Portland’s First Bridge

Despite the fact that our political parties can't seem to address an infrastructure crisis in the making, there are few things as essential to commerce and community life. As early as 1862, Portland residents were dreaming of a bridge across the Willamette River. "They’re going to build, I feel it yet, A bridge across the Willamette," wrote poet Stephen Maybell in hope. Ten years later, planners got serious, and residents got excited. East Portlanders, like Simeon Small in Burying My Dead, were especially eager, but they would have to wait until 1880 for construction to begin.

A view of the Morrison Street Bridge in 1892, courtesy of  portlandoregon.gov/archives

A view of the Morrison Street Bridge in 1892, courtesy of portlandoregon.gov/archives

Why did they have to wait a decade? In the 1870’s, ferries were well-established, including the mule-powered Stark Street ferry owned by James Stephens (whose father was the first to be buried at Lone Fir Cemetery) and later sold to Joseph Knott. A fleet of steamers owned by Ben Holliday added to the growing criss-cross trade across the river. So when construction was slated to begin, there was resistance. Opponents claimed the bridge would be an illegal obstruction to navigation. Ferry operators saw that their livelihood was in jeopardy. Litigation ensued, and the U.S. District Court issued an injunction against the builder that held for years. To evade the court's decision, the private company reorganized itself as a new corporation with a new name, freeing its investors from legal culpability. The ploy worked.

Ferry owners and operators were the bridge’s fiercest opponents.  Photo courtesy of    Flickr.

Ferry owners and operators were the bridge’s fiercest opponents. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

By April 1887, Portland finally had its first bridge - an impressive wooden swing-span structure that, at 1650 feet, rightly claimed to be the longest bridge west of the Mississippi. "CONNECTED," read the bold headline of the Morning Oregonian. "Portland and East Portland Join Hands." The communities celebrated with a procession from west to east, from Morrison Street to the home of William Beck, president of the bridge company. Citizens rejoiced in their new river crossing but they chafed at the toll. "It is only to be regretted," wrote the newspaper, "that the bridge is the property of a private company and that it cannot be free."

1900 view from the west side, when the bridge actually terminated at Morrison St. On the left is the 1887 Jennings Furniture Store; at right, the once elegant Esmond Hotel.  Photo courtesy    Vintage Portland     and PARC

1900 view from the west side, when the bridge actually terminated at Morrison St. On the left is the 1887 Jennings Furniture Store; at right, the once elegant Esmond Hotel. Photo courtesy Vintage Portland and PARC

As predicted, East Portland neighborhoods exploded; Albina and Woodstock were developed. And in five short years, East Portland and Albina merged with their Westside neighbor to become the city we know today. The bridge that made it possible was not intentionally named after a person but for the street from which the bridge span began.

These Pittsburgh bridges, painted in Aztec Gold, are among the 446 in the city. Portland is hardly competitive with its 12 spans across the Willamette.

These Pittsburgh bridges, painted in Aztec Gold, are among the 446 in the city. Portland is hardly competitive with its 12 spans across the Willamette.

In Pittsburgh, a city that boasts over 400 bridges, some of the spans are named after renowned natives: baseball legend Roberto Clemente, environmentalist Rachel Carson, historian David McCullough, artist Andy Warhol, and others. So, a Yelp reviewer could be forgiven for hoping that Portland’s Morrison Bridge was named after musician Van Morrison. But, no…

Dr. Forbes Barclay  of Oregon City and the house built for him by John L. Morrison. Unfortunately, I could not find a single photo of Morrison! At least his handiwork remains.

Dr. Forbes Barclay of Oregon City and the house built for him by John L. Morrison. Unfortunately, I could not find a single photo of Morrison! At least his handiwork remains.

John Lindsey Morrison arrived in Oregon Country in 1842 (predating even the Oregon Territory) in the same wagon train as pioneers Medorem Crawford (a soldier who participated in the Champoeg meetings), Portland co-founder Asa Lovejoy, and surveyor and stonecutter Sidney Moss. Morrison worked as a carpenter for the Methodist Mission in in 1843. Later, he constructed a lovely house for physician Forbes Barclay in Oregon City, one of the few structures in Oregon that survives from the 1840s. But his claim to fame in Portland is that he built a house for Portland co-founder Francis Pettygrove, who famously won the coin flip naming our fair city after Portland in his home state of Maine. Pettygrove was so pleased with the construction that he named the street after the builder. Morrison moved to the San Juan Islands in the 1850’s and never returned, but his name lives on. Although rebuilt in 1905 and again in 1958, the Morrison Bridge will never lose its distinction as Portland’s first bridge.

Morrison can thank Francis Pettygrove for his immortality in PDX.

Morrison can thank Francis Pettygrove for his immortality in PDX.


Bettie Denny