Portland’s Tilikum Crossing has been celebrated by its proponents as one of the largest no-car bridges in the country and touted for its design and color display. The new crossing will mean easier commutes for locals, and many in the Native American community were touched that the name is derived from the Chinook Wawa language.
Portland sisters Jean and Margie O’Neill were celebrating something else — a family tradition — when they walked across the Tilikum Crossing on opening day. They’ve attended every opening and reopening of Portland’s bridges for the past 45 years, as a tribute to their father, John O’Neill.
He was an ironworker who left his mark on Portland’s physical landscape — and who also made a mark in the struggle for laborers’ rights.
O’Neill emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1920, arriving at Ellis Island in New York, before literally working his way west to his aunt in Portland. When he arrived in the city, he labored on a barge for the Port of Portland.
Later, he became an ironworker. He helped to build North Portland’s iconic cathedral-style St. Johns Bridge.
“When my children were little, we would of course drive over that and I would say, ‘Your grandpa built this bridge, and that’s why it’s called St. Johns,’” said Margie O’Neill.
John O’Neill also worked on construction of the Ross Island and Sellwood bridges near Portland, and the Longview-to-Oregon bridge.
Margie and Jean O’Neill both said bridge construction was often the topic of conversation during many family dinners, and their father passed along his trade to three of his five sons.
“Our dinner table, we knew more of what a rivet was and a cable than knew who William Shakespeare was when we were growing up,” Jean O’Neill said with a laugh.
As an ironworker, John O’Neill became involved in the Structural, Ornamental Iron and Reinforced Steel Workers union, Nos. 29 and 516. He became the business agent of the Ironworkers Local 29 and later became an international representative of the group. He was as a leader in the labor movement’s efforts to establish workers’ rights in Oregon, and was involved in the campaign to enshrine the eight-hour workday into Oregon law.
“As we would drive, my dad would say, ‘Worked on that building, we lost six men on that building.’ Or come to a bridge, he would say ‘We lost two on that bridge,’” Margie O’Neill recalled. “That’s how he remembered a project - because, remember, they didn’t wear a safety belt. And it was not uncommon for a worker to fall and to be killed. It was dangerous work. Those were things that were on his mind.”
Their father suffered a stroke in 1959, just a few years before his death at the age of 62.
“When papa passed away in 1965, all five of my brothers went down to the Astoria bridge, climbed up into the superstructure, the steel way at the top where the flag lights are and the signal lights are and had a toast of Jameson to my dad,” Jean O’Neill recalled. “My dad was not a drinking man, but my brothers had to have one shot.”
When the Fremont Bridge opened just five years later, the sisters decided to pay their own tribute by taking their children on the opening day, which was reserved for pedestrians only.
Since then, the sisters have walked the renovated Sauvie Island Bridge in tribute to their brother Brian. They’ve also walked across the Morrison Street Bridge and the St. Johns Bridge after they underwent renovations.
“We can still drive now through the city of Portland and say, there’s uncle Brian’s bridge, there’s uncle Tommy’s bridge,” Jean O’Neill said. “Or we go across Papa’s bridge.”
For their walk across the Tilikum Crossing time, the sisters invited Brett Burnside, Jean’s grandson, who was visiting Portland from Texas. Jean O’Neill said when she told him of their plan to walk the new bridge on opening day, he said he was coming too.
“He was another generation. So it’s just kind of a tradition,” she said. “And you might call it the string of our family to keep going and unwinding down, because there’s a lot of background in this city that came from the O’Neill family, unbeknownst, without title. Just as hard working people.”