Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to walk the St. Johns Bridge and not die (continuing the theme)

Shadows, St. Johns Bridge

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So the latest installment of my apparent bridge-wandering project takes us north to the gothic, mega-photo-licious St. Johns Bridge. Everybody knows it, everybody loves it, but what's it like to walk across? I figured I'd go check it out.

Despite its mildly remote location, the St. Johns is a contender for most photographed bridge in town. It's not hard to see why. There's just something about suspension bridges (if there's an ugly suspension bridge out there, I've never seen or heard of it), and something about Art Deco anything. The bridge has its own Flickr group (to which I've made exceedingly humble contributions now and then). The thing is pretty damn photogenic. It can't hurt that, like most of North Portland, the St. Johns neighborhood is bursting with "young creative" types, who all seem to drop by and snap a few photos of the bridge when they aren't at a band rehearsal or a gallery opening or whatever.

St. Johns Bridge

St. Johns Bridge

What's more, Blue Moon Camera is nearby in central St. Johns, so if you're trying to use up the last couple of shots on a roll of film or two, the bridge is an obvious subject. Hell, that's what I was doing. Besides the trusty (and at the time a bit dusty) DSLR, I also had the Holga and old Kodak folder along. I figured I'd post some of those photos when I get them back, so long as they don't suck, or they do suck in an interesting way. Then this post lingered in my drafts folder long enough that I got the photos back, so I've included a few of them. I think I did ok on the "suck in an interesting way", except possibly for the "interesting" part.

Shadows, St. Johns Bridge

Like my earlier Sellwood Bridge "adventure", I did this as a quickie trip before work, so I figured I'd drive there, although I could've taken TriMet from downtown if I'd had more time. There's even less on the west end of the bridge than there is at the Sellwood, and nowhere at all that looks safe to park. So my plan, if you can call it a plan, was to drive up to St. Johns, park, walk across one side, cross the street on the west end, and walk back on the other side of the bridge. Stop every so often, take a few photos, not die, etc.

Updated: A user comment points out that there is, in fact, a place to park on the west side, and it's a rather good spot to take photos of the bridge, and there's even a trailhead into Forest Park from here. I think I know the spot, which is kind of a wide spot in the road next to the south-side bridge ramp. I've even seen people parking there, but I wasn't sure what it was for and neglected to mention it here. So I stand corrected.

It's actually kind of hard finding original stuff to say about the St. Johns Bridge. It gets a lot of attention, and I think all the angles have been covered pretty well. On top of that, my, er, expedition to the bridge was pretty uneventful. In short, coming up with a compelling narrative for this post has been kind of a problem. The St. Johns doesn't offer the absurdity of the Morrison, or the raw scariness of the Ross Island, and it's not a punchline like the Sellwood. And it's not broken-down and smelly like the bridge down in Oregon City. The "not dying" angle is a real stretch this time, and it's mostly there because it's the theme for the series, so I've shoveled it off toward the end of the post, unless I move it again.

So let's just get to the walking, and take it from there, shall we?

East End, St. Johns Bridge

Actually first we have to get to the parking, and then the walking. Finding a parking spot is reasonably straightforward unless you become lost in St. Johns, where the street grid is the proverbial "maze of twisty little passages, all different". To be on the safe side (not having a GPS unit handy), I figured I'd just take the very first parking spot I came across, and save myself the trouble. That turned out to be next to an imposing brick building right off the east end of the bridge. Prior to 1915, when St. Johns was a separate incorporated city, this building was City Hall. Now it's a Portland Police office. I'd like to think that reduces the odds that your car will be broken into while you're off hiking the bridge. If you're interested in the long and somewhat odd history of St. Johns, check out this interesting series. The page about the bridge includes a bunch of construction photos. Yikes. You couldn't pay me enough to do that.

St. Johns Bridge

Before we really get started walking, a couple more history links to pass along: A post at OregonLive; ODOT's Historic Bridges page (note, their doc on the St. Johns is a MS Word doc for some reason.); and the Center for Columbia River History has old news snippets from the bridge's dedication in 1931. And more historical tidbits on this interesting mailing list post from last March.

