Bridgeport -- Thumbnail History

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 1/12/2024
  • Essay 22892
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The town of Bridgeport, located in Douglas County, is nestled into a bend of the Columbia River, its rolling terrain surrounded by sage brush and Douglas firs. In 2020, the city had a population of 2,141. Originally called Westfield, the town was purchased in 1892 for $60,000 by a group of investors from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and renamed for that more populous New England city. On March 21, 1910, Bridgeport was incorporated, and H. F. Klaas elected its first mayor. In the early twentieth century, as Bridgeport transitioned from a mining town to an agricultural center, its population began to decline; in 1940, there were only 320 residents. Then three major construction projects got underway: Pearl Hill Road, which connected the town with Grand Coulee Dam to the southeast; Chief Joseph Dam, built to provide irrigation and power to the area; and the Columbia River Bridge built across the river at Bridgeport. In 2023, visitors and residents enjoyed several beautiful parks, an unusual eight-sided octagonal wooden house built as a wedding gift in 1914, and 29 wood-carved sculptures that showcase town lore and wildlife.

Bridgeport Beginnings

Gold was discovered near Bridgeport around 1862, although Chinese gold miners may have been in the area at least a decade earlier. A. J. Splawn, a cattle driver who passed through the region in 1863, recorded that he saw about 500 Chinese working placer mines in an area known as Rich Bar on the Columbia River, between Pateros and Bridgeport. By 1868, the gold had run out and few Chinese stayed behind.

The next wave of settlers turned to fruit orchards and farming to make a living. As more people arrived, a small community formed and was named Westfield. The town was platted by Butler Liversay on November 30, 1891. In 1892, Westfield was purchased for $60,000 by the Western Land and Improvement Association, located in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which changed the town name to Bridgeport on July 25, 1892.

The history of Bridgeport has long been intertwined with its position along the Columbia River. In the late nineteenth century, "Bridgeport became especially important as the hub for grain transfer from the Big Bend area down to Wenatchee. In 1892, the main streets of Bridgeport were graded and a steam ferry was put on the river. The town expected the Northern Pacific Railroad to route trains through, but the tracks never came. Despite financial concerns which arose near this time, the hopeful settlers remain positive" ("The City of Bridgeport"). A bill introduced in the 1909 state legislature requested $100,000 to blast out boulders and rocky ledges along the river banks to make the river more navigable. "A short way above [Bridgeport] is a bad canyon that makes navigation dangerous, although steamers occasionally succeed in passing the rapids" ("Money is Desired to Open Columbia").  

In 1900, some 100 people lived in Bridgeport. By 1910, the population had increased to 500 and the townspeople voted by an overwhelming majority (91 to 1) to incorporate in an election held February 23, 1910. The incorporation papers were filed in Olympia on March 21, 1910. That summer, Bridgeport celebrated its new status with a festive Fourth of July event complete with highwire hijinks. "In addition to a parade through town, the celebration goers were treated to a daring tight wire act by Bridgeport’s own Orval Davis. Shocking the crowd, Orval walked blindfolded high above the street with no net. Legend has it that he even kept time to the beat of the local band’s music. This feat was probably a relatively simple task for a man whose hobby it was to walk across the 1,400 foot long ferry boat cable to the other side of the river and back" ("The City of Bridgeport").

Boyd Teter’s storefront served as the town post office and later housed a classroom for the children of Bridgeport. (Teter’s store operated as the town post office until 1958.) In 1910, Bridgeport supported a bank, flour mill, saw mill, two butcher shops, three grocery stores, ferry, and the largest hotel in north central Washington.

