THE SNAKE RIVER CROSSING
The Inland Empire experienced the bridge builder’s art at a level above the primitive and temporary for the first time courtesy of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.
The Northern Pacific established its main construction camp on the north bank of the Snake at its confluence with the Columbia in the spring of 1879. It was christened Ainsworth in honor of J.C. Ainsworth, President of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company which held a monopoly on Columbia River shipping. The camp’s labor force numbered about 400 and was evenly divided between whites, mostly Irish, and Chinese. Its principle tasks were construction of the mainline in the direction of Spokane and building a 17 mile branch line to Wallula where the Northern Pacific would connect with the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company’s tracks to Portland.
A sawmill was among the first structures erected in Ainsworth. The railroad solicited bids for enough timber to keep it busy turning out 350,000 ties and 10,000,000 feet of bridge lumber. Raw logs were cut on the slopes of the Cascade and Bitteroot ranges and rafted down the Yakima or Clearwater to the mouth of the Snake. The town also boasted a score of establishments offering every sort of entertainment and vice the denizens of a 19th century construction camp could hope for.
The Frederick K. Billings, a sternwheeler, was constructed at Celilo in 1880. It saw service as a transfer boat to the Wallula spur from October 1, 1881 until the bridge at Ainsworth opened on April 20, 1884.
Construction of the bridge over the Snake was delayed when the railroad decided to build it of iron rather than wood. A contract for the eight granite piers was awarded in March 1882 to D.D. McBean, who bid $250,000, and set a completion date of April 1, 1883. McBean had a rough go at it but failed to meet the deadline. The railroad took over and completed the masonry work in January 1884. The stone for the piers was quarried from the walls of the Snake Canyon at Wawawai, 80 miles upstream of the construction site. The first of eight fixed spans was hoisted into place on January 20th. The iron trusses were fabricated on the east coast and shipped ‘round the Horn and finally barged up the Columbia. A 367 foot swing span completed the 1541 foot crossing. The first train crossed on April 20, 1884. Total cost of the project was $1,135,744, nearly three times the estimate for the originally proposed timber bridge.
Ainsworth’s population climbed to over 1,500 and in 1883 it became the seat of newly created Franklin County. The town declined rapidly after the bridge opened. The railroad packed its baggage in November 1884 and moved all its facilities five miles north to Pasco where it began the task of bridging the Columbia. The county seat moved to Pasco in 1887 and within a decade all that remained of Ainsworh were memories.
The old iron bridge was replaced by a new steel structure, consisting of five fixed spans and a vertical lift drawspan, which rests on the original granite piers. The new crossing was built by the Morrison Knudsen Company for the Northern Pacific’s successor the Burlington Northern Railroad and opened in 1971.