PDX Postcard: Bridging the Willamette with Portland’s Distinctive Dozen
By Julie Snyder
When Joe and I moved to Portland five years ago, we joined an adventure book club that convened in a wine bar. Groovy, we thought. Our new city’s quirky personality manifested in vintages and volumes, two of our favorite things.
But we’d overlooked one other quirk. The wine bar was on the opposite side of the Willamette River from our home. Which meant crossing a bridge. At rush hour. What would be a 15-minute drive at any other time of day dragged into a bumper-to-bumper two hours. We went to one meeting and never returned.
When you live in a city bisected by a river like Portland, navigating from one side to the other on one of twelve bridges requires some strategy. Considerations abound in Bridgetown: time of day; ease of on/off access; mode of travel—car, bike, foot, public transit or one of those electric scooters that have multiplied like rabbits.
And like the people who use them, Portland bridges flaunt personalities and peculiarities.
Let’s start with St. John’s Bridge. Built in 1931, it’s the only suspension bridge in our distinctive dozen and the northernmost. Four-hundred-foot Gothic spires tower above what its architect, David Barnard Steinman, called “a prayer in steel.” Ride a bike over the bridge, however, and I guarantee that you’ll be praying the entire time.
Next up heading south is the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge, considered an engineering marvel when first built in 1908. It sported a “swing span” that swiveled from a central pedestal to allow boat passage (not always without incident). A 1989 rebuild included conversion to a safer vertical-lift system in which counterweights and cables move a horizontal interior section up and down like an elevator. This locomotive freeway carries more than 30 trains a day on a structure design straight out of an erector set.
By contrast, the car-only Fremont Bridge soars over the river in an elegant arch that weighs a whopping 6,000 tons (12 million pounds). Completed in 1973, the tied-arch bridge was perhaps a mea culpa to Portlanders appalled by the aesthetically unappealing—some called it downright ugly—Marquam Bridge erected in 1966. But don’t get stranded on the Fremont Bridge during an earthquake—the span may well survive but the on and off ramps, not so much.
The 1913 Broadway Bridge for a time was the longest “bascule bridge”—drawbridge—in the world. Vehicle, cyclist, pedestrian and streetcar-friendly, the once-basic-black span was spruced up in 1963. Hopefully its eye-popping red-orange paint job distracts commuters from the long wait when passing watercraft need a lift—it takes 10 minutes or more just to open. That’s complex mechanics for you.
The double-decker Steel Bridge has been called the hardest working bridge on the river. MAX light rail trains and vehicles cruise along on top, while trains, pedestrians and cyclists flow through the lower level. Built in 1912 (replacing the 1888 original), Steel Bridge earns celebrity status as the last operational “telescoping vertical-lift bridge in the U.S.” That means the bottom deck can lift for river traffic without disrupting the top deck. Cool! Unless you’re trying to cross the bottom deck.
Burnside Bridge, another drawbridge, bisects north and south Portland, as does the avenue that extends from its ramps for miles in either direction. Since 1926, the bridge’s Italian Renaissance-style towers have decorated the riverscape. The first Willamette River bridge in Portland to receive design help from an architect, it joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2012 (along with fellow bridges Broadway, Hawthorne and Morrison). I walk across this bridge regularly, always dazzled by city views and bridge profiles in both directions.
When the original Morrison Bridge opened in 1887, it was Portland’s first bridge across the Willamette and the longest west of the Mississippi. The current 1958 version, a drawbridge open to vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, enchants at night with a LED light show on its anchor piers, thanks to the Willamette Light Brigade. And thanks to the city for finally resolving the deck debacle that interfered with smooth traffic flow for six years.
When the Hawthorne Bridge was constructed in 1910, the side barriers were set just high enough to prevent horses from jumping over as they trotted carriages across the waterway. A sporty green with red trim, it’s the oldest car bridge in Portland and the oldest vertical-lift bridge still operating in the United States. Bicyclists love it—Cycle Oregon’s Hawthorne Bridge Bike Barometer tracked over one million riders in 2018. Not my choice to drive on a rainy day, though, when the metal grated surface spawns some squirrely swerving.
Ugly duckling? Highly functional? Busiest bridge in Oregon? Opened in 1966 as the final link in Oregon’s Interstate 5 system, the Marquam Bridge is all three, a trifecta of concrete and steel that dispatches some 150,000 vehicles a day over the Willamette River. In 1995, it became the first Portland bridge to be seismically retrofitted. And oh yeah, it was named after a 19th-century judge who defrauded the county out of property taxes.
Tilikum Crossing opened in 2015 as America’s first-ever bridge for light rail, streetcars, buses, pedestrians and cyclists—but no private automobiles. The name loosely translates as “Bridge of the People” in local Chinook language, and its peaked construction mimics Mount Hood, visible in the east on clear days. The real wow factor, however, is the cable and pier light show that washes from greens to golds to purples in tune with the changing temperature, speed and height of the river water. Now that’s eco-art!
The sturdy Ross Island Bridge, another bridge built in the boom that was the 1920s, is my personal workhorse. Guess I’m not alone as more than 60,000 vehicles cross the three-quarter-mile-long span every day, making it the busiest non-interstate bridge in Portland. During the Depression, its west end harbored hundreds of jobless Portlanders in a shantytown called Happy Hooligan’s Camp. Today, sadly, clusters of homeless tents are still part of that landscape.
The original Sellwood Bridge opened in 1925 and replaced a ferry service across its stretch of the Willamette. But the original construction was not designed to endure. The new bridge, completed in 2016, has earned kudos as the most earthquake-resistant vehicle bridge in Portland. (Earthquakes are top of mind in the Pacific Northwest these days.) Cyclists share two generous lanes with vehicles, while pedestrians stroll 12-foot sidewalks. A handsome collection of sculptured “geologic totems” at the eastern threshold welcome visitors to the Sellwood community.
So many bridges, so many strategic decisions. Ten welcome cars, eight are open to walkers and bikers, seven invite buses, street cars have tracks on two, as does MAX light rail. And one is limited to trains. We knew we were Portlanders when our response to an invitation that involved rush-hour travel became “what side of the river is it on?”
For a pictorial history of Portland’s bridges, and details about their engineering that is beyond my pay grade, check out “Bridges of Portland.”
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel, and the Green Bay Packers.