One of Bridgeport’s most famous residents was aerial stuntman Clyde Pangborn (1894-1958), born in Bridgeport on October 28, 1894. Pangborn joined the U.S. Army during World War I where he learned to fly. After the war, he began performing as a barnstormer.  In 1921, Pangborn and his partner Ivan Gates founded the Gates Flying Circus. "This act performed internationally and Pangborn became renowned for such feats as changing planes in mid-air. He became even more famous in 1924 when in Houston, Texas, he rescued a stuntwoman, Rosalie Gordon, whose parachute had become entangled in his landing gear. In six years, between 1922 and 1928, Pangborn flew 125,000 miles, performing in the United States and in other countries" ("Pangborn, Clyde Edward"). Pangborn is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and the airport in East Wenatchee is named the Pangborn Memorial Airport in his honor.

A Road, a Bridge, a Dam

As early as 1927, engineers recommended a dam be built just north of Bridgeport where Foster Creek spills into the Columbia River, but it would take 20 more years to get the construction project approved and funded. Meanwhile, the town was struggling to remain viable. "The population sank to 300 and by 1940, Bridgeport no longer could sustain a four-year high school. Juniors and seniors had to ride a bus 45 minutes to complete high school in a larger town" (Spokane Historical).

Then several large construction projects got underway. First came Pearl Hill Road built to connect Bridgeport to Grand Coulee Dam about 38 miles to the southeast. "The road was built in 1940, although the current route over Foster Creek was not established until the adjacent Chief Joseph Dam was being built in the early 1950s" ("U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Opens Bids ..."). The dam came next. "On approval of the dam project in 1946, Bridgeport’s population started to grow and when construction of the dam began in 1950, the town’s population suddenly grew ten times. The once disappearing town now struggled to meet the demands placed on its infrastructure by its new residents" (Spokane Historical).

Originally called the Foster Creek Dam, the dam was renamed the Chief Joseph Dam to honor the Nez Perce chief (1840-1904) who lived out his days on the nearby Colville Indian Reservation. The massive construction project had a tremendous impact on the region’s future growth, providing decades of employment for Bridgeport-area residents. "Chief Joseph Dam ... is a key structure in the comprehensive development of the Columbia River Basin. Storage water from the reservoir, and power revenues to assist in paying for irrigation features, are necessary for present and future irrigation development of the area" (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website). The Chief Joseph Dam is the second largest hydropower-producing dam in the U.S., second only to Grand Coulee Dam, and is the largest dam operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Between 2010 and 2014, 10 new turbines were installed at the dam at a cost of $120 million, part of a multiyear project by the Federal government to replace aging equipment and install new technology. Native American tribes and environmental groups have been outspoken about the detrimental impact of the Chief Joseph Dam on salmon runs upstream.

Rufus Woods Lake was formed by the creation of the dam. The lake was named for Rufus Woods (1878-1950), who was editor and publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World for more than 40 years and an avid supporter of development along the Columbia River. Located upstream from the dam, the lake’s north shore is the site of Bridgeport State Park.

The Columbia River Bridge, also known as the Bridgeport Bridge, lies downstream from the Chief Joseph Dam. The 1,108-foot bridge was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the dam project. Composed of three spans, the bridge is the only large-scale steel truss bridge built in Washington after World War II. Because of its unique features and historical significance, it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge used a simple truss design more commonly seen on railroad bridges, patented by Willian Howe in 1840. Built in 1958 with a 26-foot-wide timber deck, "the bridge was rehabilitated in 2003 by replacing both approach spans and replacing the entire deck with a fiber reinforced polymer deck system, the only one of its kind in the state. The new deck was widened to 32 feet with new curbs and railing added" (Walter).  

Schools and Parks

In 1992, Bridgeport was bursting with pride when a new high school and elementary school opened. Both were built with innovative features including four triangular classrooms, library reading pit, and 15 acres of sports fields. "Both structures have commanding gyms and classrooms radiating from central media centers. Superintendent Bob Allen said he changed the plans to make sure the libraries – or media centers – in both schools were centrally located" ("Bridgeport School Buildings Rise").

