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BNSF - Snake River Bridge


BNSF - Snake River Bridge

Photo taken by Douglas Butler

License: Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY)


BH Photo #261374

Street Views 


Originally built with a swing span drawbridge in 1884 by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Converted to a lift span drawbridge in 1954 following completion of McNary Dam. Trusswork and lift span replaced in 1971 by the Morrison-Knudsen Company for the Burlington Northern RR.

Northern Pacific Railway - Snake River Bridge 

Written by Richard Doody

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.


Vertical lift bridge over Snake River on Burlington Northern - Santa Fe Railroad
Pasco, Franklin County, Washington, and Walla Walla County, Washington
Open to traffic
Built 1971
- Morrison-Knudsen Co. of Boise, Idaho
- BNSF Railway (BNSF)
- Burlington Northern Railroad (BN)
Vertical Lift with three Pratt through truss, two Warren through truss and a single steel girder approach spans.
Length of largest span: 380.0 ft.
Total length: 1,575.0 ft.
Deck width: 12.0 ft.
Also called
Snake River Railroad Bridge
Pasco-Burbank Railroad Bridge
Approximate latitude, longitude
+46.20711, -119.03038   (decimal degrees)
46°12'26" N, 119°01'49" W   (degrees°minutes'seconds")
Approximate UTM coordinates
11/343372/5119063 (zone/easting/northing)
Quadrangle map:
Inventory number
BH 51774 (Bridgehunter.com ID)

Update Log 

  • July 5, 2020: New photo from Patrick Gurwell
  • January 15, 2020: New photo from Geoff Hubbs
  • June 15, 2018: New photos from Leslie R trick
  • June 7, 2018: New photos from Adam
  • May 11, 2018: New Street View added by Leslie R Trick
  • April 19, 2018: Updated by Luke: Split entries
  • April 19, 2018: Essay added by Richard Doody
  • March 28, 2018: New photos from Richard Doody
  • June 30, 2015: New photo from Douglas Butler
  • May 15, 2014: New Street View added by Luke Harden
  • October 8, 2013: New photo from Douglas Butler
  • March 21, 2012: Added by Michael Goff


  • Mike Goff - michael [dot] goff [at] hotmail [dot] com
  • Douglas Butler
  • Luke
  • Richard Doody
  • Leslie R Trick - Leslie [dot] Trick [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Adam
  • Geoff Hubbs
  • Patrick Gurwell - pgurwell [at] gmail [dot] com


BNSF - Snake River Bridge
Posted August 24, 2017, by Jan Weihmann (weihmann [at] wavecable [dot] com)

I was going through my grandma's (Katie Wardrip b:1886) cards and letters, and came across this postcard of the construction of the railroad bridge, dated 1913.

I have a number of postcards with date stamps placing grandma Katie in Leahy Washington (1907), in Mansfield (1911-1913), Spokane (1915), and finally in Waitsburg in 1916, where the rest of her family lived.

BNSF - Snake River Bridge
Posted May 19, 2014, by M. Goff (michael [dot] goff [at] hotmail [dot] com)

The original bridge was built in the late 1880's on the current foundations. A pattern I have noticed throughout the northwest is that the trusses may have been replaced in the 1910s or 1920s but I cannot confirm or deny this happened here. The approach spans may in fact date from the original construction.

However, I am quite certain that the bridge was modified and the vertical lift span was added in preparation for the construction of McNary Dam a few miles downstream on the Columbia River in the 1950's.

The dams on the lower Columbia and Snake Rivers opened shipping all the way inland to Lewiston Idaho and any bridges that were already built across the river during this time were modified to accommodate the tug boats and barges going up and down the rivers. A few examples of this can be seen downstream from this location. The Bridge of the Gods was raised multiple feet to allow for shipping and the Celilo Railroad Bridge and the Hood River Bridge had vertical lift spans installed.

The date on this bridge may a little fuzzy. However, I believe this has shed some light as to what is on here. I found these dates and other information in an article about the bridge but cannot seem to find the article I referenced the dates from at this moment. Also, keep in mind I have never visited the site to confirm any of the dates on such things as plaques or portal frames.

BNSF - Snake River Bridge
Posted May 15, 2014, by Nathan Holth (webmaster [at] historicbridges [dot] org)

There is no way this bridge was built in 1884. Vertical lifts of this style were not really built before 1894. I am thinking this bridge was actually replaced in the 1950s, since someone noted that date on this page.