When the first Steel Bridge was built in 1888 the company behind the construction was the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company (O. R. & N. Co.), an old and powerful entity that had evolved from the Oregon Steam Navigation Company hearkening back to the earliest days of transportation on the Columbia and Willamette rivers. This company was huge, with rail stretching to Chicago, 3 large ocean steamers, 16 large riverboats, serving all points from the Snake River in Idaho to Eugene, Oregon, up into the Puget Sound, the company also ran numerous barge services—there is nothing quite like it today.
But, it isn’t that simple, the story of railroads is a story of monopolies, lawyers, lawsuits, bankers, and continual bankruptcies. Railroads were a shell game played by billionaire monopolists to hide money, lose money on the books, and to make money by the hopper car load. As far as I can make it out, in 1888 the O.R. & N. Co. was leased to the Oregon Short Line, a Union Pacific company. In 1889 the OSL merged with the Utah & Northern, forming the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway, which continued the lease of O.R. & N. Co. Later that same year the O. S. L.. & U N. Railway purchased a controlling amount of stock in the O.R. & N. Co. The merged group of railroads was called the O.R. & N. Co. and became the Union Pacific’s branch in the west. (To make matters worse for people trying to sort this out in 1897 the Oregon Railway and Navigation Co. was reorganized, having been in receivership for several years. The new name they chose was the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company.)
So where did the O.W.R. & N. Co. come from? In 1910, the year the new Steel Bridge was built, the Oregon Washington Railroad & Navigation Co. (OWR&N) was incorporated as a consolidation of Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. and 14 other, smaller railroad companies in Oregon and Washington. This franchise continued on for a long time, until December 29, 1987, when it was merged with the Deschutes Railroad into the Oregon Short Line Railroad. The following day the Oregon Short Line Railroad was merged into the Union Pacific Railroad.
I have tried to make this simple, so I may have over simplified and made something go screwy. I welcome any comments by railroad historians if I have led anyone astray. I realize it is way more complex than how I have stated it, but it has to be honed down to where people can at least get the idea. In my overly simple way of looking at things, I think it is safe to say it was built and owned by the Union Pacific from the get go.
The not-so-great, but very hip looking, first Steel Bridge
In April 1907 the Portland Evening Telegram ran an article with a headline that read:
“Draw Open Three Hours Every Day. More than that time lost to traffic crossing the Steel Bridge.”The article stated that:
“…according to officials (the bridge) now opens 50 times a day to let vessels pass. The average time taken for opening and closing this bridge is four minutes, and thus team, streetcar, and pedestrian travel is stopped for three hours and 20 minutes every day.”Then, in September of 1908, after being up for only 10 years, the bridge was showing such signs of stress that the O. R. & N. Co. felt it necessary to order 4 streetcar lines that were using the bridge, off the bridge, forcing them to use other, less ideal routes on other bridges.
Back when the original bridge was built the papers often referred to it as “Harriman’s bridge,” after the O. R. & N. Co./Union Pacific president, E. H. Harriman. He died in 1909, the year before work on the present bridge was started, but if he could see it today—over one hundred years later—he would be quite pleased with the condition of this gift the Union Pacific has given to Portland for over 100 years.