The Little-Known History of Oregon’s Coastal Bridges

Posted by The Oregon Coast / February 1, 2016

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It’s impossible to drive along the Oregon Coast Highway without noticing the bridges. Their graceful arches and decorative flourishes are nearly as awe-inspiring as the natural scenery. But did you know they are mostly the work of one man?

Conde B. McCullough was the state bridge engineer from 1919 to 1935, overseeing the construction of numerous spans, including many iconic bridges on the Coast.

After World War I, the state embarked on an ambitious road-building project: U.S. Highway 101. Bridges were an essential element of the project, which opened up more than 300 miles of highway along the Coast and replaced the time-consuming ferries, which had transported passengers and cars across rivers and estuaries. Completion of the highway boosted tourism and solidified Highway 101 as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. McCullough’s innovative thinking and penchant for elegant design earned him a reputation as one of the leading bridge engineers in the United States.

McCullough designs were not only masterfully engineered and economically practical; they were pleasing to the eye, the perfect marriage of form and function.

One of the first things you notice about McCullough’s coast spans is the rich architectural detail; the finest among them are embellished with classical, Gothic, Art Deco and Art Moderne elements, and he creatively fuses materials such as poured concrete and steel. Many boast pedestrian walkways, observation decks and grand staircases that wind down to the beach.

If you look closely you’ll see an evolution in style, says Robert W. Hadlow, senior historian with the Oregon Department of Transportation and author of “Elegant Arches, Soaring Spans: C.B. McCullough, Oregon’s Master Bridge Builder.

“Most of the elements are classical — Roman arches, segmented arches, moving on to gothic and some Tudor thrown in there. By the 1930s, you see more gothic, and then he brings Art Deco and Art Moderne into the mix,” Hadlow says. “The five big bridges make for an impressive finale — an explosion of all these elements.”

It’s these big five — the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport, the Alsea Bay Bridge at Waldport, the Siuslaw River Bridge at Florence, the Umpqua River Bridge at Reedsport, and the McCullough Memorial Bridge at Coos Bay — that McCullough himself referred to as “jeweled clasps along a matched string of pearls,” with the string of pearls being all the wonderful places along the Oregon Coast.

By stringing together one beautiful bridge after another, McCullough creates a sense of drama as you travel.

“It’s not just a series of isolated bridges,” says Hadlow. “Instead, you get a sense of what is going to happen next. Starting in Astoria, Yaquina Bay Newport, Alsea, Reedsport, Coos Bay … there is some drama there. It was intentional.”

The architectural splendor of McCullough’s bridges can be enjoyed by car or on foot. But walking the bridges and wandering beneath them provides new vistas and perspectives, an opportunity to watch the play of light and shadows. And while the bridges serve the purpose of moving traffic up and down the coast, the many ways they take our breath away may be their ultimate gift.

“These bridges don’t get in the way of experiencing the scenic beauty,” says Hadlow. “They enhance it. What he is doing is something that adds to and complements nature. And that was how he wanted it to be.”

Many of McCullough’s bridges are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here’s where to find a few of his most iconic when you’re cruising down the Coast:

Depoe Bay (Depoe Bay)
Descend the stairway on the bayside to really appreciate McCullough’s details. The original bridge was built in 1927; in 1940 an identical bridge was built to accommodate increased traffic.

Yaquina Bay (Newport)
Newport’s classic bridge stretches 3223 feet with a soaring steel through-arch, flanked by steel deck arches and five concrete deck arches to the south. Grand stairways on each end lead to bridge observation areas.

Cape Creek (Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint)
The repeating arches, columns and a viaduct of this impressive span are reminiscent of Roman aqueducts.

Siuslaw River (Florence)
Florence’s working drawbridge features four Art Deco-style operator houses and gothic arches best viewed from river level.

McCullough Memorial Bridge (Coos Bay)
When it was built, this mile-long span was the longest bridge in the Oregon highway system. About 250 men were employed to work on the bridge, moving more than 24,000 cubic yards of soil, 48,000 cubic yards of concrete, nearly 12 million pounds of steel and 5-million board feet of lumber. The result is a graceful structure with 13 stunning arches.

Rogue River (Gold Beach)
With seven open-spandrel concrete deck arches over the Rogue River, this was the first structure in the United States to use the Freyssinet method of arch ring decentering; it is also a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

 Photo by Christian Heeb


 

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