The recession that followed the abandonment of Umatilla by the railroad ended in 1948 with the start of construction on McNary Dam. The ferries crossing the Columbia at Plymouth and Patterson carried over 250,000 vehicles that year and the Corps of Engineers had to install its own ferry to handle the traffic its construction generated. The numbers certainly justified building a bridge. Senators Morse and Cordon sponsored legislation to provide federal funding of a bridge as part of the dam project but measure failed to win approval. State financing was out of the question until the debate between Oregon and Washington over location of Interstate 82 could be settled.
Judge James Sturgis of the Umatilla County Court was the prime mover behind the 1954 decision by the county to bond itself for the $4,000,000 needed to build a toll bridge. The issue was made under provisions of an Oregon law passed in 1949 to allow financing of the bridge at The Dalles by Wasco County. Sturgis said the idea to build the bridge came to him during a stop at a Umatilla grocery in the late forties. The clerk remarked that he wasn’t getting much business that day because the wind was making the ferry trips a bit rough. The Judge later recalled, “I thought it was ridiculous that a strong breeze could stop travel that way and decided we should have a bridge.”. The bonds were backed only by a promise to repay from the tolls to be collected from the bridge’s users. Detractors labeled the project “Sturgis folly” and argued that the maintenance cost would become a burden to the taxpayers.
Tudor Engineering Company of San Francisco designed the double intersection cantilever bridge. Construction began in August 1954. Work on the piers and abutments was finished in October. The steel superstructure; consisting of two 300 foot anchor arms, two 600 foot suspended spans and a 120 foot center span, was fabricated and erected by the American Bridge Division of United States Steel. Plate girder approaches brought the bridge’s total length to 3,380 feet, over half a mile. The crossing was completed in only eight months and opened on April 15, 1955.
Governors Paul Patterson of Oregon and Arthur Langlie of Washington presided at the unveiling of a plaque formally dedicating the bridge to the memory of William H. Switzler. Switzler was born in Pendleton in 1878 and grew up on a ranch homesteaded by his father on Switzler’s Island. The island was located in the Columbia 12 miles above Umatilla and is now submerged. He operated the ferries at Maryhill and Plymouth between 1911 and ’41 and served a term on the county court before his death in 1942.
Umatilla County purchased the Plymouth ferry and made its operator, Gene Hiatt, head of the toll bridge commission. Bridge traffic was below expectations until the county purchased the Patterson ferry and put it out of business in 1958. Traffic increased so dramatically that the bonds were paid off seven years early despite the toll being cut in half. The states took over responsibility for the bridge and the fifty cent toll was removed on August 30, 1974.