Historic Structures

Bridge Changes and Events Willamette River Swing Truss Railroad Bridge, Portland Oregon

Burlington Northern Railroad's records on Willamette River Bridge 5.1 do not go back before 1944. The region's engineering functions were consolidated in BH's Seattle, Washington, office in 1983 and the older records were given or thrown away. Some records were donated to the Oregon Historical Society, but these appear to be limited to more general records and some scenic photographs unrelated to the Vancouver-Portland bridges, generally not organized and most inaccessible.

The consensus of views held by retired railroad men who worked for both the SP&S and BN railroads is that except for normal repairs, maintenance, and periodic shear fence replacement, the bridge remained generally as originally built until the rehabilitation of the draw machinery standby power system and the bridgetender's house in 1963 and the major restoration and repairs made following the Marie Bakke accident in 1978.

The World War II years appear to have been a peak period of collision incidents with the draw rest or shear fence. Navy ship and towboat accidents are frequently reported during the mid-1940s, apparently as a result of high activity in river traffic by wartime shipbuilding and salvage work as the war came to an end. Portland's sternwheeler towboats, steamers Clair, Henderson, and Portland, are frequently mentioned. The Steamer Portland became stuck under the draw in November 1944 because of a misunderstanding about the river level and clearance under the span. The Portland's stack passed safely, but its kingpost was caught by the girders, doing little damage to the bridge but effectively pinning the ship. The river was in flood tide and the potential for additional damage to both bridge and steamer was great. The Portland's captain partially flooded the vessel's hull, extinguishing its boiler fires, to lower it clear of the draw. A Portland fire boat was enlisted to aid the flooding and to pump out the water after the boat was freed. (The Portland's boiler fire had to be relit and steam raised before the ship could proceed to dock. No significant damages were reported to either the steamer or the bridge.

Despite a history of bridge fires on Portland's older bridges, the Willamette River SP&S bridge has had a relatively good fire safety record. Its deck consist of creosote-treated wood ties, and there is a substantial amount of oil-soaked wood framing under and around its central drum and machinery. The shear fence is entirely of timber construction. A 1949 fire in the center circle framework is reported to have been caused by welding sparks igniting oily rag wastes. The fire was extinguished by a fire boat. Damage was confined to the center circle's framing and to the deck ties above. A lightning fire burned the standby power pole mounted transformers one evening in June 1950, with no direct damage to the bridge.

Records for the 1950s and 1960s show that the bridge underwent a series of retrofit improvements. Steel ties were installed under the rail locks in August 1954. A general machinery cleaning and overhaul occurred in May-October 1956, despite a breakdown of the draw lock gears at the Portland end in March 1957. The quadrant gear's teeth broke and allowed half the quadrant and its counterweight to drop into the river. The 1957 breakdown is reported to have delayed train service until it was repaired. Other major machinery repairs are reported for November 1958 and July 1959, bull shaft replacement and other turning machinery gears replaced and spares made by Monarch Forge and Machine Works in Portland. Spares were reported to be stored in the Vancouver, Washington, roundhouse. The stored gear spares were destroyed in a January 1971 fire at the roundhouse.

A September 1957 collision with the center Pier III by a Tidewater-Shaver ammonia barge resulted in Gunnite concrete repairs being made to the monolithic structures.

The Finnish steamship, Korsholma, hit and collapsed the downstream draw protection in October 1957. The vessel's prow was badly bent and opened by the impact.

The air compressors were replaced in February 1958. The old compressors were found to be not beneficially repairable.

Some replacement of upstream draw protection was done in October 1958 due to age and rot. During this work, the General Construction Company barge was struck by the tug Tidewater Shaver.

The General Construction Company contracted to replace some of the draw span's structural steel in 1959, beams and girders, bottom laterals, top stringer laterals, top and lower stringer flanges, top cover plates on floor beams, and miscellaneous pieces.

The 1960s saw major efforts to clean up the Willamette River's pollution and to rehabilitate the bridge. River water quality monitoring stations were installed on the shear fence by the U. S. Public Health Service in 1961 and continued by the succeeding EPA in the 1970s. Some corroded steel structural sections were replated in 1960 and measures were taken to protect other members from corrosion damage, primarily deck-supporting members. The removal of the gas standby generation equipment and improvements to the bridgetender's house were done in November 1963, the same year that the Hayden Island trestle was replaced by a fill. Marine band VHF radio telephones were installed in 1967 to facilitate communications with river vessels, at the request of the Columbia River pilots. jn 1974, the railroad sought Coast Guard approval to use the radio-phone communications to better coordinate the priorities of trains versus river traffic, so as to avoid delaying Amtrak passenger trains and losing "on time" bonuses. Other recorded work on or about the bridge was for the 1967 dredging of the "40-Ft. Channel to the Sea," the installation of river mile markers on the draw rest in 1961, and alterations and maintenance to the submarine cable by Pacific Power & Light Company in 1967.

In June 1968, jurisdiction for bridge permits over navigable waterways was transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Coast Guard under the Secretary of Transportation.

The 1970s saw a continuation of the typical pattern of three to four accidents between river vessels and the bridge's shear fence. The General Construction Company made most of the repairs. The records show a routine pattern of maintenance work and repairs of motors, rail locks, submarine cables, dredging, safety devices and occasional fire damage.

In an attempt to mitigate the difficulty with ship passage through the draw, new navigation lights were installed in 1976. In December of that year, the Port of Portland announced plans for building the West's largest drydock, sufficient to service the maximum width of a vessel that could pass through the Willamette Bridge's draw. This expansion of the Port's facilities to accommodate larger ship repairs began to put pressure on the bridge for its replacement with a larger draw opening.

Through the Willamette River Bridge 5.1 regularly pass about 24 trains per day, most Amtrak and through freights, fewer trains than before the several roads consolidated into Burlington Northern. Each of the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and SP&S had separate marshalling yards and maintenance facilities in northwest Portland. Now the trains are made up and maintained in Vancouver and the Portland yards are being considered for development as business and industrial sites. The bridge is opened and closed about 300 times a month, most on weekends when there is more pleasure boat traffic in addition to the commercial.

The October 27, 1978, collision of the Norwegian ship, K/V Marie Bakke, with the draw protection and the opened draw span resulted in the first major rebuilding of the draw span and machinery in its seventy years. The impact demolished a substantial part of the downstream shear fence, damaged the Portland end of the span, and moved the span about four feet upstream, breaking its center pivot, many gears, and the roller nest. There was danger that the entire draw might fall over into the river. The operator was up in the bridgetender's house at the time and was pretty well shaken up by the accident. All power and telephone communications were cut, with only the battery-powered radio-phones to request help. The accident, the expense of the repairs, and the delays occasioned by the bridge being out of service to both railroad and river traffic for three months brought concerted action to bear on its replacement with a larger draw span.

Studies on the feasibility and costs to replace the draw began immediately after the repairs were made. Preliminary meetings were held during 1979 and formal hearings conducted by the Coast Guard in September 1980. Testimony generally emphasised the hazard to navigation presented by the existing bridge, its narrow draw passages relative to the increasingly large vessels visiting the Portland harbor and its repair facilities upstream to the bridge, and the cost-benefits to the city and region if a larger span was installed. Except for the delays caused to the railroad's trains when an accident closed the bridge, the bridge is otherwise very satisfactory to the railroads and has been found to be in excellent condition, especially following the major repairs in 1978. It has been through the funding of the Truman-Hobbs Act that the planned replacement was made possible.

The bridge was replaced and demolished.