“If we vote this money to help Wenatchee then Kennewick and Pasco will expect a bridge of their own across the Columbia. Next Vancouver will want us to build a bridge. These bridges should be built out of the funds of the counties.” - Doctor W. M. Beach Rep. Mason County addressing the Washington State legislature in opposition to state purchase of the Columbia River bridge at Wenatchee.
The protracted fight for state funding of bridge construction continued. The death of a Pasco Realtor, struck down by a west bound express train as he attempted to cross the railroad bridge from Kennewick, brought sympathy but no funding. A bill designating Kennewick as the junction of two routes on the state’s proposed highway system passed the 1911 legislature and the local representatives assured the public that when the roads were funded money for bridges across the Columbia and Snake would also be forthcoming. The 1913 budget appropriated $4,000 for location and site surveys for the proposed bridges. The state highway commissioner arrived on the scene in December and expressed the opinion that the surveys could be completed under budget as much of the required information could be obtained from studies already conducted by the War Department. The next two legislatures adjourned without appropriating money for construction of the spans. The nation was preoccupied with the war in Europe and steel was in short supply.
Southeast Washington tired of waiting on the legislature and headed down the trail blazed by Clarkston and Wenatchee, build the bridges with local financing and then press for a state takeover.
A series of meetings between the Franklin and Walla Walla County commissions concluded with an agreement on a $230,000 bond issue for construction of a bridge over the Snake to be located one mile above the Ainsworth railroad crossing. The bond issue was approved in an April 1919 election. Franklin County was nearly unanimous, favoring the proposal by a margin of 1.030 to 40. Walla Wallans were more restrained in their approval. Many in that community felt the bridge would benefit Pasco at their expense.
Morris Brothers submitted the winning bid for the bonds and then demanded a bonus before accepting them. They argued that toll bridges were an unproved proposition in the region and the public might be slow to accept them. The demand was refused and the state agreed to purchase the issue. Construction of a toll house and a later decision to build the approaches in concrete rather than wood increased cost of the project by an additional $25,000 which was paid by the counties.
The bridge, a 1930 foot long continuous truss with an overhead arch for navigation clearance, was designed by the Union Bridge Company of Portland. Joe Wood of Seattle submitted the winning construction bid and began work in September 1919. The crossing was finished and opened to traffic on April 15, 1921. A gala ceremony to officially dedicate the span was staged on May 6, 1921. Governor Louis Hart and Public Works Director E.V.Kuykendall delighted an audience of several thousand with flowery orations detailing the area's glorious past and the grand future before it.
An editorial in the Walla Walla Union expressed the feelings of many in the assembly…”The bridge replaces the Pasco - Burbank Ferry which has for many years been a source of great annoyance to all travelers. It has caused innumerable and vexatious delays and the completion of the bridge has been a source of satisfaction to all who have reason to cross the river.”
The state assumed ownership of the Snake River bridge and removed the tolls in 1927. The state’s engineers determined that the bridge’s steel frame was too light to support the concrete roadway and it was replace with an asphalted wooden deck, a change that would lead to the structure’s eventual demise.
Disaster struck the bridge on the afternoon of September 9, 1949. The tinder laid in 1927 when the state replaced the span’s concrete roadway with a wooden deck was set ablaze by a motorist carrying an old radio wrapped in a comforter and tied to the bumper of his car. A hot exhaust pipe ignited the blanket. A piece of the burning material blew off as the car crossed the span and landed in the timbers below the roadway. Firefighters arrived on the scene about 4 P.M. Decking was ripped up so that the fire could be fought from above and below. Gale force winds fanned the flames and all attempts to douse the inferno proved futile. The north approach was dynamited to make a fire break. The flames were finally brought under control shortly after midnight.
A party of state officials, led by chief bridge engineer George Stevens, arrived the next morning, inspected the charred and twisted remains and declared the span a total loss. Traffic was detoured via ferries at Plymouth and Patterson on the Columbia and Lyons Ferry of the Snake. Trips that once took a few minutes were now two hour journeys.
Installing a ferry or converting the Northern Pacific’s railroad bridge into a highway crossing were among the solutions proposed to avert the traffic disaster that would have to be dealt with until a new bridge could be built.
A week after the fire, troops of the 503rd Engineer Pontoon Bridge Company arrived from Fort Lewis with sixty truckloads of equipment and began assembling a temporary span fifty yards above the burnt wreckage. The 820 foot floating bridge was completed on September 23rd. It was wide enough for one way traffic and load and speed limits of 35 tons and 15mph.
October ended on a hope note. The state announced plans to repair the burned span to carry one lane of traffic while a new bridge was being built and to begin testing locations for a second crossing on the Columbia River.
1950 dawned in the midst of the worst winter in a generation. The weather brought ice and the ice brought more bridge trouble. The pontoon bridge was ripped from its moorings on January 3rd. The floating span was carried off the Snake and down the Columbia where it was trapped between the ice and the Union Pacific Bridge near Hedges. The next day Tidewater Barge Lines sent two tugs from Umatilla to retrieve the runaway span. They vainly struggled to free it from the grasp of ice in a reusable condition. The foul weather halted operation of Lyons Ferry. The Snake was uncrossable on the 80 mile stretch below Central Ferry Bridge.
Renewed hope for a solution to the area’s bridge crises arrived with the winter’s departure. Ferries began service across the Columbia between Attalia and Hover on February 27th. The operation was run by Russell Towboat and Moorage of Vancouver and replaced the Snake River crossing. Designs for the new Snake and Columbia bridges were unveiled on March 17th and bids for the Snake span were opened on the 21st. Repairs to the old Snake bridge were completed April 1st and it opened with one lane and a signal controlling the alternating direction of traffic.