Snake River Bridge at Burbank burns on September 9, 1949.

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 2/01/2006
  • Essay 7619
On the night of September 9, 1949, the Snake River Bridge near Burbank, which crosses the Snake near its confluence with the Columbia and connects Franklin and Walla Walla counties, catches fire. The fire spreads from a cotton blanket hanging from the back of a car. The car is traveling north on State Highway 12 when it crosses the bridge, heading for the Franklin County side. Another motorist flags down the driver, but not before the fire jumps to the deck of the bridge. Firefighters extinguish the fire after eight hours of fighting it, but state highway officials declare the bridge a total loss.

Bridging the Snake

The bridge was dedicated on May 5, 1921.  It replaced an unreliable ferry service between Walla Walla and Franklin Counties. The two counties split the cost of $227,356.  Walla Walla County commissioners were initially reluctant to float a bond for the bridge because they were afraid of criticism that Franklin County would benefit more from the bridge than would Walla Walla County.  Eventually the commissioners voted in favor of the bridge and the project continued. 

Pacific Bridge Co. of Portland built the steel-truss bridge with concrete approaches and piers.  It was approximately 2,600 feet long and 125 feet tall.  The toll was removed on August 27, 1927, at which time the bridge was resurfaced with wooden planking and asphalt.  It was repaired again in the spring of 1948, when highway crews covered the wooden roadbed with tar and creosote.  These substances are very flammable and it only took little in the way of ignition to set the roadbed on fire. 

Bridge on Fire

The fire started at approximately 3:30 p.m.  The Pasco Fire Department was first on the scene and found the bridge already engulfed.  Walla Walla County firefighters used a 500-gallon truck to douse the fire; they did not have hoses long enough to take water directly from the Snake River, which flowed more than 50 feet below the bridge.  Firefighters arrived from Franklin County and Benton County and a State highway crew also pitched in.

Firefighters on the south bank ripped up planks in the bridge’s decking to douse the fire burning below.  They hung from the steel supports to spray water on the underside of the bridge.  To keep the fire from spreading, they blew up the Burbank side of the bridge with dynamite.  Chief Harold C. Winn of the Walla Walla County Fire Department directed the activity.  J. C. Brown led the dynamite crew, who used pickaxes to dig dynamite holes.  Several teenage volunteers helped the firefighters with odd jobs.

Handicapped by restricted access to the fire and a 40-mile-per-hour wind, firefighters could not put out the fire until after midnight.  Ray and Franklie Uhling, operators of a Burbank service station, served sandwiches and coffee to firemen on the south shore.  Red Cross served food on the Franklin County side. 

A Total Loss

Immediately after the fire, traffic was diverted.  A barricade was placed across Highway 12 at the Wallula Junction.  Travelers from Walla Walla had to drive from the junction, along the Oregon border to Umatilla, cross the Columbia on the ferry to Plymouth or Patterson, and drive north to reach the Tri-Cities.  Travelers going from the Tri-Cities to Walla Walla drove the reverse route.  A ferry began operating at Wallula, which crossed to Hover, south of Kennewick.  Some traffic drove to Lyon’s Ferry, about 30 miles north of Walla Walla, to cross the Snake River and drive east through Kahlotus to get to Pasco.  People who lived in Burbank, but worked in Pasco, drove to the bridge, walked across the railroad bridge, then got a ride on the other side.

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin had to deliver its papers to Pasco by plane.  They delivered afternoon editions by boat across the Snake River.

George Stevens, the state highway department's Chief Bridge Engineer, and Lind Bloom, Chief Bridge Inspector, from Olympia, declared the bridge a total loss.  The steel girders in the decking had been badly twisted by the intense heat of the fire.  Arthur M. Rhodes, district superintendent, estimated it would take at least a year to repair the bridge.  A shortage of steel and other materials might make it take even longer.

Highway engineers had intended to replace the bridge within two years of a 1948 repair because of McNary Dam construction.  When the reservoir backed up behind the dam, a new bridge would be needed due to higher water level.  The fire accelerated their schedule.

