Monday, September 23, 2013

The Steel Bridge and the Railroad

I don’t know if anyone has noticed this, but the Steel Bridge on old postcards is often designated as being owned by any one of three different companies. Most often you will see the words “O.W.R. & N. Co. Bridge across the Willamette,” or something to that effect. Other times the card might read, “O. R. R. & N. Co. bridge, Portland, Oregon.” Then, on occasion, a card might say, “Union Pacific bridge, Portland, Oregon.” This was confusing to me at one time, until I read a little something on the history of the Union Pacific lines in the west, then I became even more confused. The lines were in and out of receivership, leased, sold, given different, but very similar names, and called different names by different levels of railroad hierarchy.

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 the years before the decline of river transportation, not a single bridge that was built in Portland was welcomed by mariners. They were all impediments to maritime traffic. This is why in the early part of the century mayor Harry Lane was in favor of tunnels instead of bridges, and he had lots of supporters, especially among men with with anchors tattooed on their biceps. The War Department had to sign off an any bridge built over navigable waters, but in the case of the old Steel Bridge there was a great deal of incompetence on several levels. For one thing, it was too low. The tiniest little dingy needed the bridge to open for it to pass. During high water in the late 1890s it was only 2 feet above the freshet. Another fault, that affected everyone from the streetcar passenger to the ship captain, was that the bridge was slow to open and close. With the main transportation artery, in those days, being the river, the bridge was swinging open and closed all day and most of the night.

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.

When work was begun on the new Steel Bridge in 1910 it was necessary to build it in a different location so as to keep the railroads running during construction. The condemnation of riverfront property and the loss of streetcars in front of some businesses gave rise to a lot of bitter complaints. In spite of opposition this time they did it right. The railroad built a bridge strong enough to withstand the stresses of heavy rail traffic, vehicle traffic, and freezes and floods into the 21st century and beyond. The addition in 2001 of the pedestrian and bicycle cantilevered walkway, which was added to complete the circle of the downtown river walk, was a brilliant achievement in good design, adding rather than detracting from the strength and beauty of the bridge.

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.