Although Bridgeport students and teachers may have faced challenges, they have worked hard to excel. In 2011, all 37 of its graduating high school seniors were accepted to a college. In 2022, U.S. News & World Report ranked Bridgeport High School number 18 among the 347 high schools in the state. "The small Douglas County school with more than 90 percent of its student enrollment from low-income households came in just behind 17th-ranked Orcas Island and ahead of No. 19 Vashon Island. Bridgeport was the only school in Douglas or Okanogan counties to place among the state’s top 100 schools" (Maltais). In 2022, there were 797 students enrolled in four schools: Bridgeport Elementary, Bridgeport Middle, and Bridgeport High schools, as well as Aurora High School. A total of 96 percent of students were Hispanic. 

Bridgeport offers residents and visitors several quiet spots for sports, fishing, and recreation. About a mile-and-a-half outside the city, on the banks of Rufus Woods Lake, sits the 825-acre Bridgeport State Park. Its 7,500 feet of freshwater shoreline make fishing for walleye and rainbow trout popular. Recreation enthusiasts enjoy the park’s 18 acres of grassy lawn, 400-foot beach, boat dock, camp sites, and RV hook-ups. Walkers meander over four miles of trails that pass the park’s distinctive "haystack" volcanic formations.

Berryman Park on 20th Street showcases a unique war memorial. In the 1960s, resident Len Berryman (1911-1987) donated a Chance-Vought F7U-3 Cutlass to the park. "Len Berryman acquired the aircraft as surplus in May 1958, and moved it by road to his place in Bridgeport, Washington, putting the old fighter on display at the eponymous Berryman Park (which still features several military aircraft and relics in its war memorial area)" (Allnut). The Bridgeport Cutlass remained on display until 1992 when Tom Cathcart of Ephrata offered an HL21 Army helicopter, used for medical evacuation during the Vietnam War, in trade.

Bridgeport Attractions

The Gallaher House, a unique eight-sided residence located by Bridgeport High School, was built by James Kinney as a gift for his daughter and her husband, Clyde Gallaher. Kinney was born in Oregon around 1860 and moved with his family to the Lake Chelan area in the 1880s where he opened up a saw mill and did carpentry work. Kinney built the one-and-one-half story wood-frame octagonal house around 1914 and then constructed a similar but smaller version for himself. The original house was built about five miles from the Columbia River on open farmland in Douglas County. According to documentation filed with the National Register of Historic Places, the house "is a fairly sophisticated design – artfully proportioned, spatially complex, and functional in plan ... Gallaher House is significant as one of the few examples of eight-sided domestic architecture in the Northwest. It is the distinctive work of a master craftsman in an unusually remote location" (National Register of Historic Places nomination).

Over the years, the Gallaher House deteriorated and by the early 1990s there was talk of demolition. In 1992, the current owners obtained a site in Bridgeport and arranged for the house to be jacked up, placed on dollies, and hauled to Bridgeport. Although the new lot was only five miles away, the route was 20 miles by road. Eight feet of the house was lopped off to get it under electrical wires and its crumbling chimneys were dismantled before the move. Once settled in Bridgeport, the Gallaher House got a new roof, wooden shingles, and glass windows.      

Although the Gallaher House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, it was removed from the register on January 11, 1995, because the agency said the move was not approved in advance. In a letter dated January 24, 1995, an agency official noted that "in the event that a listed property is moved, deletion from the National Register is automatic unless prior approval is obtained from the National Park Service. The National Register has no record of any material being provided concerning the Gallaher House prior to its 1992 relocation" (National Register of Historic Places nomination). Although the no-notice was disputed, the house remains off the Register.

Another highlight of Bridgeport is its collection of sculptures carved from trees along a three-block span of Foster Creek Avenue. The 16 sycamores had been planted more than 70 years ago but in the early 2000s, an arborist declared them to be diseased and dying. Although at first reluctant to remove the trees, when a branch fell on a car city officials knew they had to do something. In 2009, the city hired chainsaw sculptor Jacob Lucas to carve sculptures that represent local wildlife and town history. Lucas spent years transforming the trees into salmon, quail, wolves, cougars, bear, deer, pelicans, beavers, bees, eagles, and more. Besides the Foster Creek Avenue collection, Lucas carved a mustang outside Bridgeport High School and a boy fishing, which can be seen at Marina Park.

