Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How to walk the Oregon City Bridge and not die (*hack* *cough* *gag*)

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Today's installment of this humble blog's ongoing bridge series takes us south, to the Oregon City Bridge, which crosses the Willamette River down in, uh, Oregon City. It's a bit far afield for this project of mine, but it looked interesting and not excessively unsafe, so I thought I'd go check it out. It's outside my usual haunts and I'd only ever driven over it once or twice, and I thought it might be good for a few photos.

Oregon City Bridge

Oregon City Bridge

Oregon City Bridge

The bridge is pretty, but it's in terrible shape. To my untrained eye, at least, it looks like it's worse off than the Sellwood. I do realize the big trouble with the Sellwood is stuff you can't see easily, but it sure looks like the Oregon City Bridge is in a bad way. There are cracks all over the place, and places where the concrete's fallen away, sometimes exposing the bare metal skeleton underneath.

Oregon City Bridge

Oregon City Bridge

Updated: As a user comment below points out, ODOT already has a repair project in the works, scheduled for early 2009. Yay! So when I gripe about the current state of disrepair in the rest of this post and complain nobody's doing anything, just ignore that part, ok? Thx. Mgmt.

Oregon City Bridge

I wouldn't care so much if this was just another anonymous concrete girder bridge, but this is one of the state's collection of Conde McCullough bridges. There's a lot of those out there, but I think this may be the only one in the Portland area. I could easily be wrong about that. It's an unusual example in that the bridge deck is angled a bit, because the West Linn bank is higher than the Oregon City side. It's not as obvious in my photos as I hoped it would be. I think you may get a better view of that if you go uphill on the Oregon City side, but I didn't do that. Sorry.

Oregon City Bridge

Oregon City Bridge

Also, a couple of commenters below sort of get on my case for not recounting the long and illustrious history of Oregon City. I'd just like to point out that's intentional, as this post is just about the bridge, hence the title. Also the text and photos. I mean, there already are -- or were -- multiple museums devoted exclusively to that subject. So it's been covered already. And honestly I've never found pioneer history all that compelling. If you really wanted me to write about it, I would feel obligated to make up exciting new facts to make the story more interesting. I'd tell readers about how Oregon City lost the state capitol to Salem due to their rabid Confederate sympathies, a talent for picking the wrong side that persists to the present day, hence the big gold Saddam Hussein statue at the corner of Avenida Manuel Noriega and Kaiser-Wilhelm-Straße. I'd even let people in on the city's dark secrets. For example, the townsfolk used to offer human sacrifices every full moon to appease the great foul kraken that lived beneath Willamette Falls. In fact this practice continued up to the early 1970s, when Governor Tom McCall personally captured the kraken with his bare hands and sent it back to California (where it quickly found a job as a record industry lawyer). Because it just isn't a proper Oregon myth unless Tom McCall shows up at some point. Anyway, you probably see where I'm going with this: Do you really, seriously, want me creating the internet's official record of Oregon City history? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Oregon City Bridge

Oregon City Bridge

Anyway, another unusual detail about the bridge is that it was designed with public restrooms built into the bridge piers, supposedly. While walking across, you'll come across a couple of wider areas with spiky art deco bits standing up. These were, supposedly, the locations of stairs down to the restrooms. And if you look closely at the bridge from the side, just beneath the bridge deck you can see what look like (and supposedly are) balconies. Balconies! I keep saying "supposedly" because it's such a bizarre idea. I mean, restrooms in the middle of a bridge? Who would dream this up? And who would use it, if someone dreamed it up? And yet, there's a certain appeal to answering nature's call while enjoying a grand view of Willamette Falls and the river. Too bad, then, that the restrooms were closed due to vandalism, way back in 1937. Or so says Wikipedia. I'm still not sure I believe a word of it.

Oregon City Bridge

The bridge has all the standard bike/pedestrian hazards. Not enough sidewalk, and too much traffic, going too fast. The bridge is on the narrow side, but this time vehicles bear the brunt of the narrowness. Parts of the bridge are scraped and battered from vehicle collisions over the years. I saw at least one pile of recent debris that looked as if someone had lost a side mirror by banging it against a bridge girder. Driving it in a sensible midsize sedan wasn't so bad, at least. But there wasn't a lot of oncoming traffic at the time, so maybe I was just lucky.

Oregon City from the bridge

There's an additional, somewhat exotic hazard to worry about here on top of the standard ones. Wikipedia asserts that the concrete used in the bridge is something called "gunite", which was chosen specifically to resist corrosion due to sulfur dioxide from the nearby paper mills. Ah, the sulfur dioxide. Which brings us to the "not dying" part of this post.

