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A new bridge opened 56 years ago tomorrow (August 27, 1966). The Astoria-Megler Bridge was a joint project of the Oregon State Highway Department (now the Oregon Department of Transportation) and the Washington State Highway Department (now the Washington State Department of Transportation).
The Astoria-Megler Bridge (also called the Astoria Bridge and/or the Columbia River Bridge), is a truss bridge that spans the mouth of the Columbia River (which also serves as the border of the two states), between the city of Astoria , Oregon, and Point Ellice (located near the community of Megler, Washington).
A truck and multiple cars cross the bridge. (Photo: Doug/gribblenation.org)
The Columbia River is North America’s largest river that flows into the Pacific Ocean. On the continent it is exceeded in discharge only by the Mississippi, St. Lawrence and Mackenzie rivers. The Columbia is among the world’s greatest sources of hydroelectric power; with its tributaries it represents one-third of US hydropower.
George Davidson sketch, “Columbia in a Squall”
In addition, its mouth provides the first deepwater harbor north of San Francisco. The entrance to the river from the Pacific Ocean was discovered by Captain Robert Gray in 1792 and he named the river for his ship, the Columbia. The ship was also the first US ship to sail around the world. Captain Gray’s discovery served as the basis for American claims to what became known as the Oregon Country (and then the Oregon and Washington territories). To read more about the voyages of the Columbia, please follow this link to a recent FreightWaves Classics article.
In 1921, Astoria captain “Fritz” Elving began building ferries to take passengers and automobiles across the Columbia to Megler. His fleet grew as the number of automobiles increased, but it was unable to keep up with growing demands. Ferry service was slow, and the ferries did not cross the river in bad weather. In addition, the 30-minute trip caused major traffic jams as auto travel grew in popularity.
One of the ferries that took cars and passengers across the Columbia River. (Photo: Coast Explorer Magazine)
By the 1930s, there were calls to build a bridge, but it wasn’t until two decades later that the project was seriously considered. In 1946, following World War II, operation of the ferry system was assumed by the State of Oregon, with operational control assigned to the State Highway Department.
Although the ferry service was being operated by the State of Oregon, the issues that caused problems for the privately owned company persisted. When bad weather struck, the ferry service was interrupted, and at times traffic waiting to board the ferry would cause traffic jams.
During the summer of 1953, long waits for the Astoria ferry service led bridge proponents to take up the battle again. Two years later, the Port of Astoria unveiled a design for the Astoria-Megler Bridge, and the campaign to find the $24 million to build it began.
Oregon legislators approved the bridge’s construction in 1959; however, a key part of the legislation called for the State of Washington to split the cost of the bridge 50-50. Washington legislators countered with a 75-25 offer, seeing little benefit in a bridge along the coast. Oregon had also proposed that the bridge be tolled in order to offset its cost, but Washington lawmakers were against a toll, according to The Oregonian newspaper.
Despite widespread public support for the bridge, the 1960s began with the bridge still facing an uncertain fate. Following a two-state legislative meeting in 1961, The Oregonian reported that “A four-mile bridge to span the mouth of the Columbia River appeared as close to construction Saturday as it was when first proposed nearly 30 years ago.”
Despite continued opposition by some, State Senator Dan Theil of Astoria successfully headed the legislative crusade for the bridge. The plan was finally approved by both states in 1962; construction was scheduled to begin in November 1962.
Building the bridge. (Photo: discoverourcoast.com)
Building the bridge
The site of the bridge is at the point where Columbia Bar pilots and river pilots exchange control of commercial vessels. The Columbia Bar, which is also known as “the Graveyard of the Pacific,” is a system of bars and shoals at the mouth of the Columbia River. The Columbia Bar is one of the most dangerous bar crossings in the world. It is about three miles wide and six miles long. The Columbia River’s current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean at the Columbia Bar, often as large standing waves. The waves are caused in part by the deposit of sediment as the river slows, as well as the river water mixing with ocean waves. The waves, wind and current are hazardous for vessels of all sizes.
On August 6, 1962, Oregon’s Governor (and future US Senator), Mark O. Hatfield, took part in the groundbreaking for the bridge. Actual construction work began on November 5, 1962.
The Astoria-Megler Bridge was designed and engineered by George Stevens, Ivan D. Merchant and William A. Bugee. The bridge was built by DeLong Corporation, American Bridge Corporation and Pomeroy Gerwick.
A drawing shows the bridge from the side. (Image: historicbridges.org)
The bridge’s steel structure was built in Vancouver, Washington, and then its massive sections were barged down the Columbia River and lifted into place using huge hydraulic jacks.
