CITY OF BRIDGES
PHOTOGRAPHS BY EVAN JOHNSON
WRITTEN BY SARA SNEATH
Children sprawl on the Morrison Bridge like a spilled box of crayons. It’s 10 am on a Friday, and the Morrison opens, its great panels of roadway swinging up and looming above the third-graders from North Clackamas Christian School.
The students lie on the asphalt, safely behind traffic barriers. When the bridge closes again, a red-headed boy with a Super Mario Bros. backpack rushes to the teacher and chaperones to report he had the best view ever.
“I got to lay on the bridge!” he says. “I got to lay on the bridge!”
Kids in Washington state visit the Space Needle, and on the coast they go to the Astoria Column. But when school kids learn about Portland’s history—and the things that shape our city—they come to the bridges that cross the Willamette River.
It’s all part of belonging to this place. To be a Portlander means falling in love with at least one of the city’s bridges.
We fall first for the little things: how the St. Johns’ spires spike the sky, or the way the street and lampposts on the Burnside look perfectly strange while nearly vertical as the bridge opens. Maybe it was the Marquam for that moment you dared look away from Interstate 5 traffic and glimpsed the view of Portland, rewarding yourself with perhaps the only beautiful moment the otherwise hopelessly ugly bridge can offer.
The city’s 11 Willamette bridges carry more than 776,100 cars, trucks and bikes across the river every day. And whatever its aesthetic beauty, each was designed and built to solve a problem of the time.
Ferries shuttled people and goods across the river before Portland built the wooden, 1887 precursor to the Morrison Bridge. The city built the Hawthorne Bridge in 1910 to replace the Madison Street Bridge and open the city to its promising east side, which a writer for The Oregonian predicted in 1909 would “one day be one of the great jobbing and warehouse locations of Portland.”
We built a new bridge almost every decade until the 1970s, when the spending on new spans and more freeways halted. Now, Portland (at a combined cost of $442 million) is building two bridges at once: the new Sellwood, to replace the original that buckled under the weight of time, and the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge, which signals a new thinking. It will carry light rail, streetcars, TriMet buses, bikes and pedestrians—but no cars.
But the bridges are not simply trophies of civic achievement. They are commonplace wonders, and not just for third-graders studying their structure and history. The footings cut the river like boat prows while reaching deep into the volcanic basalt underneath. Jaded drivers can forget the frustrating delays of a bridge lift long enough to marvel at the mechanics of counterweights and pulleys. We can watch once-endangered peregrine falcons on the bridges nest and thrive.
We offer this photo essay to illustrate the unusual role these structures play in our everyday lives.
Portland is a city split by a river and stitched back together with steel and concrete. The bridges reach into our hearts because of the way they reach across the water in a bid to span the problems we seek to fix. They connect us as they remind us how we remain separated.
Which is perhaps why each of us eventually falls in love with a bridge. It expresses how we choose to see the world, and hope to close its gaps.
At the time it opened, 100 years ago this year, the Broadway was the longest bascule bridge in the world. (“Bascule” means the drawbridge opens upward like swinging doors. The Burnside and Morrison are bascules, too.) The Broadway is still the largest Rall bascule, a complicated mechanism that actually retracts the opening spans. That’s one of the reasons the Broadway takes longer to open and close than the Willamette’s other spans. But there is an enduring mystery about the Broadway: Why is it red? In 1963, all the bridges (which were typically black) were painted different colors at the urging of architect Lewis Crutcher, who worked on several city beautification projects. The county chose red—a hue officially known as “Golden Gate”—to match the roof tiles on nearby Union Station.
It’s been called the singing bridge because the steel grating (the only Portland bridge that still has it) rattles and hums as you cross the Hawthorne. Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton says that, while working as a reporter for the Portland Tribune, he rode over the Hawthorne while strumming a guitar to identify the note. He’s certain the bridge purrs a low, rumbling C. The bridge, with its twin 450-ton counterweights, is the oldest operating vertical lift in the U.S. (The Steel is second.) The Hawthorne may also be the most traveled by bicyclists: A bike counter installed on the bridge last year reached 2 million in September, according to Bike Portland. But the bridge can be a nightmare for the ships that travel beneath it. Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver Transportation, says the Hawthorne and Steel are the two most difficult bridges under which to navigate: both are low with narrow openings between pillars. But the combination of a river bend and the opening on the river’s west side, near the Riverplace Marina, make the Hawthorne’s turn especially tricky. “You’re lining up trying to get as far west as possible, but what’s over there? A marina,” Rich says. “Marinas are very fragile.”
