Snaking down from Canada, eventually forming a large section of the Oregon and Washington border, the Columbia River was once a formidable obstacle in travel. Today, we cross the Columbia without even thinking twice, zooming over the Interstate or Glenn L. Jackson Bridges to get to Oregon or come back to Washington. But it was not always so easy. Before the 10 current crossings were available, heading over the mighty river meant taking a rickety ferry or paddling across in a boat, often a harrowing journey. Today, we have the luxury of picking our own route, spanning the river on scenic bridges or even taking a fun, historic ferry ride.
The Columbia has always been a difficult river to cross, especially along the Washington/Oregon border. Around 500 years ago, a huge landslide made the crossing much easier, if only for a few years. Known as the Bonneville Landslide, a giant section of land from Table Mountain and Greenleaf Peak tumbled down from what is now the Washington side of the river, creating a land bridge of sorts that was 200 feet high and 3.5 miles long. Over time, the force and power of the Columbia eroded the natural dam, creating the Cascade Rapids, which are now buried by the waters of the Bonneville Dam.
While the river was commonly crossed by the native populations of our region for millennia, the Columbia served as a boundary for settlers flocking to the region in the 1800s. Separating the British and American colonies, the river was an international border for decades. While the British and the Hudson’s Bay Company tried to dissuade Americans from crossing the river in the 1800s, the battle was already lost. The influx of people became too much in the late 1840s, causing the boarder to be rendered useless. This was thanks largely to the Oregon Territory establishing fees, taxes and regulations for ferries to operate across the river. For the next five decades, ferries shuttled settlers and commerce across the Columbia, helping to solidify the region as a fully American territory.
It wasn’t until 1908 that the first railroad bridge crossed the Columbia, and it would be another eight years before the first automobile bridge was completed. This two-lane bridge, known as the Interstate Bridge, was originally built in 1917. In 1958, a second, twin bridge was built right next to it, which is now the southbound route over the Columbia. Further upriver, the Hood River Bridge was built in 1924, giving motorists, for a small toll, a second option to cross the mighty river.
The novelty of the bridge would quickly be overshadowed, however, by a new, breathtaking span of road built in 1926. Called the Bridge of the Gods, in homage to the land bridge caused by the huge landslide 50 years earlier, the new bridge would be built a few miles downstream, connecting Washington State to the city of Cascade Locks. Today, the toll bridge that is the Bridge of the Gods is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs across the country from Canada to Mexico. The bridge brings together both sides of the Columbia River Gorge, can be driven or walked and it is the link for one of the most scenic drives around.
By the start of 1930, three bridges and a handful of ferries served those hoping to cross the Columbia. However, by the end of January of 1930, no bridges or ferries were needed to cross the Columbia River. Thanks to unseasonably cold weather, the Columbia River froze solid, with cars taking drives on the ice and some even rumored to have crossed the entire icy river. Ice breakers and warm weather eventually cleared the Columbia just in time for the Lewis and Clark Bridge to open, spanning from Longview, Washington, to Rainier, Oregon. Privately owned, the bridge was originally called the Longview Bridge, and tolls were to be paid to cross this road until 1965.
For 23 more years, the bridges and ferries helping people cross the Columbia were enough. Then, in 1953, the Dalles Bridge opened after 85 years of planning. Plans started for this bridge in 1865, ten years after the first official ferry service operated in the region, but funding and other issues got in the way. After the 80 year delay, the bridge was completed and became toll-free in 1974.
Since 1953, only two more bridges have been built that cross the Columbia from Washington to Oregon. In 1966, the Astoria-Megler Bridge opened, completing the final segment of Highway 101 that runs from Olympia, Washington, to Los Angeles, California. Stretching 4.1 miles in length, the Astoria-Megler bridge is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. After construction was completed, the bridge eradicated the often closed and inconsistent ferry service that had served the region since 1926. The love of the new bridge became apparent quickly, as the tolls on the bridge ended two years early, thanks to heavy use.
The most recent bridge over the Columbia has been granting residents of Clark County quick access to both the Portland International Airport and the Oregon side of the gorge since 1982. Known as the Glenn L. Jackson Memorial Bridge, this bridge crosses two channels of the Columbia and over Government Island.
Once the only method of travel across the Columbia River, today a lone ferry still spans the mighty river for the public to enjoy. Located in Wahkiakum County, the Ferry Oscar B crosses from Puget Island, Washington, to Westport, Oregon, once an hour. From 5:00 a.m. until 10:15 p.m., you can catch this passenger and car ferry across the wide river, enjoying sightings of eagles, herons, sea birds and even seals. Operating 365 days a year with a minimum of 18 runs per day, hopping onto this ferry is your best and last chance to enjoy a ferry ride on the Columbia. If you have not had a chance to take this ferry, I suggest you do so soon, before another bridge replaces it.