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Bridge City’s bridge history: the 12 structures that span the Willamette River

Explore the history of Portland’s 12 bridges over the Willamette River in this ongoing series.

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Can you name each bridge in this bird’s eye view of Portland?

Table of Contents

Among Portland’s many monikers is “Bridge City” — a nod to the dozen bridges straddling the Willamette River within city limits. Each span is unique in appearance and carries its own interesting lore, from the first bridge in the US dedicated to light rail, buses, bikes, and pedestrians to the country’s oldest vertical lift bridge that’s still in operation.

Over the coming months, we’ll take a look at each of Portland’s Willamette River bridges and break down their histories. By the end of the series, you’ll know some of Bridge City’s most defining features well enough to ace a quiz.

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The Morrison Bridge is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo by Steven Pavlov

Morrison Bridge

The Morrison was the first bridge connecting Portland’s east and west banks — though it wasn’t the Morrison Bridge we know today.

Constructed in 1887, the original (also known as the Morrison Street Bridge) was the longest bridge west of the Mississippi River and a gateway for economic growth in East Portland. It was used by horse-drawn rigs, horsecars, and early electric streetcars that paid a toll to cross — and carried a street named after Scottish immigrant John L. Morrison who built the first home on Morrison Street.

Heavy use necessitated a replacement in 1905. But the second Morrison Bridge — also a wooden truss swing-span bridge — wasn’t built for vehicles and was replaced in 1958 by a third and final version that accommodates six lanes of traffic. It still stands today.

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This image of the Morrison Street Bridge is from a souvenir book of Portland, circa 1892.

Quick facts about the modern Morrison Bridge:

  • Multnomah County built the bridge at a cost of $12.9 million
  • It’s a bascule bridge measuring 760 ft in length
  • Ramps were added in 1961 to connect Interstates 5 and 84
  • It’s the largest mechanical device in Oregon
  • When ships need to pass, a controller in an operator room on the western end lowers two 950-ton concrete counterweights to open the lift spans
  • Colorful LED lights built into the bridge’s supports are controlled by the Willamette Light Brigade and can be customized by the public starting at $150
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A fire in 1902 damaged the wooden Madison Street Bridge, prompting Portland to build a steel bridge in its place.

Photo by Raymonst

Hawthorne Bridge

Portland is a bottomless trove of fun facts you can bring to a family gathering. The Hawthrone Bridge is another conversation starter — or topic to diffuse a heated conversation, depending on the situation — that you can add to your dinner table arsenal. Lead with this: “Did you know Portland is home to the oldest operating vertical lift bridge in the United States?”

The Hawthorne Bridge was designed by renowned Kansas City engineering firm Waddell & Harrington and its steel superstructure was made by the Pennsylvania Steel Company. It replaced the wooden Madison Street Bridge, opening to pedestrians, horses, vehicles, and street cars in late 1910 as just the third major vertical lift bridge in the country. Like many landmarks around Portland, the bridge takes its name from 19th-century physician James C. Hawthorne.

Today, the Hawthorne still largely relies on its original operating system, plus electrical power and controls installed in 1975. Those were updated in 1999 during a project that also widened the bridge’s sidewalks and strengthened the deck.

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Construction workers posing on the Hawthorne Bridge, which cost $511,216 to build, on Dec. 31, 1910.

Quick facts about the modern Hawthorne Bridge:

  • It’s Oregon’s busiest bicycle and transit bridge with 30,000 vehicles + 8,000 bicycles crossing every day
  • Two 450-ton concrete counterweights allow the main span to be raised 110 ft vertically in less than a minute for passing ships
  • Its steel grate deck was installed in 1945, ending years of high-maintenance wood planking
  • The cabin mounted on top of the lift span operates as a “command center” for Multnomah County’s four movable bridges
  • Its main span opens as many as 200 times per month
  • In 1989, the Willamette Light Brigade helped Portland General Electric outline the bridge’s arches, towers, and railing with 8,000 lights to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first transmission of electricity to Portland
St. Johns Bridge soars above a glassy Willamette River in North Portland.

Of the 400 bridges he designed, David B. Steinman said he loved the St. Johns Bridge best. “I put more of myself into that bridge than any other bridge.”

Photo by OregonDOT

St. Johns Bridge

With its 14 Gothic arch piers, two soaring steel towers, and “ODOT green” paint job, the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland is one of the most recognizable bridges in the Pacific Northwest.

Designed by prominent 20th century engineer David B. Steinman of Robinson and Steinman, the steel and concrete bridge has long been hailed as a structural masterpiece that seamlessly incorporates practical beauty; in other words, its distinctive arches and towers are as pleasing to the eye as they are vital to its strength and stability.

The St. Johns Bridge was the eighth Willamette River bridge when it was completed in 1931. The communities of St. Johns and Linnton advocated for its construction to support a booming riverfront industrial economy and replace a ferry transporting hundreds of vehicles a day.

Multnomah County voters ultimately passed a bond in 1928 to build the $7.69 million bridge. The project took 21 months to complete, providing crucial Great Depression-era jobs.

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At the time of completion, the 1,207-ft span was the longest US bridge west of Detroit and featured the highest concrete rigid frame piers in the world and the first use of main steel towers without diagonal bracing.

Photo (taken Dec. 31, 1930) via Portland City Archives

Quick facts about the St. Johns Bridge:

  • It’s the tallest bridge in Portland, with the beacon lights perched atop its spires reaching 401 feet above the river’s surface.
  • It’s named for James Johns, the 1852 founder of a local ferry system and namesake of the St. Johns community.
  • Pilots at the nearby Swan Island airfield wanted the bridge to be painted in black-and-yellow stripes, but Steinman wanted “verde green” to harmonize with Forest Park. County officials announced it would be green on St. Patrick’s Day of 1931.
  • Dedication of the bridge was delayed by a month so that it could be the centerpiece of the 23rd annual Rose Festival.
  • The state took over maintenance in 1975. ODOT completed a $38 million rehabilitation project in 2005, replacing the deck, repainting the towers, upgrading lighting, and improving bike and walking access.