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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 master Oregon bridge builder Conde McCullough read Wells and took his exhortation to heart because Conde McCullough didn’t know how to build an ugly bridge.

But other engineers did, and sometimes Conde despaired of 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 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, may I say, sir, you are wrong.

At noon on Oct. 13, five poets gathered on your wonderfully restored bridge for a poetry workshop and put some romance and poetry back in the world and all because this structure exudes classic beauty and silent magisterial legend. 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 didn’t really fathom the legend 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, opened in 1937, and 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 that spans the Clackamas River, another of McCullough’s greatest achievements, which won the America 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 cut offs, feathered hair, halter tops, bare midriffs, hackey sack, KGON 92.3, 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. Rest assured: no one has, nor ever will, write a poem describing the luster of this bridge. No one will ever take its photograph, nor feel any twinge to enact an amorous avocation. However, it does serve as the stunning and instructive visual antithesis of everything Conde McCullough evangelized about in the creation of great bridges. I suspect that as soon as the Arch Bridge reopens, I will never drive across the I-205 span for the rest of my life. I will always take ten 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 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 flourishes in Art Deco that 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 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 has been conveyed by this bridge than any other bridge in the history of America.

Now was the time to take my walk, 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 build bridges in the world like this anymore? Oregon has a couple dozen of them alone. 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 with a beguiling aesthetic that are pleasingly integrated into the landscape. 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 ones a mere 745 feet long.

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, 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!

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.

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, Oct. 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 grew up in Oregon City and graduated from Oregon City High School in 1982. He is the author/editor of nine books about Oregon and won the Oregon Literary Arts Stewart Holbrook Award in 2009 for his contributions to Oregon history and literature. His website is nestuccaspitpress.com.



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