CONQUERING THE COLUMBIA
The Frederick K. Billings’ Snake River days ended with the opening of the bridge at Ainsworth. Six months later, Captain W.P. Gray ordered a head of steam from the engine room and guided her up the Columbia to the new division point at Pasco. There she began ferrying trains across the Columbia to Kennewick.
Northern Pacific track layers arrived at what is now Kennewick in 1883. Here, they started building the mainline up the Yakima Valley towards its western terminus, Tacoma. No white settlers lived in Kennewick at the time the railroad made camp but several hundred Indians made their winter homes in the area.
Columbia River bridge construction was delayed for several years as the railroad chose to concentrate on laying track towards Puget Sound. The firm of Hoffman & Bates was awarded a $400,000 contract, to build a timber truss bridge on concrete piers, in March 1887. A target completion date was set for January 1, 1888. Thomas Johnson, the timber supplier, was unable to provide sufficient material to keep pace with the contractor and work fell far behind schedule.
The Frederick K. Billings cost a small fortune to operate and could only hold eight cars. Railroad officials were anxious to be rid of the steamer and decided that the piers were far enough along to support a roadbed laid on the falsework. The first train crossed the falsework bridge on December 8, 1887. Ice jams swept the temporary bridge away in January and damaged a pier in February. The Billings was pressed into service again until a new falsework was completed on April 13, 1888.
Superstructure work on the crossing was finished on September 20, 1888. The completed bridge, the first to conquer the Columbia, consisted of nine fixed spans, each 250 foot in length, and a 237 foot swing span. Fifty foot long iron girders at each end completed the 2487 foot crossing.
The new S-Class locomotives, introduced by the Northern Pacific shortly after the turn of the century, were too heavy for the wooden trusses of the Columbia Bridge. The superstructure was rebuilt in steel between July 1905 and October 1906 at a cost of $314,805. Six camelback trusses were installed at the Pasco end of the crossing separated from three Warren trusses on the Kennewick side by a steel swing span. A vertical lift draw span replaced the swing span in 1954 when completion of McNary Dam opened the river to barge traffic as far upstream as Richland.