Outflow, Oregon City

If you've ever been to Yellowstone, or to any hot springs up in the Cascades, you'll instantly recognize the scent of sulfur dioxide. But this time it's a byproduct of making newsprint, not some kind of allegedly-health-giving natural mud concotion. So you've got no reason now to pretend to like it. There is one big advantage here, compared to hot springs in the Cascades, in that there are far fewer unattractive naked people. Which is something, definitely. The really bad thing about sulfur dioxide isn't the smell, though; it's that it forms sulfuric acid when it reacts with water, and there's a lot of water here. Eeeww. Gross.

The whole undertaking was a little gross, come to think of it. The air smelled really bad, something unidentifiable and foamy was flowing into the river just upstream of the bridge, and the bridge itself was practically rusting and dissolving away before my eyes. Ick! When I got back to my car and drove off, the back of my throat was still burning a little just from breathing the air. So I do think I've semi-legitimately covered the "not dying" angle this time around.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those snobby people who hate all things industrial and can't wait for those icky jobs to leave for China. That's crazy, and I don't see how you can expect to have a viable economy based on everyone making lattes for each other. The paper mills at Oregon City aren't pretty, but if you read the Oregonian, this is where your newsprint comes from. Basically I just didn't like the smell, or the subsequent tingling, burning sensation. I can't even imagine what it must've been like before modern Clean Air laws.

But if you ignore all that stuff, the bridge itself sure is pretty. There's no denying that. And a bit surprisingly, the businesses around either end of the bridge aren't notably sleazy, unlike the Sellwood & the Ross Island. So there's that.

Oregon City Bridge

Walking across the bridge? Oh, there's not much to that. Just park somewhere close if you need to, and walk across. There's no crosswalk immediately on the West Linn side, but if you feel like turning around, jogging across when there's no traffic is feasible, or at least it was when I was there. The heavy-duty bridge pillars stand between you and traffic, so it's really not all that scary. Relatively speaking, at least, compared to some of the other bridges out there. A bit stinky, yes, but not too scary.

Oregon City Elevator

If you park on the Oregon City side of the bridge, note that downtown OC has parking meters. Not the fancy green European boxes like we have in Portland, no, these are the real deal, old-sk00l parking meters. Ok, they're digital, and you don't have to turn a crank when you put the money in. But other than that, they're totally old-sk00l.

Also, there's the municipal elevator, just blocks from the bridge. I could've made it a twofer and checked out the elevator too, but I had other priorities. I've been on the elevator before, way back in my Cub Scout days. I remember back then there was this weird old guy operating the elevator, and it creeped me out a little even then. It creeps me out even more looking back on it.

Apart from the goofy 50's elevator, Oregon City looks pretty much like your classic, prototypical blue collar town. It's blue collar with a Portland-area twist: There's a homebrew supply shop right next to the bridge, and while I was walking around town I was passed by a Prius with the windows down, blaring country music. Seriously. The whole place is too perfect -- if Oregon City didn't exist, Hollywood would have to invent it. Maybe I'm just one of those dreaded Portland creative types, but when I look around, I see plotlines everywhere. Well, cliches, mostly, but that's about the same thing. Picture our hero, a fresh-faced all-American working class kid here in Oregon City. Daddy works at the paper mill, just like his daddy did, and his grandpa before that. Mama works long hours down at the diner. Our hero knows this will be his life too, but he wants out. If only he could land that football scholarship to State U. Then he meets our heroine, a rich girl from across the river in ritzy West Linn, home to the rich kids' school -- which is, coincidentally, the football archrival of our hero's school. Her daddy's a plastic surgeon, his trophy wife is a former spokesmodel, and they're usually away at the vacation home in Palm Springs. Our young protagonists quickly fall in love, but it's a problem, because he's from the wrong side of the tracks, the tracks in this case being a river. Cue outraged parents on both sides. Cue friends and teammates who all feel terribly betrayed. The bridge is our young lovers' special place, and several touching scenes are filmed there. The standard plot twists ensue, and there could very well be a climactic football game, as there often is. Our hero nails that scholarship, and finally makes daddy proud, for the first time ever. And then, it turns out that our heroine's going to State U. as well. Possibly her father's had a reversal of fortune, or the school has the #1 program in the nation for some obscure academic specialty she's interested in. Or she's merely giving up her own dreams to be with our hero. Something along those lines, anyway. Just so everyone lives happily ever after. Cue the credits.

