Republic, Washington was the site of a 1900 gold rush that touched off another round in the cross border railroad wars. Canadian banker Tracey Holland chartered the Kettle River Railway and within a year American ore was feeding the smelter at Granby, British Columbia. Holland’s activity did not go unnoticed by the Americans whose interests would be defended by no less than the Empire Builder, himself, James J. Hill.
Hill knew that the only things standing between himself and Republic’s riches were the Columbia River, the 7,000 foot peaks of the Kettle Mountains and an international border.
Hill had taken control of D.C. Corbin’s Spokane Falls & Northern Railway in 1899 and re-chartered it as the Washington & Great Northern. Hill solved the problem of obtaining a charter for the 10 miles of track that would have to be routed through Canada to bypass the Kettle Range by purchasing the dormant charter of the Vancouver, Victoria & Eastern Railway. A group of Vancouver businessmen had been chartered the VV&E several years before with the expressed intention of linking that city to the Kootenays via an all Canadian route but never proceeded toward that goal.
Hill dispatched his chief engineer,John F. Stevens, to Marcus, Washington in the spring of 1901 to plan construction of the Columbia River Bridge.
Holland never knew what hit him. Hill’s troops crossed the Columbia and laid tracks into Republic in less than a year. A particularly devastating and quite legal blow was dealt to the Kettle River when the VV&E built its tracks directly across those of the competition at Grand Forks. The junction quickly became a favorite parking place for Hill’s locomotives. Holland and the Kettle River were driven into bankruptcy.
The Washington & Great Northern crossed the Columbia on an eight span Howe truss bridge constructed by Porter Brothers Construction Company of Portland. The timber bridge was only the third to cross the American portion of the river and the first to be constructed in a single season. It opened in May 1902. Its construction was the last project that John F. Stevens would oversee before leaving Hill to become chief engineer of the Panama Canal. Its trusses were encased in vertical siding in 1914 making it, at 1200 feet in length, the longest covered bridge ever constructed west of the Mississippi. The railroad planked the deck in 1926 and opened the bridge as a toll crossing for automobiles.
The Columbia that ran beneath the Marcus Bridge was not the tamed tiger, caged by a dozen dams, we know today. Winter ice jams and spring torrents threatened to destroy the crossing more than once. The bridge faced its toughest test in the winter of 1929. The Walla Walla Union reported the struggle to save the span on February 19th. “Crews which have been struggling vigorously to save the Great Northern Railway bridge across the Columbia River threatened with destruction by an ice jam admitted defeat tonight and withdrew. Two of eight bents in the bridge will almost certainly be torn away by a mountain of ice flows released by warmer weather upstream. Workers said Pier No.5 where the jam concentrated and which supports two bents has been forced downstream several inches despite support of heavy timbers driven below it. It was expected that it would give way sometime tonight.” The bridge sustained severe damage but was repaired and remained in service until the American Bridge Company completed new rail and highway bridges at Kettle Falls in 1940.
The greatest covered bridge ever built in the northwest was torn down in 1941. Soon after, the floodgates of Grand Coulee dam closed and inundated the site with sixty feet of water.