Pratt truss (the steel framework of the bridge) was reassembled. The top and bottom chords of the truss are sloped, for balance. It is a cantilever bridge, that is, the two center spans are each supported only at one end. New reinforced concrete decks were poured, and the rebuilt structure has modern safety barrier railing.

Peter Kiewit and Sons of Vancouver, Washington, constructed the reinforced concrete piers. Murphy Brothers of Spokane reassembled the bridge and built the new approach spans. The cost of the entire project was $976,261.


Robert W. Hadlow, "Snake River Bridge at Lyons Ferry" (Historic American Engineering Record, HAER WA-88), August 1993, Library of Congress American Memory Website accessed December 21, 2003 (http://memory.loc.gov); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), 114; "Historic Lyons Ferry Retired by a Bridge," Lewiston Morning Tribune, December 28, 1968, p. 4; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "First Highway Bridge to Span Columbia River Opens at Wenatchee in 1908" (by Priscilla Long), http://staff.historylink.org/ (accessed April 22, 2011).
Note: This essay was corrected on April 22, 2011. Despite assertions to the contrary in several sources, the Lyons Ferry Bridge is not the oldest extant steel cantilever bridge in the state of Washington. That honor goes to the Wenatchee Bridge, opened in 1908, and now (2011) used as a footbridge.

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