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Portland's Steel Bridge Turns 100

This week one of Portland’s iconic bridges is marking its 100th birthday. The Steel Bridge opened in 1912 to carry trains, trucks and horse-drawn vehicles across the Willamette. It remains one of the best-known features of the waterfront, and a model of multi-modal transportation.

Amy Young was stopped in her tracks during her 4th of July stroll on the waterfront. She’s visiting from Michigan, and has seen plenty of bridges before. But she had to stop and snap a few pictures of the span at river mile 12.

The Steel Bridge in Portland was constructed in 1912.

April Baer / OPB

“I find the bridge fascinating. It’s beautiful and its rugged. I’ve never seen one quite like it before,” Young said.

That’s exactly what Portlanders would have said 100 years ago, as the engineers Waddell and Harrington unveiled their creation. They built the bridge for the Union Pacific Railroad, and were trying to find some new ways for bridges to lift and allow boats beneath. Bridge historian

“Other double-deck vertical-lift bridges have a bottom deck that lifts up, and will telescope inside the top deck. But this is the only bridge in the world where those two decks together go up another, I think, 50 feet, and it does it in such a brief amount of time,” bridge historian Sharon Wood Wortman said.

There is no other bridge in the world that does that.

The Steel Bridge is not a glamour puss, like the graceful St John’s Bridge, or a muscular workhorse like the Fremont. It’s short, almost stubby, at 211 feet long.  And with its lower deck hanging a mere 26 feet above the river, it’s always at risk in major floods. But Wortman says you have to remember it’s still performing more kinds of work that most other bridges.

“One time, I thought of all the bridges as members of a baseball team. The Steel Bridge had to be the catcher,” said Wood Wortman. “It carries MAX, it carries buses, it carries freight trains, it carries bicycles, it carries people.”

It carries lots of people. On any sunny day, Wortman says you’ll see 23,000 cars and trucks, 772 bus trips, 482 MAX light rails, and a few freight and passenger trains sharing the bridge with several hundred pedestrians, like Michelle Schlimpert. She and her family were taking a bike trip from Milwaukie to Portland Wednesday, and took advantage of the Steel Bridge’s bike lane. it’s something they do every once in a while.

“I like the fact that when you go over it you can see the train and the MAX at the same time. They’re just interesting,” Schlimpert said.

Rocco Elia, who walked across with his wife and baby, said he appreciates the historic character the Steel Bridge lends to the waterfront.

“It definitely doesn’t look modern, it has that old appearance,” he said. “One of the things about Portland that is cool is it has different bridges in different styles.”

The Steel Bridge’s birthday celebration is part of a Bridgefest party on Saturday. Sharon Wood Wortman will show visitors around. Other bridge tours continue through July. For more information, visit the Bridgefest website.