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Bridge History: A Tale of Two Bridges

The Interstate 5 Bridge crosses the Columbia River and connects Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon with two identical bridge structures. One bridge structure carries traffic northbound to Vancouver and the other bridge structure carries traffic southbound to Portland. The northbound bridge was built in 1917 and the southbound bridge was built in 1958.

The 1917 Bridge: Shift from Ferry to Bridge Travel

1917 I-5 Bridge
The Interstate 5 Bridge and the Portland-Vancouver Ferry, ca. 1920. Photo by Mark Falby from Mark Falby collection.

Historical movie footage of the I-5 bridge before the second span was built in 1958.

1917 I-5 Bridge
Community members await the opening of the Interstate Bridge on February 14, 1917.

1917 I-5 Bridge with Streetcar
A streetcar travels on the original span of the Interstate Bridge

1917 I-5 Bridge with Streetcar
127,000 vehicles crossed the Interstate Bridge on an average weekday in 2010. (Credit: CRC)

1917 I-5 Bridge with Streetcar
The Interstate Bridge is the only remaining lift span on I-5.

From June 1 through October 15, 1905, Portland, Oregon hosted the first world’s fair on the West Coast. The fair honored the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark journey and although rarely used, was officially known as the Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair (Abbott, Carl. “Lewis and Clark Exposition.” The Oregon Encyclopedia).

The event was a promotional boon to the Vancouver/Portland area but caused a massive traffic jam at the Columbia River steam ferry, one of the few passageways between the two cities. Until the northbound bridge opened in 1917, ferries provided service between Portland and Vancouver. The Oregonian reported that on June 30, 1905, 2,000 people lined up to cross on the Interstate Ferry to attend the fair. This sparked widespread demand for a bridge between the two states. In 1914, with a great deal of bi-state local support, the Washington and Oregon state legislatures approved the sale of bonds to fund construction of a bridge.

The northbound bridge was built and opened on Valentine's Day in 1917 amid much fanfare. The bridge was designed by the engineering firm Waddell and Harrington, “leaders in the field of vertical lift bridge design in the twentieth century.” (“Historic Bridges.” Washington State Department of Transportation). It cost travelers 5 cents (85 cents in 2010 dollars) to cross the bridge. There were only two lanes of traffic, one in each direction, plus a pedestrian path. A streetcar shared the roadway with cars, most of them Model T Fords. Because the bridge was heavily used, the original bond was paid off within 12 years and tolls removed. According to the Portland Bridge Book, records show that daily highway traffic volume increased from 13,000 in 1936 to 30,000 by 1950 and during its first year of operation, the speed limit was 15 miles per hour and the bridge opened 1,000 times for water travel.

On the south end of the northbound bridge, just east of the northbound lanes is a marker with an inscription by an English writer and statesman of the 1800’s, Thomas Babington Macauley, which reads: “Of all inventions, the alphabet and the printing press alone excepted, those inventions which abridge distance have done most for the civilizations of our species. Every improvement of the means of locomotion benefits mankind morally and intellectually as well as materially, and not only facilitates the interchange of the various productions of nature and art, but tends to move national and provincial antipathies, and to bind together all the branches of the great human family.” The marker is sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The 1958 Bridge: The Era of the Automobile

With the end of the Vancouver and Portland streetcar service in the 1940’s and increased travel on the bridge, Oregon and Washington looked into increasing the capacity of the bridge. Traffic rates had skyrocketed and it was time to look for solutions. A dramatic increase in marine traffic also required more bridge lifts, which made traffic problems even worse.

In 1953, the Oregon and Washington state legislatures authorized the sale of bonds to design and build a second bridge. Construction of a second parallel drawbridge spanning southbound was completed and opened on July 1, 1958. Tollbooths were installed in 1960 after remodeling work on the 1917 span had been completed. To pay off the construction bond, tolls of 20 cents for cars, 40 cents for light trucks and 60 cents for heavy trucks and buses ($1.47, $2.95, $4.42 in 2010 dollars, respectively) were collected until 1966.

1965 I-5 Bridge with toll booths
Toll booths on Hayden Island. Tolls were collected to pay off the construction of the second bridge span until 1966.

Replacing the bridge would increase safety and
help ease congestion

The Interstate Bridge has served us well for more than 90 years, but the states of Washington and Oregon agree it is time to replace the two structures to best meet the next century’s growing travel needs across the Columbia River.

Replacing the bridge would also address several current problems:

  • Bridge lifts increase congestion and create a safety concern
  • Earthquake risk due to timber pilings that do not reach
    solid rock
  • No safety shoulders for disabled vehicles to safely get
    out of traffic
  • Narrow bike and pedestrian paths discourage use and pose safety risk for users
  • Impaired sight lines for drivers due to bridge hump
  • Lack of high capacity transit limits commute options