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Legends of the Arch Bridge

"There is nothing in machinery, there is nothing in embankments and railways and iron bridges and engineering devices to oblige them to be ugly. Ugliness is the measure of imperfection," wrote H.G. Wells. One gets the feeling that Oregon master bridge builder Conde McCullough read Wells and took his exhortation to heart, because Conde didn't know how to build an ugly bridge.

But other engineers did, and sometimes Conde despaired about their gracelessness. In a letter to a friend written in 1937, he complained:

From the dawn of civilization up to the present, engineers have been busily engaged in ruining this fair earth and taking all the romance out of it. They have cluttered up God's fair landscape with hideous little buildings and ugly railroads. The highway builders have ruined all the fishing so that there is no place where one can go and get away from it all. As a last and final insult, there appears to be a movement on foot to clutter up the right of way with blazing artificial lights at night so that there will be no place on the road for the young folk to park and engage in their usual amorous avocations. There is no romance nor poetry left in the world...

Conde, on the grand occasion of reopening the Arch Bridge that spans the Willamette River between Oregon City and West Linn, may I say, sir, you are wrong.

Arch Bridge

At noon on October 13, five poets gathered on your wonderfully restored bridge for a poetry workshop and put some romance and poetry back in the world — all because this structure exudes classic beauty and silent, magisterial dignity. It's a place that inspires legends. Run your hand across any arch or obelisk and you'll instantly know what I mean. The concrete seeps verse.

As I led the workshop, I realized I hadn't really fathomed the power of the Arch Bridge until two years ago, when I was writing about another one of Conde McCullough's masterpieces, the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, which opened in 1937 and is one of the crown jewels of New Deal Oregon socialism, the others being Silver Falls State Park and Timberline Lodge.

It was a late autumn evening and I drove south on McLoughlin Boulevard, venturing to Oregon City where I grew up and graduated from high school in 1982. FM radio played Loverboy's "Turn Me Loose" and then Foreigner's "Feels like the First Time" as I approached the bridge spanning the Clackamas River — John McLoughlin Bridge, another one of Conde's greatest achievements. It won the American Institute of Steel Construction's 1933 Award of Merit for "Most Beautiful Steel Bridge."

Looking west and down from the bridge, I saw the swirling brown confluence of the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers, the latter the greatest steelhead/drunk rafting river in the world. This is the site of Clackamette Park, the setting in my youth of many glorious high-school summer days of cutoffs, feathered hair, halter tops, bare midriffs, hacky sack, 92.3 KGON, low-grade local marijuana, homemade berry wines, and oceans of cheap Pacific Northwest lagers formerly brewed and drunk in the Pacific Northwest by union men, many of whom worked at the Oregon City mill and were the fathers of my best friends.

I crossed into Oregon City. In the distance I saw another bridge, the I-205 super slab that opened in 1970 and has earned the ignominious distinction of being listed prominently on a website called UglyBridges.com. Rest assured: no one has written, or ever will write, a poem describing the luster of this bridge. No one will ever take its photograph or feel any twinge to enact an amorous avocation. However, it does serve as a stunning and instructive visual antithesis of everything Conde McCullough evangelized about great bridges. (I suspect that I will never drive across the I-205 span again now that the Arch Bridge has reopened. I will always take 10 precious minutes out of my life and detour for the rare thrill of an artistic experience in vehicular traffic.)

Main Street beckoned and I parked the truck in view of the now-dead mill and the ancient Arch Bridge with its familiar concrete arches, ornate concrete railing or balustrade, eccentric pedestrian amenities, and signature set of four obelisks at each end — classic Conde Art Deco flourishes, which he may have first experimented with here.

It occurred to me that in all my years living in Oregon City, I had never walked across this historic bridgeIt occurred to me that in all my years living in Oregon City, I had never walked across this historic bridge even though it figured prominently in the antediluvian and acrimonious rivalry between Oregon City and West Linn high schools. Probably more acts of drunkenness, vandalism, sexual shenanigans, and daredevilism related to high-school sports have been conveyed by this bridge than any other bridge in the history of America.

