One of the earliest concrete reinforced arch bridges in Washington was the Washington Street Bridge over the Spokane River, built in 1907 and 1908. This formidable span was the first of many in Spokane over the course of the following two decades, hence the moniker City of Bridges. The concrete arch became popular in the early twentieth century and endured until 1940, when cheaper, stronger building materials became available. The Dell Sharp Bridge, built in Walla Walla County in 1914, is an example of the early concrete steel-reinforced structures that graced the landscape across Eastern Washington and beyond. Dell Sharp exemplifies the early stylistic designs of Danial Luten and Charles Huber, among others, who prided themselves in a definitive styling, even though such utilitarian structures were often hidden in rural parts of the country and rarely seen.
Walla Walla County
Walla Walla County was formed on April 25, 1854. The county was created from Clark and Skamania counties and originally encompassed all of Eastern Washington, Idaho, and approximately one fourth of Montana. The county seat was placed at Waiilatpu, the former location of the Whitman Mission, on the claim of a settler named Lloyd Brook. The treaty Council at Walla Walla in May 1855 and the Treaty Wars that followed prevented the county infrastructure from being fully organized.
On January 19, 1859, the Territorial Legislature passed an act creating a true infrastructure for Walla Walla County, and the City of Walla Walla was chosen as the county seat. Over the next 16 years, Walla Walla County would be subject to several downsizing events. Present day Walla County is bounded on the east by Columbia County, to the north by the Snake River and Franklin County, to the west by Benton and Franklin counties and the Columbia River, and to the south by the state of Oregon.
The land that would become Walla Walla County was one of the earliest areas between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades to be permanently settled by non-Natives, and for that reason it is sometimes referred to as the cradle of Pacific Northwest history. Agriculture is the most significant industry in the county, especially the cultivation of wheat, onions, and wine grapes.
The Concrete Arch in Eastern Washington
The Dell Sharp Bridge is one of few extant county constructed bridges before World War 1. The concrete dual span structure mimics those types designed and constructed by famed bridge builder Daniel B. Luten (1869-1946). The 108-year-old span [as of 2022] has been deemed eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, under Criteria C, as a bridge that maintains a great deal of architectural integrity as to its feeling, its setting, and is an example of the workmanship during the period of construction.
The Dell Sharp Bridge came during a period of rampant bridge-building in Eastern Washington, primarily in Spokane between 1907 and 1929. One of the first multi-span concrete arch bridge constructed in the state was the Washington Street Bridge in 1907 and 1908. From that point on, the concrete arch bridge became the norm. Other bridges include Monroe Street, Post Street, and Latah Creek, all within the City of Spokane.
During this period of bridge building a so-called "steel consortium" within Spokane's city council tried without success to sway public opinion toward steel bridge construction. One unforeseen event helped scuttle their efforts. The long-debated East Olive Bridge was initially to be built of steel, primarily because it could be built much faster than a concrete structure. But because of construction delays, the construction timeline was delayed a year. One major problem was that the bridge had to be manufactured in Pittsburgh and then shipped west for erection, a time-consuming process. It was reported that because of delays, the low-water period had passed, making it impossible to begin pier foundation work on schedule. The contractor, Burrell Bridge and Construction Company, was forced to withdraw its bid, as costs would surely rise in a year’s time; both the East and West Olive Avenue bridges would eventually be built in the concrete reenforced manner. The Mission Street Bridge, another concrete arch structure, also was well on its way to completion.
Dell Sharp: Walla Walla County
Walla Walla County also took part in the move from wood/steel to concrete. The Flathers Bridge, located 4.2 miles east of Dell Sharp on highway 125, also was constructed in 1914. In 1920, the single-arch Evans Bridge spanned Dry Creek on Sapolil Road. As late as 1930, another concrete arch bridge, known as the Main Street Bridge, was built over the Touchet River in Walla Walla.
Constructed as utilitarian, Dell Sharp mirrors many such county bridges built in the early twentieth century, not just in Washington, but across the nation. Local lore traces the Dell Sharp name to Friedel DeForest Sharp (1858-1930), a local farmer who lived just northeast of the bridge. During construction, "Del" hosted the crew until completion of the bridge, so the crew decided to name it Dell Sharp (spelled 'Sharpe' on the historical marker attached to the bridge). By 1920, Friedel Sharp had moved to Seaside, Oregon.
According to the Dell Sharp Bridge file, the bridge design may have been influenced by engineer Daniel B. Luten, who specialized in earth-filled, concrete arch bridges; it has been said that Luten designed more than 20,000 bridges, including 2,000 in Indiana alone. Luten was responsible for a unique concrete arch design that focused on major stress points that would make the bridge lighter as well as stronger. Luten arch bridges show up in 47 U.S. states. Luten also was notable for initiating lawsuits against companies that constructed similar concrete arch designs, claiming patent violations and demanding royalty payments of 10 percent.
Constructed by the Walla Walla County Road Department, the Dell Sharp Bridge spans the Touchet River, just north of the Pettyjohn/Sharp road junction, and south of Hwy 124. The structure is 155 feet in length (excluding approaches), and 19 feet curb to curb (width). Guard rails (walls) are 36 inches in height and rest upon curbing of varied height. Concrete coping is situated at the approach walls and over the center piers. The bridge was constructed as a dual concrete/steel rib arch with closed spandrels. There is one large concrete wing wall located on the upstream face (east) at the north approach, a feature that was added at a later date (1917). Rip rap material consisting of an automobile and combined harvester carcass is located at the south approach. Concrete slab pieces have been utilized for stabilization at the south approach, west, downstream facing. The road deck is concrete and oil. The bridge is unadorned, in keeping with so-called "cookie cutter" type bridges that have been prolific over the past 100 years.
