29 February 2016

[pdx] The Sellwood Bridge Opening, Part II: The First Walk Across

There was an event, back in the 1970s, when that majestic span, the Fremont Bridge, was about to be commissioned and opened to automobile traffic. They called it a Peoples' Day, and this big, graceful arched bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic, which was a boon, and walking across the Fremont Bridge is something you could only do then, because pedestrians were never expected to ever use an intracity freeway bridge.

Dave Strom points to the event, here.

I was too young and too not-living-in-Portland then to take part. I still resent the vicissitudes of a life that caused me to miss out. Of course, living in Silverton meant I got to see it all on TV, but not really a fit substitute, I'm sure. And we missed the opening of the Tilkum.

But today, we were there. And, when the gate was pulled back, we filed onto the bridge along with everyone else who was there.

It was a bit of a crunch, but nobody was unduly stressed. Everyone was too 'oh, cool' to be too bothered about the crowd. But, we're Portlanders, we can live with each other close to hand. It's what we do.

In the photo below, look on the right. See that ragged chunk of concrete deck there? That's the end of the old Sellwood Bridge, which, up until about two days previously, had been connected to the bitter end of SE Tacoma Street, the road which feeds the bridge, which we were on just a handful of feet previous.

We were really entering unexplored territory.

Here's a view looking south from the bridge down the Willamette in the direction of Milwaukie. The river is rather wide at this point, and narrows kind of like a funnel. By the time it leaves the picture, it's only about 1/2-2/3rds as wide here as it is at the point of the bridge. Where it leaves sight it's because it kinks to the east just a little, and there, just out of sight, is the Milwaukie waterfront. 

This geography was the site of a great commercial struggle in the late 19th Century as Portland, Milwuakie, and Oregon City fought for the reputation of head-of-oceangoing navigation. It seems absurd these days, since the river seems terribly small, but not only were ships much smaller then, the tidal flux on from the Pacific actually reaches up the Willamette River as far as Oregon City … a point about 15 miles away from here in the direction of the view.  

The reputations of great cities were made on such paleolithic arguments. The proof of history stands as its own illustration.

This next view looks north off the new bridge, and really shows what a poor wreck the old Sellwood was:

The Sellwood Bridge, as dear as it is and about-to-be was, was not built for the ages. I've heard it was only supposed to last about 1/2 a century at the outside; presumably they figured by the time it was ready for a replacement, they would be well underway to making one happen. They were right … but not on that timeframe. That's 91 years of civil engineering that is about 40 years past its pull date. When you look at the cracks in the outside of the deck, the way the railings look like they were snapped together and might snap apart at any time, you really get a sense of how urgent the need was. And people used it because the choices meant going a minimum of about 5 miles out of your way in the best case to get across the river.

I myself used this bridge on a regular basis about a decade ago, and they were talking loud about how fragile it was then. Let this be a testimony not only to the service the old bridge put in, but also to the neverending resourcefulness of Multnomah County's maintenance and engineering forces. This is MacGyvering on a mass scale.

Contrast it with the new bridge … wide, commodious, generous sidewalks that provide ample room for bicyclists as well as pedestrians, spacious travel for cars, and a solidity that is so palpable that more than one both The Wife™and myself found ourselves compelled to amazement that it easy to forget there were several stories of nothing between you and some cold Willamette River water. Seriously. It was that easy to forget you were on a bridge, there was such a firmness to the whole thing.

Now, we look north.

That's downtown Portland there in the distance. The hill on the left is Marquam Hill, or Pill Hill as we locals have called it since when; the building there at the top is one of the complex of hospitals at OHSU. Moving to the right of the picture, there's a grove of river-bottom trees on a fingernail's pairing of land called Ross Island (it was once almond shaped, but then Ross Island Sand and Gravel had its way with it over a period of decades. It's going to be a public park someday when the powers get around to straightening everything out). The neighborhood on the too of the hill below OHSU is an area we call Johns Landing; SW Macadam Avenue runs through it, connecting downtown to this bridge.

Look right, and you'll see a screenshot of a Google Map that I measured a distance on. See that tall white pillar in the downtown area that's inflected with black? That's the Wells Fargo Tower, originally built as the First National Bank Tower, and Portland's (and Oregon's) tallest building. It measures 40 floors and 546 feet (or 166.4 metres) in height. And, as far as I can tell, that building's roof is about 3.6 miles from my POV right here.

Portland isn't big in area as cities go, quite a compact town actually, but it's sizey for an Oregon town. it's just the right size, for me.

The buildings I can identify are, of course, the Wells Fargo Tower, the Pacwest Center is just behind it and to the lift, the red rocketship to the right is the KOIN Center, the building with the arched top is the Edith Green/Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Big Pink is mostly hidden now by the towers of the South Waterfront district, which is to the Portland skyline what tailfins are to cars mostly.

Join me again next time, when I take some more looks at the bridge from the west end.

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