On July 1, 1958, the second Interstate Bridge opens across the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington. It is located next to the original bridge built in 1917, and with a few exceptions is almost identical. One difference is a hump in the roadway south of the lift span, which allows more vessel traffic to pass underneath. Immediately after the new bridge opens, the 1917 span closes for 18 months to have its own hump installed.
One Was Not Enough
Ferries carried traffic across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but this became increasingly impractical as the area's population grew and travel increased. A railroad bridge was built across the river between the two cities in 1908, but was only a partial solution. In 1917 a two-lane vehicular bridge -- with two sets of streetcar tracks in the middle (removed in 1940) -- opened, and this met traffic needs for the next 30 years.
By the mid-1940s, it was becoming apparent that a second bridge was needed to handle the region's increasing automotive traffic. In addition, increasing vessel traffic on the river led to the bridge's lift span being raised more frequently, causing traffic delays both on the road and on the river. In 1953, after years of studies, the Oregon and Washington legislatures authorized bond sales to cover the cost of a second bridge, to be located immediately downstream (west) of the original.
The Second Interstate Bridge
Plans for the project came together over the next few years. The total cost was $14.5 million (equivalent to nearly $140 million in 2020 dollars). This included building two new bridges -- a second Interstate Bridge and a second, 1200-foot-long bridge across Oregon Slough to the south -- and also included the cost of remodeling the original Interstate Bridge after the new one opened. The cost of the two new bridges alone was $6.68 million ($64 million in 2020 dollars).
Guy F. Atkinson Company (a big name in the construction industry for years) was awarded the contract for the new bridges in 1956, and preparatory work began that summer. Completion was scheduled for June 30, 1958. Atkinson used a new, more cost-effective method to build the underwater piers that support the bridge across the Columbia River. In earlier years, a cofferdam would have been built in the river to form a watertight enclosure, which would then have been pumped full of concrete for the piers. For this project, Atkinson prepared precast concrete shells onshore, each weighing between 50 and 90 tons. These were then placed on barges, towed into the river, and lowered by cranes into pre-dug holes. Concrete was then pumped into the shells, eliminating the need for cofferdams.
The new Interstate Bridge was separated from the old bridge by a scant 30 feet, and it was designed to resemble the original as closely as possible. Two of the more noticeable differences were that the new bridge had 16 sections compared to the old bridge's 14, and one 531-foot-long section that was nearly twice as long as the longest one on the old span. Its roadway was 40 feet wide, two feet wider than the old bridge's roadway, and at 3,538 feet, it was about six-and-a-half feet longer.
A far more obvious difference was a hump in the new bridge just south of the lift span, which allowed smaller boats pass underneath without disrupting vehicle traffic on the bridge. The hump offered a clearance of 72 feet, compared to 38 feet under the rest of the bridge when the lift span was closed. Clearance under the new bridge's lift span when open was 176 feet, matching that of the old span.
Open to Traffic
The new bridge was completed on time, and an opening day ceremony was set for 10 a.m. on July 1, 1958. The weather cooperated, with sunny skies and mild temperatures, but the crowds -- said to be in the hundreds -- were far smaller than the thousands who had thronged the streets for the first bridge's opening in 1917.
At the appointed hour a caravan of cars, some dating from the 1910s, gathered on the Vancouver side of the new bridge. Before proceeding slowly onto the bridge they were greeted by two F-102 jets that swooped low in a salute (the F-102s had been in service for only two years, and seeing one up close would have been a novelty for many in the crowd).
Leading the pack in one of the vintage vehicles were Mary Helen Kiggins McAleer of Vancouver and Eleanor Holman Burkitt of Portland. In 1917, both women -- then young girls -- had met on the original bridge's lift span and untied the ceremonial ribbon opening the first Interstate Bridge. Now they were back to repeat the ceremony on the new bridge's lift span, and they did. And, just as in 1917, the band struck up the "Star Spangled Banner," the crowd cheered, and a nearby howitzer boomed.
A Hump of its Own
After the ceremony, the old bridge was closed for remodeling to more closely match the new bridge. This included replacing two 265-foot sections with a single 531-foot Pennsylvania Petit through-truss span, identical to the one on the new bridge. This provided the old bridge with a hump of its own that allowed more vessel traffic to pass underneath without opening the lift span. Completion of the nearly $3 million project (more than $26.5 million in 2020 dollars) was set for December 31, 1959, and was largely accomplished, with one exception. The bridge's reopening was scheduled for 1 p.m. on January 8, 1960, but on the appointed day a surprise storm during the early morning hours unloaded up to three inches of heavy wet snow on Portland and Vancouver. The snow didn't prevent the bridge from reopening on time, but it did prevent a painting job that morning to mark each of the roadways for three lanes of traffic.
The bridges became one-way, with the old 1917 bridge carrying northbound traffic and the new one carrying southbound traffic. Tolling began two days after the reopening of the original bridge, despite a widespread public effort to prevent them. Prices ranged from 20 cents for cars and pickup trucks ($1.75 in 2020 dollars) to 60 cents for buses and tractor-trailers. The toll booths were located on Hayden Island at the Oregon end of the bridges, but were staffed by employees of the Washington Toll Bridge Authority. The detested tolls lasted until November 1, 1966, when they were officially ended in a happy ceremony where Mary Helen Kiggins McAleer and Eleanor Holman Burkitt once again untied a ceremonial ribbon to mark the occasion.