Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Columbia Bridge Badly Needed/Two Men Died on the Job

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, June 18, 1961.

The Northern Pacific Railroad freight traffic grew rapidly. There was a bottleneck in its flow between Kennewick and Pasco. The existing railway ferries and transfer facilities were inadequate to handle this freight. A railroad bridge across the Columbia at this point was inoperative. The management of the Northern Pacific had made preliminary surveys and had determined the site of the bridge and the type of the bridge to be built. It was to be a combination wood and steel span, except the draw portion which was to be all steel. The entire bridge would have nine combination wood and steel spans and one all steel draw span. The piers of the bridge were wooden crib type filled with large rocks supported on a wooden pile driven foundation. The drawspan did not raise or tilt. It operated on a pivot contra-clockwise by hand power.

The deepest channel of the Columbia was located about a half mile down stream from Hog Island and approximately a thousand feet from the Kennewick bank of the Columbia. This was the location of the draw span. The waters of the Columbia at this point were very turbulent with whirlpools and eddies. The Indians in their canoes and pioneers in their skiffs kept away from this spot. It was a seathing maelstrom.

During the height of highwater season I have seen floating trees sucked down into those whirlpools and eddies and submerged for a distance of a quarter of a mile before they arose to the surface.

The large general contracting company of Haufman and Bates secured the contract for building the bridge and the contract also for all other work that was necessary to make the change over from ferry operations to bridge operations. Haufman and took over about thirty-five acres of Captain C. E. Lum’s horse spread for their ship yard. It was a salt grass flat. This was the site where several Columbia River stern wheelers had been built in earlier days.

Haufman and Bates was referred to as “H.B.” because all of their equipment was branded H.B. Every wooden axe handle or wood and tackle block had the brand H.B. burned into it. These were days before large construction cranes were manufactured.

The most powerful piece of equipment was the steam hoisting engine or donkey engine. It was used to power the pile drivers and hoists. The old time donkey engineer could do marvelous things with his donkey engine.

In these early days there was little safety inspection. Steam boiler inspection was given. There were but two accident facilities in this entire bridge construction.

Two painters working on a swing scaffold painting the steel draw span were lost. One painter slipped. The other grabbed him and both fell into the seathing waters of the Columbia. They were sucked down immediately in the whirlpools and eddies and were never seen again.

Accidents were few largely due to the fact that all workmen were highly experienced in their different tasks.

There was little grading of road bed necessary to make the change from the transfer ferries with their inclines and pontoons to the new bridge. In fact all of the old facilities were left intact. The ferry boats, Frederick K. Billings and the J. M. Nickson were moored at their original moorings. They were to stand by in case of a bridge disaster, by fire or other causes. It was necessary to grade only a high fill on the Kennewick flat to meet the high Kennewick portal of the bridge.

This new earth fill extended from the Kennewick portal of the new bridge in a curve south and west for about three quarters of a mile and then in a straight tangent west to Relief Hill. Wyes were graded from this road bed to connect with the existing tracks that functioned for the round house, stock yard, and ferry.

The test of the bridge design and its thorough construction was well tried a few years after its completion by the great high water flood of 1894. The bridge stood firm although the water raised to within twelve feet of it girders. The Columbia was eight miles wide inundating the present Finley district. When the flood waters had receded the bridge was in alignment and had not been damaged. There is twinge in the heart, a tear in the eye and a silence in the ears of the oldtimer as he beholds today the once roaring and raging Columbia silenced and subdued by puny man to a placid pool to do his will.

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