Between 1900 and 1940, the concrete arch was the bridge of choice nationwide, and Luten apparently wanted to cash in. In Kansas, Luten sued just about every engineering/building firm that had built similar arch bridges. From the years 1913-1920, newspapers across the country covered the ongoing litigation brought by the engineer, not only in Kansas, but in Nebraska, Indiana, Iowa, California, and Oklahoma, among others. Attorney General Dexter T. Baxter of Nebraska could boast in 1916 that he prevented "Luten from collecting 10 per cent royalty upon all re-enforced concrete bridges built in Nebraska, thus saving thousands of dollars for the taxpayer ..." (The Alliance Herald, 1918). As Larry Jochims wrote:
"Because it was virtually impossible to build a reinforced concrete arch bridge without using one of his patents, the royalty costs for bridge companies, states, counties and municipalities became burdensome. The company was continuously involved in litigation throughout the Midwest. A number of lawsuits charging patent infringement were filed in Kansas by Luten’s attorneys against local units of government. The issue was not settled until 1918 when the state attorney general successfully argued that Luten’s patents were invalid, and the cases were dismissed” (Jochims 1985).
It is unknown whether Dell Sharp is a Luten-designed bridge. A search of commissioner proceedings in Walla Walla County shows bids being called for in July 1914. The project was awarded to Charles G. Huber of Seattle for the cost to the county of $8,560 for the concrete structure (the quote for a steel span was more expensive). The other three bids were from Omaha Structural Steel Works, Portland Bridge and Iron Works, and Illinois Steel Bridge Co. Huber was awarded the contract in August 1914. There was an apparent uproar between commissioners and county engineer Lew Loehr, having to do with whether or not the bridge should be constructed of steel or concrete. This was common during the era, and became quite contentious between the steel supporters and concrete supporters. In 1917, Huber also won the bid to construct the emergency concrete wing wall at the northeast abutment of the bridge, which is still standing.
Charles G. Huber
Charles Gillan Huber (1876-1943) was born in St. Thomas, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Not much is known about his early years, but age 24 in 1900 he was working as a draftsman in St. Thomas. By 1910, he was residing in Seattle, in a rooming house, with his employment listed as engineer. By 1930, he was living in Portland City, Oregon, listed as a "guest" in a hotel/rooming house, and working as a building contractor. In the 1940 census he was in business for himself and living at the Hotel Governor in Portland City, at age 65. Two years later, Huber died unexpectedly from a heart attack while living at the Arctic Club in Seattle; he was 67. At the time of his death, Huber was still president of the Union Bridge Company.
Huber appears to have been a loner in his personal life. He was married in 1901 to Bessie Caldwell, and in 1931, to Estelle Evans in Skagit County, but by 1940 he was single again.
From his earliest years working in both Washington and Oregon (1910-1943), Huber established himself as a prolific bridge builder/designer/engineer. During these years, he and the Union Bridge Company constructed various types of bridges, from little one- and two-span concrete arch structures in rural Eastern Washington, to large steel affairs that span the Columbia River. The Engineering News-Record in 1919 reported that, "The Union Bridge and Iron Co, Seattle and Portland, has been incorporated by Charles G. Huber, specialist in the design and construction of Luten design bridges and George A. Sears, formerly of the Coast Bridge Co., Portland, Oregon" (Engineering News-Record, 1919).
Huber's rural bridges appear predominately in Eastern Washington, numbering 11 such structures in Washington and one located in Eastern Oregon. His larger spans can be seen from the Tri-Cities area west into Thurston and King counties. One of his early large steel cantilever structures was at Franklin, spanning the Green River, in 1915. But Huber's crown jewel may have been the enormous Kennewick-Pasco bridge that spanned the Columbia River between the two south-central Washington cities. It appears that Huber, after completion of the Dell Sharp Bridge in Walla Walla County, was moving on with multiple projects. The Kennewick-Pasco structure (1922) stretched 3,260 feet in length, resting upon six massive concrete piers with a vertical height of 113 feet from foundation to road deck; the cantilevered towers were 65 feet in height, weighing 10 tons per tower.
Huber's rural bridges, like Dell Sharp, were replicated across Eastern Washington and parts of Oregon. Many of these bridges were located in Whitman County; some 17 structures have been documented. Most of these small, concrete arch bridges were inspired by Luten and many of them were built by Huber.
Whereas Huber acted as the design engineer on the Dell Sharp project, E. B. Shifley took on the role of construction engineer. Born in Ohio, Shifley spent most of his professional life in Owensboro, Kentucky. As early as 1900, he held the position of city engineer, dealing mainly with sewer and road construction projects. After 1910, he moved to Walla Walla, where he was appointed construction engineer by the Walla Walla County Commissioners in 1913. By 1917, Shifley had returned to Owensboro to assume his prior duties as city engineer, where he remained until health problems forced him to resign in 1926. He died in 1931.
Nowhere in the records do we find definitive evidence that the Dell Sharp bridge is indeed a Luten Arch bridge. Huber did use the Luten Arch design when "erecting the new bridge across the Des Chutes river at Tumwater paying $13,789. The new bridge will be of the Luten design" (Washington Standard, 1915). No evidence exists concerning royalties paid, or of any lawsuits concerning patent infringements. Finally, turning to bridge inspection reports, there are two reports that have the name "Luten Arch" on said report, but that’s where it ends.
In 2021, more than a century after it was built, the Dell Sharp Bridge had degraded to the point that Walla Walla County's Public Works Department determined that it needed to be replaced. It was scheduled to be torn down in 2023, with a new bridge placed several hundred feet east of the original. The old bridge had been an essential part the Washington’s rural roadway system in the early years of its development. Though not designed by a world-renowned engineer, the bridge illustrated the evolution of bridge construction and style in America prior to 1920.