SITE BUILT BY GENERATOR
ST JOHNS: 1931
The sweep of the suspension cables, the rise of the Gothic arches and reach of its cathedral spires give you the ethereal sense of passing through majestic gateways when crossing the St. Johns Bridge. These features, plus its color, called “verdant green,” make the St. Johns easily one of the most picturesque of the city’s bridges. (During a recent closure, when crews were tightening cables, someone threw a formal dinner party for eight on the bridge deck.) Among all the city’s bridges, the St. Johns—also the tallest, at 400 feet from tip to water—is the one most often depicted on coffee mugs, T-shirts and tattoos. “It’s beautiful, iconic and the color is really appealing,” says Alena Chun, an artist at Icon Tattoo Studio, where everyone in the North Portland shop has done the bridge at least once for a customer. Chun tattooed the bridge most recently on the left thigh of Shannon Wolf, a 25-year-old photographer and visual artist who lives in Northeast Portland. Wolf looks forward to seeing the bridge whenever she goes to Sauvie Island or to Blue Moon Camera and Machine, where she gets her film developed. “I always wanted to live in a place that wasn’t all one elevation,” says Wolf, who moved here from Florida. “There are bridges in Florida, but they’re more utilitarian. In Portland, their roles in connecting the two halves of the city make them seem almost natural. They’re manmade structures, but they’re working with nature.”
Sharon Wood Wortman is the Bridge Lady—author of The Portland Bridge Book, the definitive volume of the city’s bridges, first published in 1989 and now in its third edition. (We used her book often as a reference for this photo essay.) She grew up on the east side but almost never crossed the Willamette because her grandmother, who raised her, suffered from gephyrophobia. Wortman didn’t share her grandmother’s fear of bridges, but a series she wrote about Portland’s spans for The Oregonian in 1984 led to her obsession. “Everything I did with the bridges made me braver,” she says. Like many Portlanders, she recalls how the span of the Fremont, pieced together at Swan Island, was floated beneath the unfinished ramps and then slowly lifted into place. She was freelancing a story about the Fremont’s 20-year anniversary in 1993 when she met Ed Wortman, who had been the field engineer for the company contracted to build the Fremont. “She was the first woman who ever fondled my bridge books,” he says. They had their first date at the Fremont’s two westside footings, which “help carry 30,000 tons of gravity into the ground.” They married in 1998. He’s co-author of the last two editions of her bridge book. Last month, Ed brought Sharon a gift: a fist-sized, 39-million-year-old basalt chunk from the riverbed beneath the Sellwood Bridge. “It’s as beautiful as a diamond,” she says.
Rhonda Walters loves the Steel Bridge. As a third-grade teacher at Forest Park Elementary School, Walters spends three months every year teaching her students about Portland’s bridges—part of Portland Public Schools’ third-grade social studies curriculum. Students pick a bridge to build a model of with any material they choose. The Fremont is most popular; the Marquam, by far the least. “I’ve seen licorice for suspension cables and Oreos for the deck,” Walters says of the bridge projects. “It’s kind of like a right of passage.” But she likes the Steel—now owned and operated by Union Pacific Railroad—for its oddities: how the lower deck with the rail line lifts without the upper road deck, and how both decks soar to make room for even taller ships. The Steel is the only double-deck vertical-lift bridge in the world. Walters says the Steel is the bridge that most often resonates with her students when she brings them there. “When we go on our field trips, it lifts or there’s a train that goes by,” she says. “It just always performs for us.”
(Replaced bridge opened in 1894)
The worst part of being homeless, men who live under the bridge say, is being without a roof in the rain. That’s why the 86-foot-wide Burnside Bridge has for decades been a camping place and center for social-service agencies—including the Portland Rescue Mission, on the bridge’s west side, which feeds 500 to 600 people a day. On Thursdays, the nonprofit BridgeTown puts on a shindig called Night Strike, where volunteers started gathering a decade ago—first to clean streets, then offering to wash the feet of the homeless. Now the volunteers serve dinners, sew up ripped backpacks, cut hair and paint fingernails. On a recent night, one resident, John, said he has lived under the bridge for a year. Thin, in jeans and a clean shirt, he could pass for a college professor. He’s a former electrician from Milwaukie who lost his job and lived in his truck before he could no longer make the payments. He does temp work, he says, but no one wants to hire a 64-year-old man. John sleeps among what the people here call “senior row”—a line of older homeless who group together at night for companionship and security from summer travelers and street kids, who Johns says start fights and steal. “During the winter we’re fairly well protected,” John says. “We’re not trying to make a political statement. We’re just down here trying to get through another day.”
