Umatilla Bridge spanning the Columbia River opens on April 15, 1955.

  • By Priscilla Long and Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 12/16/2006
  • Essay 8030
On April 15, 1955, the Umatilla Bridge spanning the Columbia River opens to traffic. The steel cantilever bridge is the easternmost bridge to connect Washington and Oregon, and carries Interstate 82 from near Plymouth, Benton County, Washington, to Umatilla County, Oregon. The structure is located just west of the McNary Dam and a bit farther west from where the Columbia bends from its north-south orientation to run west toward the Pacific Ocean. In 1987 a parallel bridge, a segmental concrete bridge with two main spans, will be built just upsteam.

Sturgis's Folly

The idea of building the bridge was dubbed Surgis's Folly after its greatest supporter, Umatilla County's judge James H. Sturgis. Like other such "follies," once the bridge was built it soon paid for itself and became important to the region in both states, adding a transportation component to the massive agricultural development based on irrigation following the building of McNary Dam (1954) just upstream. Sturgis was later named traffic director for the new toll bridge.

The bridge is 3,308 feet long. It is a through-truss (the truss is in the triangular Warren truss design) steel cantilever bridge. As Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs elaborate:

"The center section of the steel cantilever bridge is a five-span, continuous Warren through-truss stretching 1,920 feet over the river. Its cantilever and anchor spans are actually a 'partial through-truss' design because their lower chords are below the roadway" (Spanning Washington).

The two-lane deck, built of reinforced concrete is 27 feet 7 inches wide and clears the river by 85 feet. The bridge was financed by $10 million in bonds raised by officials of Umatilla County and built by the Tudor Engineering Company of San Francisco. The bridge opened as a toll bridge and the bonds were paid off by 1974.

Construction of the bridge was made possible under a bill lobbied for by W. S. Nelson, member of the board of directors of the McNary Development Association, that allowed counties to sell bonds to build bridges across the state's boundary streams. The Dalles Bridge was the first built under this bill, and the Umatilla-Plymouth Bridge was the second.


A dedication was held on April 15, 1955, to celebrate the opening of the bridge.  At 8:00 a.m., officials opened the roadway across the top of McNary Dam so that Washington residents could drive to the Oregon side for the ceremonies.  Beginning at 10:30 a.m., high-school bands from Prosser, Benton City, and Kennewick in Washington and from Umatilla, Echo, and Hermiston in Oregon entertained an estimated crowd of 2,500 people.  At 11 o'clock, dedication chairman S. G. Brogiotti introduced the two governors.  Governor Paul Patterson (1900-1956) of Oregon and Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) of Washington gave speeches praising the cooperation between the states.

Umatilla County Judge D. R. Cook unveiled a monument and plaque to honor William H. Switzler (d. 1942), after whom the bridge would be named. Switzler, born in Pendleton, had operated ferries at Plymouth and Maryhill from 1911 to 1941. He was a past president of the Pendleton Round-Up and a Umatilla County Commissioner.  Judge Sturgis was also on hand to say a few words.  Reverend Edmond McGrath of Kennewick said a few closing words.

After the speeches, Mrs. Switzler, widow of William Switzler cut the ceremonial ribbon. Following the ribbon cutting, the governors led a caravan across the bridge.  Governor Patterson rode in the first car, followed by Governor Langlie. Frank Lampson, Benton County Commissioner; Clint Silliman, president of Kennewick Chamber of Commerce; Charles L. Powell, Kennewick attorney; and Ed Hopkins, manager of the Kennewick Chamber of Commerce accompanied Governor Langlie. The caravan then returned to Oregon after crossing the Columbia River over the McNary Dam.

Today the bridge carries southbound traffic on Interstate 82. Northbound traffic is carried by a parallel bridge, which opened in 1988.

Sources: Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs, Spanning Washington: Historic Highway Bridges of the Evergreen State (Pullman: WSU Press, 2005), 109; Mark Bozanich, "The Umatilla Bridge," Highways of Washington State website accessed December 2006 (;  “Five Million Dollar Bridge Completes Tri-City Circle,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), April 14, 1955, p. 1; “Estimated 2,500 Brave Winds to see New Span Dedicated,” Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), April 15, 1955, p. 1.
Note: This essay was expanded on February 15, 2007.

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