I realized that I better take my walk then, because I knew the Oregon Department of Transportation was going to close the bridge for two years for its much needed restoration.

I ascended to the bridge and read a primordial plaque caked in road grime: built in 1922, one of Conde's first bridges. I started walking west on the north sidewalk and couldn't help but notice the bridge was obviously falling apart with chips, cracks, dents, and more than a little moss. I made a detour into a little rectangular area that pedestrians could use to admire the mill or the river... or enact an amorous avocation. Standing inside the rectangle, and partially shielded from view by passing motorists, it instantly occurred to me that generations of Oregon City and West Linn teenagers had probably taken full advantage of this concealed alcove. It also occurred to me that Conde probably wanted it that way. Does anyone in the world build bridges like this anymore? Oregon alone has a couple dozen of them. All of them Conde's! Who was this man? What motivated him? Where are the engineers like him today?

I spent a good hour on the crumbling Arch Bridge that night and gained a new appreciation for Conde's genius and ODOT's mission to preserve these unique Oregon monuments to elegant civil engineering.

Conde McCullough built bridges that are pleasingly integrated into the landscape with a beguiling aesthetic. His bridges do so much more than transport people and commerce. His bridges inspire and enhance legends. They conjure and foment them too. That's what all great bridges do, even one that is a mere 745 feet long.

And what of those legends? Not long after my book about the Yaquina Bay Bridge, Love and the Green Lady, came out in 2011, I began to collect legends about the Arch Bridge out of sheer fascination. It seemed like every person I met from Oregon City or West Linn could recount a tale. It wasn't long after hearing yet another outrageous story that I concluded that the Arch Bridge is probably the supreme generator of incredible bridge stories in the state.

Such as in 1934, when a 14-year-old girl, on a dare from several boys, climbed an arch to the top of the bridge.

Such as in the mid-1970s, when several Oregon City Pioneers used acid to dislodge the lion statue from West Linn High School and hung the bronze beast off the bridge.

Such as in 1979, when a sophomore at Oregon City High School, Matt Love, wrote in his journal, "I heard Pioneer Pete got busted because he hung a sign on the old bridge that read: 'Welcome to West Linn, suburb of Oregon City.'"

And that was only the teenagers!

What of the adults? Think of all the proposals; the motorcycle rides over the arches; the epic battles with salmon and sturgeon; the protests and parades; the suicide attempts, both failed and successful; and that memorable moment after 9/11 when Oregon City and West Linn came together and draped a colossal American flag off the bridge. And just imagine 80 years of insane bridge stories from the mill workers!

Arch Bridge

So many golden legends, floating, dissipating, threatening to vanish forever. I lament that potential loss but feel confident that the Arch Bridge will continue to inspire legends, mad and poignant ones alike, for another 90 years... and beyond.

Why is that?

Well, on my dozen crossings on the bridge on October 13, I saw or heard:

  • a teenage girl sending someone a slightly suggestive photograph of herself.
  • a small child wearing a Batman costume begin to climb the arch. Thank the gods ODOT didn't erect unsightly barriers to prevent her!
  • two transgenders admiring the obelisks.
  • a woman in pajamas who looked relieved to walk in the middle of the road.
  • a dozen people remark, "Wow, they did a great job," with "they" being the government, meaning "us." Interesting, I heard a rumor a while ago that government was the problem in this country. I think Ronald Reagan started it.
  • dozens of people asking questions about the bridge's eccentric features, of Conde's mysterious intentions. Only he will ever know them.

And finally, Conde McCullough, one last rejoinder to your cynicism. No poetry left in the world? Here's our rebuttal. Here's what, in combination, the poets wrote about your bridge:

The Arch Bridge, October 13, 2012

I walked over the Arch Bridge once,
I dared to dream,
of cloudpuddled distance,
but not tell anyone.

The smell of fresh concrete,
new rails, new sidewalks,
new bevels, new obelisks with lights,
as sturgeon and salmon swim below
Conde McCullough's magic.

Wonder and awe
of the concrete patterns,
over the nowhere river,
patterns within time
that connect us again,
as the Arch Bridge lives.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

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