From south to north, the bridge can be roughly divided into four sections: “the curved south/Astoria approach ramp; the enormous continuous main through truss spans; a low-level causeway; and lastly a slightly elevated series of simple span through trusses at the northern/Megler end.” The causeway is the longest section of the bridge, which creates an unusually long distance between the two truss sections of the bridge.
The Astoria approach uses “pre-stressed concrete beam spans, set on concrete piers, located to avoid overloading the slide-prone Astoria hills. The approach ramp curves counter-clockwise through a full 360 degrees, climbing almost 200 feet above mean low water.”
A cantilever truss design was selected for the bridge’s main span, which is located closer to the Oregon side of the river. Toward the Washington State side of the bridge is the lengthy causeway. The main span is a “2,468-foot-long steel cantilever through truss, which is flanked by five steel deck trusses, 140 concrete deck girder spans” (each 80 feet long), and “at the Washington end of the bridge, seven 350 -foot steel through truss spans.”
The Astoria-Megler Bridge. (Photo: Nathan Holth/historicbridges.org)
The bridge was designed to withstand some of the worst weather imaginable; the bridge has been hit by wind gusts of 150 miles per hour from fierce Pacific storms that occasionally batter the coast. In addition, the concrete piers were built to handle the Columbia River’s flood speed of nine miles per hour; at times whole trees are swept along the river by the raging water and several have collided with the bridge’s piers.
The bridge is historically and technologically significant – not only for its overall length but also for the length of its main span. Its three spans have a total length of 21,474 feet (or almost 4.1 miles). When it was completed in 1966, it was the longest continuous truss bridge in the world. Now it is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America.
The dedication program. (Photo: archives.org)
Dedication of the bridge
The Astoria-Megler Bridge was formally dedicated on August 27, 1966. Approximately 8,000 people attended the Saturday afternoon dedication ceremonies. Public officials on hand for the ceremonies included Governors Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Dan Evans of Washington. Both governors, along with Miss Oregon (Lita Schiel) and Miss Washington (Sandra Lee Marth), cut a ribbon on a pair of swinging doors to formally open the bridge.
“It is a real symbol of the greatness of the Lower Columbia River and a real tribute to those who dreamed this dream and realized an ambition,” Hatfield said at the dedication. “It is an answer to the scoffers who jeered the idea from the start.”
“They said it couldn’t be done” was the rallying cry by many at the dedication ceremony. The bridge’s opening also closed the final gap of US Highway 101 between Los Angeles and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
A 1966 bridge dedication token. (Photo: CollecOnline.com)
The bridge cost $24 million (about $219.5 million today) to build. The original toll in 1966 was $1.50 per car. During the last five months of 1966, the bridge carried about 240,000 motor vehicles, which had been the number projected for all of 1967. By 1993, more than 1.6 million vehicles a year were crossing the bridge. Due to its popularity, toll collections ended on December 24, 1993, when the bridge’s bonds were fully paid. The pay-off date was more than two years earlier than planned. That’s a pretty good record for a “bridge to nowhere.”
While there are no longer tolls to cross the Astoria-Megler Bridge, remnants of the toll booth on the Oregon side of the Columbia still remain on US 101. (Photo: doug/gribblenation.com)
The bridge’s impact
According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, the annual average daily traffic count on the bridge was more than 9,000 vehicles crossing in both directions in 2019.
A number of events have occurred on the bridge. There was a kidnapping that ended when a toll collector saw a woman mouth “Help Me” from the back of a sedan. One driver set the record for speed on the bridge – 159 mph – the fastest motorist ever caught speeding anywhere by the Oregon State Police.
Thousands cross the bridge during a Great Columbia Crossing in 2019. (Photo: oregonlive.com)
Beginning in the fall of 1982 and held annually since, one lane on the Astoria-Megler Bridge closes for the Great Columbia Crossing 10K Run/Walk. Astoria hosts the Silver Salmon Celebration festival in conjunction with the Great Columbia Crossing.
Astoria also has been a popular location to film commercials, TV shows and movies; several car and truck television commercials, The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop were set in Astoria. The Astoria-Megler Bridge was on film in the movie Short Circuit, when the robot Number Five crosses the main span of the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Oregon.
Thanks to Encyclopedia Britannica, travelastoria.com, oldoregon.com, historicbridges.org, onlyinyourstate.com, oregonlive.com, and gribblenation.org for information and photos that contributed to this article.