The History of the Interstate Bridge

Portland-Vancouver Ferry

Before there was an I-5 freeway. Before the Interstate Bridge was ever built, there was still the need for local people of the area to cross the Columbia River. First the local people crossed the river in canoes. Then, beginning in the mid-1800’s, this niche was filled by a ferry system operated by the Pacific Railway, Light and Power Company who shuttled people and automobiles en mase between Portland and Vancouver. But by the early 1900’s, the ferry system was overcrowded and struggled to keep up with the increasing demand. The locals realized that they needed a pernament structure over the Columbia river.

A bridge was seen as an absolute necessity to the development of the region. It would open up markets in Portland and the Willamette Valley to Vancouver and Clarke County businesses and vise versa, transportation time and costs between Vancouver and Portland would be cut drastically. Portland residents, in all their smugness, also saw the bridge as a way for Portland to expand. Portlanders thought within 5 years of opening the bridge, Vancouver would be annexed and become part of Portland. Residents in Multnomah and Clark Counties overwhelmingly voted for the bridge by passing bridge construction bonds in each county.

Bridge construction started in 1915. Two short years later, the bridge opened on February 14th, 1917 to much excitement and celebration. Portland, Oregon was now connected to Vancouver, Washington. The bridge built in 1917 was a single bridge with traffic going both ways. In 1958 a second near-identical twin bridge was opened. Today the original 1917 bridge is now the Northbound lane.

Some Good Trivia Questions

Opening Day in Vancouver for the Interstate Bridge

The Interstate Bridge is considered to be “functionally obsolete” by the Federal Highway Administration. That means the bridge is inadequate for the task it was designed for. In 2016, 13.6% of U.S. bridges were functionally obsolete so the Interstate Bridge is not alone in that designation. The bridge is definately a bottleneck along the I-5 corridor, but Portland doesn’t help the matter by only having a 2-lane freeway going through downtown and North Portland leading up to the Interstate Bridge. Building a new bridge would definately provide more throughput but then we would still have downtown Portland as being a bottleneck. Maybe Portland should expand the I-5 freeway in downtown and North Portland before building a bridge. Or at least do it concurrently.

The bridge’s budget was $1,750,000 (about $39 million today) but final costs came under budget by $1000. That’s pretty impressive when you consider the 2005 bridge replacement project called the Columbia River Crossing estimated the new bridge would cost $3.4 billion to build, or 87 times the pricetag of the first bridge. The project managed to spend $175 million on surface studies but never began bridge construction before the project collapsed without further funding from Washington state.

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2 comments

  1. Very nice article. Thank you for writing and sharing. My father was born downtown Vancouver just that year. He would tell us kids about how they would walk or drive across the river and bridge on the ice as youngsters. What fun they had!

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