A new competitor arrived on the northwest’s railroad scene in the spring of 1905. The North Coast Railroad Company announced plans to construct an improved route linking the city of Spokane with the Oregon - Washington Railroad & Navigation Company’s Portland bound mainline somewhere in the vicinity of Wallula, Washington and to then cross the Columbia and build up the Yakima Valley and over the Cascades to Puget Sound.
The financing of the North Coast was a closely guarded secret but press speculation that the line’s chief backer was none other than E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and O-WR&N proved correct. Harriman was making a direct challenge to James J. Hill’s control of the eastern Washington railroad business.
A bill authorizing the North Coast Railroad Company to bridge the Columbia was introduced before the U.S, Congress in January 1907 and received quick approval. Early reports that the railroad would make use of a transfer ferry had proven false. A party of engineers and surveyors arrived at Wallula, Washington in June 1907 and spent the next year and a half checking locations and sounding the river at every likely crossing between the Columbia’s gap and the mouth of the Snake. A local reporter found the survey party to be as tight lipped as the men in the finance department. He spent a day with the party’s leader, E.S. Clark, and found him willing to discuss any topic other than the location of the bridge. The frustrated scribe later wrote, “We left his camp wondering if Mr. Clark was really certain that he was in the employ of the North Coast road.” A site was finally chosen about three miles below the mouth of the Snake. The bridge would connect Two Rivers, Walla Walla County with Hedges, Benton County.
The Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company was contracted to build the bridge and pitched its camp in January 1909. The firm of Hurst & Wood began construction of short spurs to link the bridge site with the Northern Pacific’s and the Oregon - Washington Railroad & Navigation Company’s lines at the same time.
A detailed account of the bridge company’s camp and activities appeared in the April 1, 1909 edition of The Wallula Gateway…
“The camp consists of a dozen or more houses and tents, comprising the commissary, office of the Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company, machine shop, cook and bunk houses, and a pool room conducted by H.E. Greer.
The spur from the Northern Pacific is completed and was nearly full of cars loaded with piling, lumber, machinery, etc. Besides, an acre of ground is covered with bridge material.
The original site of the bridge has been abandoned and the approaches are now being constructed about 1,000 feet farther up the river. On this side six bents and the approach are about completed and pile driving is progressing steadily on both sides and in the center of the river. The center piers will be constructed first, while the water is at its low stage. About 100 men are now on the roll but this number will be quadrupled in a short time.
From the 8th to the 26th of March, A. F. Marshall of Seattle completed five scows, the last of which was launched on Tuesday. These are operated on a one and a quarter inch steel cable and propelled by donkey engines of which six are in operation in the camp.
Much difficulty is encountered in driving piles. The river bottom is solid rock and the piles flatten out and will not stick. A consulting engineer from Seattle is on ground endeavoring to figure out a remedy for this. Even at this low stage the water is 64 feet deep and very swift.”
The rumor mill cranked up again in November. A story making the rounds named James .J. Hill as the secret power behind the North Coast. He was going to reroute the Northern Pacific over the Ainsworth and Two Rivers crossings rather than make the repairs to the Pasco bridge being demanded by the government. The story had a short life and was quickly forgotten.
Work on the bridge proceeded at a rapid pace which was duly noted in an article appearing in the January 13,1910 edition of The Wallula Gateway entitled, “THE BIG BRIDGE”…
“The eighth concrete pier of the North Coast Columbia river bridge on the Walla Walla, Puget Sound line, has just been completed and work is well under way on the other four pedestals, which will support the structure. There are twelve of the great piers in all and work is carried on in 35 feet of icy water.
The foundations for all the piers are practically complete and the concrete work is going on at a rapid rate. The superstructure is practically all delivered on the ground and represents about 200 carloads of material. The contractors declare that they can complete the thirteen spans at the rate of one every six days, which means the completion of the bridge about April 1.
The small army of men and the great plant assembled to build a structure of this kind can only be realized by visiting the work; a fleet of scows, numerous engines of various kinds , vast quantities of cable, a number of pile drivers, make a jumble of moving vehicles that spell harmony only to the experienced engineer.
Up to date this great work has only been marked by one accident which is something almost unheard of in construction of a bridge of this size in that depth of water, which speaks volumes for the supervision and watchful care of the employees and appliances of the contractors.”
The Engineering News praised the completed crossing as, “A remarkable timber bridge of up to date design” and printed a lengthy article by the railroad’s chief engineer F.L. Pitman describing the bridge’s finer details…
“A timber bridge comprising nine 150 foot Howe trusses, one 240 foot swing draw span and nearly 1000 feet of heavy timber trestle. … It is stated that the life of the bridge is estimated at 10 or 12 years. This would seem to be an ultraconservative estimate. … on the Columbia River bridge great attention was paid to the design of joints and in every point of contact of timber on timber an iron plate or casting has been introduced to reduce the possible rotting. While the necessities of traffic may require the replacement of this bridge with steel in the next decade, it does not seem probable that the cost of upkeep or the possibility of failure should bring about its removal for at least twice that time.”
The North Coast Railroad was merged with the O-WR&N after Harriman’s control was finally acknowledged. That line spent $1,500,000 replacing the wooden structure with six steel camelback trusses, one of them a swing span, and a long series of plate girder spans between 1922 and 1923.
The O-W R&N was absorbed by its parent company, the Union Pacific, in 1938. That railroad closed the swing span and replaced the adjoining span to west with a vertical lift drawspan in 1955 in order to accommodate the modern barge traffic which came following completion of McNary Dam the previous year.