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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
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.
Community members await the opening of the Interstate Bridge on February 14, 1917.
A streetcar travels on the original span of the Interstate Bridge
crossed the Interstate Bridge on an average weekday in 2010.
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
“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.
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
- Bridge lifts increase congestion and create a safety concern
- Earthquake risk due to timber pilings that do not reach
- 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