Historic Structures

Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Company History Willamette River Swing Truss Railroad Bridge, Portland Oregon

The Burlington Northern bridge complex between Portland and Vancouver was the culmination of actions by the Northern Pacific Railway to continue control of the eastern traffic.

By 1876, Henry Villard controlled the Oregon & California Railroad, later the Southern Pacific, and in 1881, he took over the Northern Pacific. Simultaneously, he organized the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company (OR&N) and completed the line from Portland to Wallula in 1882 to connect with the Northern Pacific. This line, in turn, was finished in 1883, giving Portland and the Pacific Northwest the first rail connection with the east. Puget Sound had no direct connections and depended upon the Tacoma-Portland line which crossed the Columbia River by train ferry from Kalama, Washington, to Goble, Oregon, In 1884, the OR&N was also completed to Huntington, Oregon, to connect with the Oregon Short Line, a Union Pacific (UP) subsidiary built west from Granger, Wyoming.

Villard lost control of the Northern Pacific in early 1884 but regained it in 1887. By then, the line was built across the Cascades from Pasco to Tacoma, Washington, but the Union Pacific had taken over the OR&N, so they controlled the only access down the Columbia River to Portland. In 1889, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, along with the Great Northern Railway, located a line from Vancouver to Kalama, Washington, and applied for a bridge across the Columbia River at Vancouver. There was much maneuvering by the various railroads but little actual construction. Villard's departure in 1890 and the panic of 1893 stopped all activity. Both the NP and UP went into bankruptcy in 1893, and nothing further happened until Edward H. Harriman took over the Union Pacific in 1898.

The Union Pacific regained control of the OR&N in 1899, and the Northern Pacific, now allied with James J. Hill and the Great Northern, organised the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway Company to erect a railroad line down the north bank of the Columbia River. While this plan was partly to prevent the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad from preempting the water level grade, it also served to regain direct eastern access to Portland. The new bridge complex was to be the pivotal link to both the line to the east and to the new direct line to Puget Sound by way of Vancouver and Kalama which eliminated the old train ferry. The other rivalries were resolved when, in 1909, the Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Great Northern railroads started joint service from Portland to Puget Sound and commenced building a modern double track line.