The theme for The Daily Post’s photo challenge this week is Local. In the related post, Jen H writes:
“Home” is… a place that is familiar and comforting, and it gives us a sense of belonging. Home is what and who is local — the places and people we know by heart.
While I’ve resided in other places since then, my home town is what came to mind when I read the post for this week’s challenge. I grew up in a small town near Astoria, Oregon, and lived in the same house for 18 years until I went off to college. While not all of my memories of those years are pleasant and “comforting,” there was certainly continuity.
We knew the townsfolk. We knew their names and their lineage. We knew their histories, and we knew their secrets – that weren’t really all that secret – as often happens in small towns.
Certain locations gained special meaning to us as they became linked to significant experiences or people in our lives. I wrote about one such place in an article that ran in The Oregonian newspaper some 25 years ago (1990, I believe).
Below is an edited version of that article:
Toll collector Don Patch is not impressed with the Astoria Bridge. “It’s big and green. Other than that, it’s not especially distinctive.”
Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. From where Patch sits, taking money through the window of the small toll booth, he doesn’t even see the bridge. He sees only the southbound traffic spiraling downward toward him like vultures intent on their prey. Or maybe he holds a grudge because of the time a loaded log truck hit the toll booth – with Patch inside – knocking the booth off its foundation. The scars are still visible on Patch’s forearm; he was hit by a falling first-aid-kit.
Lela Starr, collecting tolls from the northbound lane, has a better view of the bridge. Yet what stands out in her mind after working there 5 ½ years are motorists’ questions, such as, “What’s that big island over there?” Starr’s usual response: “We call it Washington [State].”
We grew up together, the bridge and I. Next year, as I face my 30th birthday, the bridge turns 25. Not exactly old for a bridge, yet in its quarter-century if has played a significant role in the community – and in my life.
In its short existence, the bridge has witnessed birth and death. It has endured bad press, foreboding predictions and assaults by truck, ship and weather. It has been the backdrop for Hollywood glamour, romantic encounters, political protests and crime.
* * *
Stretching 4.1 miles across the mouth of the Columbia River, the Astoria Bridge connects Oregon and Washington as the final link in the 1,625-mile-long U.S. Highway 101, from Tijuana, Mexico to Olympia, Washington. The Guinness Book of World Records once credited the bridge with the longest three-span continuous-through truss in the world. Recent editions omit this listing. Whether a longer span exists somewhere or people just lost interest in three-span continuous-through trusses, I don’t know.
When I first became aware of the bridge, with its crisscross of metal trusses stretching out over the Oregon ship channel, I was too young to know that the bridge was being scorned as the biggest boondoggle in Oregon’s history. It was the most expensive project the State Highway Division had ever undertaken, and skeptics doubted its ability to pay for itself.
Astorians had pushed for a trans-Columbia bridge for years. As early as 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed a bill authorizing construction of a bridge, but the federal Public Works Administration rejected the $6 million project.
In 1961, with an updated price tag of $24 million, then-Governor Mark Hatfield signed off on legislation making the project a reality. Astorians celebrated with a serpentine parade through the city streets and a bonfire. On August 27, 1966, the bridge opened to two-way traffic. My family’s car was one of those to cross that day. On a last-minute whim late that evening, my parents bundled up their four pajama-clad children in blankets, and we drove the eight-mile round trip to Washington and back [to Astoria, Oregon].
The Daily Astorian newspaper asserted that the ‘60s would go down in history as the “Decade of the Bridge.” After the opening publicity, however, excitement began to wane. But not for lack of trying.
Nationally renowned psychic Jeanne Dixon did her part by predicting the structure’s collapse in 1969. Wrong. Made-for-television devastation seemed likely a decade later when filmmaker Irwin Allen (“The Swarm,” “The Poseidon Adventure”) set his sights on the span as the location for a movie called “The Night the Bridge Fell Down.” Although the bridge would have had a stand-in model for the stunt work, the project was cancelled when typical rainy winter weather combined with a local refusal to close the bridge for a full day.
In 1975 the bridge figured into another indelible memory, far less pleasant than my first encounter. While stopped at a traffic light on a street in Astoria that faced the bridge, I witnessed a figure falling from the bridge into the Columbia River. My brothers, who were with me at the time, went to find a phone to report the suicide to the local police, while I was left to stand vigil on the bank under the bridge in case the person surfaced alive. He did not.
* * *
The 1980s was a busy decade for the bridge. In 1985 it appeared in the movie “Short Circuit.” No title role this time; the bridge was only a prop from which No. 5, a 4-foot-tall robot, made a daring escape by parachute.
Also in 1985, a baby was born on the bridge, a fish truck caught fire on the span, and a log truck wiped out a toll booth. Two years later a vessel struck the protective pilings around one of the bridge’s piers, piling up more than $800,000 in damages.
I began working for the Oregon State Highway Division in 1986. As part of my job, I substituted as a toll collector. On the highway maintenance crew, I had the rare pleasure of spending several hours over the ship channel, flagging traffic and enjoying the view of the Columbia River and the tidy homes nestled into the verdant Astoria hillside. But the happiest outcome of working on the bridge happened one day when a car stalled on the bridge during one of my toll-taking shifts. I called the Oregon State Police to help recover the vehicle. The responding officer became my husband some few months later.
* * *
Throughout its near misses with fame and fortune, the bridge began paying for itself. Statistics demonstrated that it was far exceeding anticipated usage. If the “Bridge to Nowhere” designation is to be believed, a lot of motorists have been going nowhere. Within three years, construction bonds will be paid off. But whether the tolls are reduced or dropped entirely remains to be seen.*
I no longer work on the bridge, but we still seem linked through some imperceptible current that tosses us together at the whim of the tides. I can’t help wondering when our paths will cross again and what lesson the encounter will hold.
* The tolls on the Astoria Bridge were discontinued in 1993, having paid off the $24 million in construction bonds two years earlier than originally projected.