(Replaced bridges opened in 1887 and 1905)
By day, the Morrison is one of the city’s duller bridges, basic and flat. But by night, the Morrison is the peacock. Two billboardlike panels, below the deck on each side, become color-splashed canvases from 32 high-brightness LEDs, which can change colors with a few keyboard strokes. The Morrison first lit up in December 1987, thanks to the work of the nonprofit Willamette Light Brigade, a group that formed after a number of people called on the county to do something about making the bridges less plain. That led several people to suggest lighting the bridges at night. The Morrison’s original lights (donated by electrical contractors and union workers) included 16 1,000-watt tungsten spotlights built into the piers below the bridge deck. (They are the same fixtures used to light the Eiffel Tower.) To change the hues, Light Brigade volunteers had to swap out the colored theater gels—thin plastic used to tint spotlight lenses—placed over the beams. On one occasion, red gels inadvertently created what looked like a pink triangle; Willamette Light Brigade chairman/spokesman Paddy Tillett says a transgender organization later wrote a letter thanking them for displaying the international symbol for gay rights. Anyone can pay to have the color of his or her choice beamed onto the Morrison for $100 a night (all funds go to maintaining the lighting). Fans of out-of-town sports teams have leveraged the glowing bascule against Portland teams. When the Morrison glows blue and green in October, it will be an illuminated taunt paid for by a fan of the Portland Timbers’ archrivals, the Seattle Sounders, who will be in town for a match at Jeld-Wen Field.
Portland’s ugliest bridge had at least one cultural benefit: After this ribbon of slab was opened—“so gross, so lacking in grace, so utterly inconsistent with any concept of aesthetics,” as the Portland Art Commission said of the bridge at the time—city and state leaders promised never to build another eyesore across the Willamette. The elegance of the Fremont, opened seven years later, was a direct response to the Marquam. But peregrine falcons love it. The Marquam’s height (165 feet) mimics the cliffs where the birds like to lay their eggs on ledges. Peregrines—driven nearly to extinction by the pesticide DDT—were gone from Oregon when the bridge opened. As the species recovered, they were found back in Oregon during the 1980s around Crater Lake. They moved north in the 1990s and eventually made homes on the Marquam, Fremont and St. Johns bridges. As much as Portlanders may dislike the Marquam, the peregrines are helping preserve it: They feast on pigeons, which otherwise roost under the bridge and corrode it with their acidic poop. “The peregrines are ultimately pigeon control,” says Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Portland. “Weird ecosystems evolve around bridges.”
ROSS ISLAND 1926
Except for the freeway bridges, more cars and trucks go over the Ross Island Bridge than any other span, with 55,100 vehicles a day. As Sharoan Wood Wortman points out in The Portland Bridge Book, the Ross Island was the first downtown bridge built without a streetcar line—a harbinger of the city’s transportation reliance on cars. This workhorse bridge also carries the city’s lifeblood—Bull Run water. Two 24-inch pipes hang underneath it, running the 2,140-foot length. The pipes deliver almost one-third of the west side’s water—as much as 6 million gallons a day.
PORTLAND - MILWAUKIE LIGHT RAIL SCHEDULED 2015
What now looks like two winged towers in the middle of the Willamette will, when finished, become two arrows aimed at the sky. The as-yet-unnamed, $134.6 million bridge will not only stand out as Portland’s only cable-stayed bridge. It will be the only of its kind in the United States that cars can’t use: The 1,720-foot-long transit bridge will allow for light rail, streetcars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians. Standing on the elevated, unconnected decks, you feel afloat, like a polar bear on a small chunk of ice in the middle of the Arctic. You want to touch the slack cables, lying on the deck, that will soon be strung to hold the bridge in place for a century to come. Even in its unfinished form, you want to stare at the towers, where the strands of cables will hang down like a witch’s broom. In the same way Portlanders tell stories of seeing the Fremont lifted four decades ago, watching this bridge take shape is creating a new tale: how we watched it rise and how the decks grew outward, in perfect balance as they simultaneously grew closer to each other and reached for shore.
SELLWOOD 1925, new span 2015
From its beginning, the Sellwood was always an outlier. “The described area is sparsely settled,” a city report says of the span, “and lies mainly outside of the city limits and very largely outside of the limits of the county that would have to finance the structure.” That was in 1922. As its ramps weakened and decayed over the decades, the same questions kept being asked: Who was going to pay for repairing or replacing the Sellwood? Multnomah County, which owns and operates it, or residents of Clackamas County, where nearly three-fourths of the trips across it begin or end? Clackamas County voters settled it by refusing to help pay for replacing the span (they rejected a $5 annual car registration fee, which would have raised $22 million) and made it a crumbling symbol for something you need but don’t want to pay for. Multnomah County has nonetheless launched the $307.5 million rebuild, making the Sellwood Portland’s first replacement bridge on the Willamette since the “new” Morrison was opened in 1958. “Where there’s a will, there’s a bridge,” says Wortman. The Willamette spans, she says, continue to show us how a city can solve its problems while creating landmarks of its ambition. “There isn’t anything you can’t teach with a bridge,” she says.