Colonel Whipple, Chief Engineer of the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assessed the situation.  He agreed that the McNary backwater would have forced taking this bridge out anyway.  But he urged caution since the Snake is a navigable river and there were many factors to consider. 


As an interim measure, Tom Doyle, Yakima District Highway Engineer, suggested using a ferry while the bridge was rebuilt.  Doyle negotiated with four firms for service.  Another option was to place planks over the railroad bridge for vehicle traffic.  Ultimately, officials decided to build a pontoon bridge because it could handle a higher volume of traffic.  Director of Highways W. A. Bugge, Tom Doyle, and other highway officials, as well as Major Max Leighty, Captain Richard Hirz, and Lt. Kosorck from Fort Lewis, joined in the decision.  The pontoon bridge would be removed if the military needed it or if winter weather damaged the bridge.

From Fort Lewis, the 503rd Engineer Pontoon Bridge Company (the Corps of Engineers' motto is Essayons, French for "We will try") trucked in the parts, in about 60 truckloads, on September 16.  Because of the emergency, they were allowed to drive across Chinook pass, which usually bans truck traffic.  The State Patrol escorted them the whole way.  Hirz and Kosorck directed about 140 men needed to build the bridge. 

The pontoon bridge opened for traffic on September 23, 1949.  It was 820 feet across, but only 12 feet wide, so only one direction of traffic could proceed at a time.  Flaggers controlled the flow of traffic.  Twenty cars passed in the first 10 minutes.  The load limit for the aluminum bridge was 35 tons, so vehicles could travel no more than 15 m.p.h., spaced at least 25 feet apart. 

The 503rd Engineer Pontoon Bridge Company returned to Fort Lewis on September 24. The pontoon bridge was not in place very long.  During wind or high water, the bridge was closed.  When cold weather arrived, ice in the river dislodged it and it floated out of the Snake and down the Columbia. The deck and pontoons lodged against the piers of the Northern Pacific Railroad past the Wallula Junction.  The Corps of Engineers decided it was too difficult to tow it back upstream. The 573rd Engineer Pontoon Bridge Company dismantled it and trucked it back to Fort Lewis.  By the time this happened, highway engineers were able to open the burned bridge for one-way traffic.

A New Bridge

The General Construction Company of Portland began construction on a new bridge on April 17, 1950, and completed it on June 24, 1952.  The new bridge, built for $1,244,500, was 1,770 feet long and 28 feet wide, with a three-foot sidewalk and concrete deck.  The bridge had an 866-foot cantilever truss span and sat 50 feet above high water.  The approaches to the bridge had to be straightened for six miles to align with the bridge.  Afterward the old burned bridge was dismantled. 

Sources: Bill Bequette, "Snake Span ‘Total Loss,’" Tri-City Herald (Kennewick), September 11, 1949, p. 1; "Bridge was Too Light for Cement," Ibid., September 11, 1949, p. 1; "Whipple Uncertain if Engineers Will Help Build New Snake Bridge," Ibid., September 12, 1949, p. 1; "Ferry to Replace Burned Bridge over Snake River, Ibid., September 13, 1949, p. 1; "O.K. Pontoon Bridge," Ibid., September 15, 1949, p. 1; "Pontoon Bridge Work Starts," Ibid., September 16, 1949, p. 1; "Snake Span Traffic Flowing," Ibid., September 23, 1949, p. 1; Walt Penk, "Local Chief Directs Work," Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, September 11, 1949, p. 1; "Ferry of U-Bs Across River Planned," Ibid., September 12, 1949, p. 1; "Poor Ferry Service Led to First Bridge Over Snake, Fire the Second," Tri-City Herald, July 29, 1954, p. 18; Walter A. Oberst, Railroads, Reclamation And the River: A History of Pasco (Pasco: Franklin County Historical Society, 1978); Franky Uhling, My Life and How Burbank Survived (Burbank: The Author, 1997).

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