Saturday, August 31, 2013

Julia Butler Hansen Bridge

Puget Island Bridge
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Several years ago, I did a post about the Wahkiakum County Ferry, which crosses the Columbia River between Westport, Oregon, and Washington's Puget Island. This was before bridges became a thing here on this humble blog, so I just included the above photo and noted there was a bridge from Puget Island to the Washington mainland, and moved on. Only later did I realize I'd made a serious omission, to the degree that anything on this blog counts as remotely serious. I'd decided a while back that I ought to include bridges to islands in my little project, for the sake of completeness, hence the posts last year about the Sauvie Island and Lambert Slough bridges. Clearly, a new bridge post was required here too.

I've had something of a mental block about reusing photos in multiple posts, so I entertained the notion that I needed to go back and take new photos specifically of the bridge. I think I'm sort of getting over that idea, though; I ended up reusing the same photos in multiple Cleveland bridge posts just because it's very difficult to take a photo of only one bridge there and not have three others in the background. I mean, I'm quite willing to go do something absurd and tedious for the sake of a blog post on a blog almost nobody reads. I think I've demonstrated that pretty conclusively already. It's just that I prefer it to be easy and not too time consuming. So I think we're going to go with the one recycled photo this time around.

In that spirit, let's move along. The Julia Butler Hansen Bridge connects Washington's Puget Island with the north bank of the Columbia at Cathlamet, WA. The bridge's HistoryLink.org page indicates it was once known simply as the Puget Island - Cathlamet Bridge until it was renamed in the late 1980s to honor the area's longtime state legislator & US Representative. Further downriver, a National Wildlife Refuge for the endangered Columbian White-Tailed Deer is also named in her honor.

Bridge proposals had been discussed repeatedly for several decades before today's bridge was built; in 1922 the states of Oregon and Washington studied bridging the entire river at Puget Island, rather than the bridge and ferry arrangement we ended up with. I imagine that would have been a massively expensive project had it been built, but the news article notes that one of the engineers doing the study was Conde McCullough, who designed many of the classic Art Deco bridges along the Oregon Coast. So it's hard not to daydream about what might have been. The eventual bridge is much more utilitarian-looking, and seems to have been built in part as a Depression-era stimulus project. It's not that visually captivating as far as bridges go, and I doubt it attracts many tourists on its own merits (I mean, it didn't even draw me back there), but it at least has its own Structurae & BridgeHunter pages. I tend to use that as a measure of whether a bridge is officially "obscure" or not, but I admit I may have something of a warped perspective on the subject.

The Cathlamet Chamber of Commerce has a brief catalog of things to see and do around Puget Island, many relating to its Scandinavian heritage. A 1953 Oregonian article gives a sense of just how physically and culturally isolated Puget Island once was, dubbing it "Little Norway", and noting that many residents once spoke Norwegian at home. The separate island culture more or less fell by the wayside after the bridge opened, and the local single-room schoolhouse closed in favor of school buses to the English-speaking mainland.

The bridge was dedicated on August 26th 1939, just days before the outbreak of World War II. In Washington DC, President Roosevelt pressed a button to officially open the bridge. Rep. Hansen presided over the ceremony, and various politicians and dignitaries spoke. US Senator Lewis Schwellenbach alluded to contemporary events as he spoke: "Senator Schwellenbach drew a parallel between the peaceful purposes for which America builds roads and bridges and the military use for which they are designed in Europe.". Sigh...

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