My favorite historical bit about St. Johns is the name. The name is not a religious reference; it refers to a local crazy old hermit, not any of the many saints named John. Although I suppose those guys were all crazy old hermits too, just a few centuries earlier, with more gullible neighbors. So the fancy bridge with all the pointed arches and such seems to be the result of a misread of local history. Although I'm not sure how you'd design a bridge with a "crazy old hermit" theme. Most likely you'd need to find yourself a second crazy old hermit, someone with an engineering background and an obsessive drive to make primitive folk art. And then I don't think I'd trust the resulting bridge.

East End, St. Johns Bridge

So now we're really walking, finally. Getting onto the bridge is easy, if you're coming from the east side. Just get on the Philadelphia Ave. sidewalk and keep going. Coming from the west it's a different story. There's a sidewalk along the long, long ramp up to the bridge from Highway 30. It's so long it has its own name, "NW Bridge Avenue". But I'm not sure there's a sidewalk along Highway 30 to get to Bridge Avenue, since that's smack in the middle of industrial NW Portland. I suppose I ought to have tried that. It certainly would've been more of an "urban exploration" adventure that way. But since I didn't notice any sidewalks along Highway 30, for the life of me I have no idea how you'd pull this off. Even then, all you'd really be adding is a long walk uphill. Yay.

Shadows, St. Johns Bridge

There wasn't a superabundance of bikes or pedestrians the day I was there. There were a few, I think more than on the other bridges I've posted about. Mostly bikes, which makes sense. There isn't much of anything immediately on the west end of the bridge except the howling wilderness of Forest Park, so if you walked across, where would you go from there, exactly?

Some of the cyclists looked like they might be commuters heading downtown. If you live up in North Portland and need to get downtown by bike, the St. Johns is one of your few options for getting across the river. If that was my commute, I'd likely prefer to ride in on the eastside and cross on the Broadway, which has far fewer semis barreling across it. It's possible there's a downside to that route that I'm not aware of. I can see the St. Johns route being faster, if you survive. And at times when traffic isn't so heavy, it sounds like the ride can be a contemplative experience.

Another possible St. Johns bike commute doesn't involve heading downtown at all, and instead follows Germantown Road over the West Hills out to Beaverton. Seriously. I'm not making this up; I've heard of people doing this, although I've never met anyone who has. I'm not sure I want to, either. I'm certain they're all ten feet tall, eat nothing but raw shark meat, and routinely get speeding tickets on the uphill parts of this commute. If that describes you, or you kind of fancy the notion of it describing you, the St. Johns is pretty much your only option for getting across the river. Unless, I mean, you leap the river on your bike, Evel Knievel style. Or you take a deep breath and ride across the river bottom. Or you simply command the waters to part and let you pass. You get the idea.

N & J, St. Johns Bridge

Overall, it's a bit nicer than the Morrison or the Ross Island, pedestrian-wise. The sidewalk isn't any wider, and the traffic isn't much better, and it's a long walk, but there are far more "oooh, cooool..." moments as you walk along. That's got to count for something. The best spots to stop and take photos or just enjoy the view have got to be at the bridge towers; the sidewalk jogs out a bit, and actually goes right through the tower via a cool arched passageway.

View from St. Johns Bridge

Mt. Hood from St. Johns Bridge

View from St. Johns Bridge

The north & south sides of the bridge are basically the same, except for the view. The south side has a nice view of downtown, the Burlington Northern rail bridge, and Mt. Hood.

West End, St. Johns Bridge

The big question in my mind before I went was whether I could cross the street safely on the west side so I could cover both sides of the bridge. The answer to that is "yes", with a completely mundane and unscary crosswalk. It was kind of fun to press the crosswalk button and force a bunch of semis and dump trucks to stop for little old me. But not fun enough to do it twice.