Ok, it's not a very original plot. Successful movie plots never are. If it got greenlighted, I'd want to film on location (unless Vancouver BC made me a really great offer). To film on location, the bridge would need to be gussied up a little. Maybe ODOT could do it, since they're responsible for the bridge, at least in theory. Or if not ODOT, maybe the studio. Chances are the studio has more money anyway. So, ok, it's a longshot. If you have a better suggestion on how to get this poor little bridge repaired, feel free to chime in.


Anonymous said...

I understand that the bridge is due for a major overhaul in 2009.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should crank up your history book and read something about the "End of the Oregon Trail" you'd appreciate more of this humble little town. Yeah I was at the Clackamas River earlier today and found an abandoned bridge (old rail cridge I guess) a few feet upstream of the McLoughlin Bridge near one of the intakes of the water system and beside the Clackamas River Trail in OREGON CITY. I am proud of its elevator and do you know how many of those are actually exist in the US today? You should have come inside now, it' pretty and no more creepy operator.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your comments about the bridge falling apart and the nasty river water with wastes from the mill. Hopefully an environmental cleanup will come about soon.
As for the paper mill and Oregon City being a "Blue Collar" town, I hardly think so anymore. This town has so much rich history. Yes, it surrounds smaller rural towns, so that may explain your Toyota Prius blasting country music. But most people who live in Oregon City are normal, and many are just as classy as you think the people across the river in West Linn are....seriously, have you driven around certain parts of West LInn? There are some bad parts with many shady characters and it's not much better.
Just an FYI, the mill only has like only 100 workers left. Who knows how much longer it will be around with the economy being outsourced to China. It sits on one of the most valuable pieces of property though, overlooking the Willamette Falls, the second falls in the U.S. with the most water rushing per second. Did you know that John McLoughlin's house use to sit exactly where the mill is located today? In case you forgot Oregon history, he is the Father of Oregon, and Oregon City was the first U.S. city incorporated West of the Rockies. It also use to be the capital of Oregon, and at one time, was a flourishing city in art and culture.
Anyway, the city is becoming more urban and is very up and coming, with a renovation of Main Street on the way. There are some fabulous homes in Oregon City and not everyone living there fits your stereotype of being a son of a blue collar daddy working at the mill in his father's footsteps with no education. That would like not fit even one percent of people living in Oregon City (LOL). It's just funny how judgements are made on a city that you don't seem to know much about or haven't spent much time in.
Oh ya, I almost forgot, the elevator, is a replica of the Space Needle in Seattle. It is one of the only perpendicular streets in the entire United States. Many people use the elevator daily to get from the bluff above, to buildings such as the court house or law offices. Things have changed since you were a cub scout.

-N said...

Cool photos and great post-- except that your paper mill facts are incorrect in almost every respect.

They don't make news print at either of the two paper mills. The Blue Heron (http://www.blueheronpaper.com/about_hist.html)mill on the Oregon City side recycles newsprint to make paper products for McDonalds.

The mill on the West Linn side (http://www.wlinpco.com/) makes ceramic coated paper for slick magazine covers and specialty paper for perfume and cologne samples.

Both Mills use the newest technology to produce their products in an environmentally responsible way. The smell you experienced is only the smell of heated wood pulp- not some toxic gas.

-N said...

Oh also, the elevator has just been refurbished with fantastic new 3D historic photos, and new interior tile. The artwork by Michael Asbill is amazing and fit for the only Municipal Elevator in the United States

It is quite stunning.

Oregon City elevator project:



Patti said...

I liked your movie idea... They did indeed make a movie right there at the foot of the bridge, it starred Jennifer Aniston (gasp!), Woody Harrelson, and Steve Zahn. I wonder what they thought of the fnky smell?

As far as the bridge itself is concerned, we are one of the small, family owned businesses right on Main Street as you drive off the bridge. The bridge is closed now for some repair, and it's hugely impacting the entire area. Our businesses are being choked, some faster than others. I know it needs repairs, I drove it twice a day. I just hope it can be done without killing off all the shops already struggling in this economy.

Anonymous said...

How I do hate tourists who don't know a thing about the history of a place and act like they're special and we're not.And immediately think there's nasty stuff in the water. With the strict environmentalism today I'm sure that's not true.
I grew up in Oregon City and though I moved away I still love the little town. Spent many an hour roaming around the promenade and the parks and the library where my mom worked. FYI - the stone steps on the prom were made especially short for the ladies of the day to be able to walk up them in their long skirts.

wizzyton said...

not every city hosts an episode of 'ROUTE 66" of the early 60s.