In 2023, Janet Conklin was mayor of Bridgeport, a position she assumed in 2014 when Mayor Marilynn Lynn was recalled, a move initiated by Bridgeport resident Michael Knox. Out of 13 charges documented in his letter to the Douglas County auditor, Superior Circuit Judge John Hotchkiss found that one of the complaints (hiring a city council employee without council approval) was sufficient for a recall election, held June 3, 2014. The voting was close but, as Knox later commented, "by a majority vote, the voting public who put Mayor Lynn into office have spoken and clearly announced their decision to hold her accountable for her actions. This now gives the city of Bridgeport an opportunity to heal – to experience a 'do over' – to move on into the future" ("Mayor Lynn Gets the Boot").

Bridgeport’s main industry is agriculture, primarily cherries, apples, and wheat. Each June, the community holds Bridgeport Daze, a weekend festival with vendor booths, family activities, live music, and a parade. 

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Opens Bids for Construction of Chief Joseph Dam Bridge at Bridgeport on July 15, 1958” (by Jim Kershner); “Pangborn, Clyde Edward (1894-1958) (by Priscilla Long); “Douglas County – Thumbnail History” (by Paula Becker); ”Woods, Rufus (1878-1950) (by Laura Arksey) accessed January 10, 2024 (; “Ticks of the Telegraph,” The Seattle Times, January 5, 1897, p. 2; Shannon Dininny, “Upgrades to Boost Power Output at Columbia Dams,” Ibid., May 26, 2010, p. B-10; Eric Lacitis, “Obama Isn’t Bridgeport-bound,” Ibid., May 11, 2011, p. B-8; “Money is Desired to Open Columbia,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 12, 1909, p. 4; “Complete Season’s Work on Columbia,” Ibid., May 13, 1909, p. 4;  “The City of Bridgeport,” About Us/ Our Communities, Douglas County PUD website accessed September 8, 2023 (; City of Bridgeport website accessed September 13, 2023 (; “Chief Joseph Dam and Rufus Woods Lake,” U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District website accessed September 11, 2023 (; Jeff Walter, “Chief Joseph Dam Bridge Reduced to a Single Lane,” Quad City Herald (Brewster, Washington), February 18, 2010; Amber Schlenker, “Mayor Lynn Gets the Boot,” Ibid., June 12, 2014; Mike Maltais, “Bridgeport High School Earns High Marks in Nationwide Survey,” Ibid., May 23, 2022 (; “Bridgeport School Buildings Rise,” Wenatchee World, February 10, 1992, p. 2; “Bridgeport’s Cutlass May Fly West,” Ibid., March 12, 1992, p. 14; “From China to NCW’s Frontier,” Ibid., April 16, 1992, p. 1; ”Outdoors Focus of River Towns,” Ibid., May 18, 1992, p. A-37; K. C. Mehaffey, “Bridgeport’s Unique Roadside Attraction Nears Completion,” Ibid., July 23, 2015 (; Gallaher House, National Register of Historic Places nomination documents from 1975-1995, website accessed September 11, 2023 (; Richard Mallory Allnutt, “FG-1D Corsair Project at Platinum Fighter Sales,” Warbirds News, August 18, 2022, website accessed September 12, 2023 (; Lindsey M. Evensen, “Pre-1900s Chinese Placer Mining in Northeastern Washington State: An Archaeological Investigation,” Eastern Washington University, EWU Masters Thesis Collection, 2016, website accessed September 12, 2023 (; Chief Joseph Dam Project, Projects and Facilities, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation website accessed September 13, 2023 (; Erin Pulley, “Chief Joseph Dam,” Spokane Historical, accessed September 13, 2023 (


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