Mt. St. Helens from St. Johns Bridge

Shadows, St. Johns Bridge

Shadows, St. Johns Bridge

Detail, St. Johns Bridge

The north side doesn't have as much of a river view looking downstream, unless you find the Toyota import terminal picturesque. But you can see Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams, and a tiny bit of Mt. Ranier if it's not too hazy out. And there's the shadow of the bridge on the river, which is rather fascinating. If you're as easily fascinated as I am, I mean.

Dreamer, St. Johns Bridge

You can't really talk about bike and pedestrian access on the bridge without mentioning the 2005 renovation of the bridge. This fixed decades of neglect and disrepair, but did little to improve bike & pedestrian access. The bike folks were understandably peeved about that, with some expressing their frustration in, uh, creative ways.

Unlike most bridges in town, the bridge is operated by ODOT instead of Multnomah County, I guess because it carries Highway 30 and handles a lot of important port-related truck traffic. Considering how rarely the state gets around to maintaining its bridges, the fact that they stuck with the status quo for the most part is a long term missed opportunity. On the other hand, the bike/ped-friendly alternative proposals involved making room for bike lanes by restriping the bridge down from four traffic lanes to two. Which I think was a bit unrealistic, given the sort of traffic the bridge carries. But, you know, what else could you do? Unless you actually make the sidewalks wider, finding space on the bridge is a zero-sum game. I suppose you could cantilever the sidewalks out further, but that would be awfully expensive, and that kind of alteration might run into trouble due to the bridge's historic designation.

In an earlier post, I mentioned my notion of adding a walkway to the Burlington Northern railroad bridge just south of the St. Johns, similar to what was done with the Steel Bridge a few years ago. A Portland Tribune article mentions another option I hadn't considered. Apparently there's a proposal floating around out there to build another bridge further downstream, around the Terminal 4 / Rivergate area. It'd connect industrial areas on both sides of the river and might siphon off a lot of the truck traffic currently using the St. Johns. At that point, the two-lane option on the St. Johns might become a little more viable. Plus by law (I think) the new bridge would have to have bike lanes too, in the unlikely event it's on the way to anywhere any cyclists want to go. Price tag, a mere $150M. So I suppose we'll get right on it as soon as we've replaced the Interstate Bridge and built a new MAX bridge downtown, and done something about the Sellwood while we're at it.

On the general topic of bridge improvements, there's a group out there that wants to light the bridge at night. Ooh, neato. That would be beautiful. And expensive, probably.

Detail, St. Johns Bridge

Detail, St. Johns Bridge

Regarding the obligatory "not dying" theme, there are two primary ways you could die on the St. Johns. There's getting hit, and there's falling off, and falling off is pretty unlikely. Ok, falling off accidentally is pretty unlikely, unless there's a huge gust of wind (which is possible), or maybe if you swoon over all the fabulous Art Deco goodness. As for falling off deliberately, I understand the St. Johns is rather popular for that, but I'm not really in a position to offer any useful advice on the subject.

The hazards are the usual ones -- the sidewalks are narrow, and traffic zooms by just a few feet away. The St. Johns gets a lot of truck traffic of all sorts: Semis, double trailers, dump trucks, cement mixers, you name it, it's whizzing by at high speed, just a few feet away. Additionally, there are a few spots where the bridge gets bouncy when a truck goes by. Which isn't fun.

Oh, and the bridge is really high up. I don't get heights anxiety very often, but there were a couple of twinges of it while crossing the bridge. Heights alone won't do it; it has to be heights plus the lack of anything sufficiently solid to hold on to. Hence I don't call it "fear of heights" or "acrophobia". That sounds kind of wimpy. Let's just say I'm a huge fan of solid rock, metal, and so forth. That sounds a lot more manly. Or whatever. The point of all of this is that there's a reason there aren't a lot of photos pointing straight down from the bridge. That would require looking straight down from the bridge, and after the first couple of attempts I filed that under "Don't Wanna".

So with the normal hazards out of the way, it's time for paranormal ones. I don't usually go for that sort of thing, but it turns out there's a ghost story attached to Cathedral Park, directly under the bridge. I figured I'd pass it along to liven things up a bit. It's not really that great of a ghost story, all things considered. It'd just be a sad crime story, but for the ghostly postscript to it. I'd like the story a lot more if supernatural vengeance was exacted at some point. But hey, that's how the ghost story goes. I don't write the stuff. I report, you decide. Or whatever.

St. Johns Bridge

If you'd like to see other, and generally better, photos than mine. Obviously there are many, many, many more besides these, but here's a selection.

The bridge also shows up on magnets, art prints, and (as all real Portlanders already know) on Bridgeport beer labels. The last bit is a little odd actually; Bridgeport's located in the Pearl, near the almost-as-photogenic Fremont Bridge, and as far as I know they've never been located anywhere near the St. Johns, but they went with it anyway. Go figure.

Grass, St. Johns Bridge Repairs, St. Johns Bridge

This whole bridge series is kind of a silly idea, the more I think about it. Just a few days before my incredible St. Johns adventure, the bridge was part of the huge Portland Bridge Pedal, in which tens of thousands of people biked or walked across it and most of the other bridges around town. Which rather puts a damper on my usual shtick about how weird and unusual it is to walk across the bridge. I actually considered signing up for the non-pedaling version of the bridge pedal, for the unusual opportunity to walk across the Fremont & Marquam, presumably without dying, but I didn't get to it. As I've mentioned before, I'm not much of a joiner, really, and I don't usually go for big group activities like that. Plus it involves getting up wayyy too early on a Sunday morning, which is another thing I'm not real big on. So maybe next year, or not. Also, bridges are one of those things that old men get all obsessive about. It's right up there with railroads and World War II, on the geez-o-dork-o-meter. Not being an oldster, or even a middle-agedster quite yet, I feel rather foolish undertaking a project of this sort. If you ever catch me getting all misty-eyed about steam engines, or WWII bombers, or ships in bottles, just go ahead and slap me silly. Just do it. You don't even have to warn me first, just freakin' slap away. It might help to explain yourself afterward, just to make sure I've gotten the point. It's not even a very ambitious project, quite honestly. It's not like I've taken up ultramarathoning, or I'm learning a new language, or we're moving to Portugal to take up cork farming. It's just something I blundered into to amuse myself in my non-copious free time, I guess. At least it's a self-limiting project. Unless I do the Bridge Pedal thing next year, with this post I've covered all the "interesting" Willamette River bridges in the greater Portland area. It's possible one or more of the remaining downtown bridges might become "interesting" later on. But I think I'm going to go ahead and declare Mission Accomplished on this baby regardless. I'm still not sure if I'm interested in Columbia River bridges, although there's only two of those. And there's also bridges over smaller rivers in the area, like the Clackamas, the Sandy, or the Tualatin. I've already got a photoset for one of those, but it was on my way back from the Oregon City Bridge, so I'm not sure that counts. So two cheers for Mission Accomplished! Yay! Or whatever.


m said...

there is a place to park on the west side of the river. A few hundred feet south of the bridge there is a decent sized turn out. If you can cross the street (which can be a pain but you probably won't die) there is a great photo angle, and a nice sidewalk to the bridge. This is also near the trailhead to the Ridge Trail of forest park, which provides some more neat angles of the bridge before climbing up the 800 or so feet elevation.

gmatotwo said...

I truly enjoyed your walk across St Johns Bridge. I am currently taking pictures of the bridge from below in the Cathedral park. I scrapbook, so I cannot wait to get all the facts and lots of pictures.

Hmmm, wonder how a 61 year could handle a walk across the bridge?

Thank you so much for sharing!


Anonymous said...

Hi--I'm writing an article for a local magazine that talks about the St. Johns neighborhood. Could I use some of your photos of the bridge. We would make sure to give you full photo credits for the usage.

If interested, please email me at