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Building bridges to connect NCW

By on April 25, 2021 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

North central Washington is a land of flowing water. Rivers, streams and creeks flow through and from every valley and have sustained the people in them for thousands of years. 

For all those years the rivers, streams and creeks were barriers to cross.

Smaller creeks and streams could be waded on foot or horseback. Canoes conquered the rivers. 

The first bridges were tall trees fallen across a waterway. Fallen trees are an important part of north central Washington’s forest trail systems. They’re out there just waiting to be slipped off of.

As native people had done for thousands of years, the fur-traders in the early 1800s used canoes to negotiate the rivers. The bigger the river, the bigger the canoe. Traveling up and down the Columbia River meant canoes of 30 feet or more. 

Freight was moved in bateaux — barge-like crafts that were wider and longer requiring 6 to 10 paddlers. The fur-men did not intend to stay so bridge building was not in their plans.

Bridges and the desire to build them came with the settlers of the 1880s and ‘90s.

In 1884, Wild Goose Bill Condon scratched a toll-road for miners and settlers from his ferry on the Columbia, above Bridgeport, to the Okanogan mining town of Ruby. He built a bridge across the Okanogan River where Omak now stands. It was a basic design; wooden planks supported by wooden cribs filled with rocks.

The Okanogan River does not have a rocky bed. Condon hauled wagonloads of rocks from a hill above the river. The rocks were covering the graves in an Indian cemetery. 

Ten years later the massive flood of 1894 washed the bridge away and scattered the rocks along the Okanogan River bed.

The small town of Lake Park and the even smaller town of Chelan at the foot of Lake Chelan were separated by the Chelan River. 

In 1888 Lewis Woodin and a partner brought a sawmill, including an 8,000-pound boiler, up from Ellensburgh. At Wenatchee it was loaded on the steamboat, The City of Ellensburgh and delivered to the boat dock at Chelan Falls. 

From there, Chelan Chief Long Jim and several of his men took days to pack and haul all the mill parts up to Lake Chelan where they were forded across the foot of the lake. The mill was assembled along the south shore of the Chelan River at its mouth.

By 1889 the mill was turning out lumber to build the first bridge across the Chelan River to unite the towns of Lake Park and Chelan. 

That same year Lewis Woodin, again using lumber from his mill, built the first dam across the Chelan River to divert water to the town of Chelan. The dam washed out in the next spring high water. The bridge stood until the big flood of 1894 rammed logs against it heavily damaging its supports.

I.J. (Isaac) Bailey was 21 years old in 1881 when he got a job on a bridge building crew in Wisconsin. In that job Isaac Bailey found a life long passion — building bridges. 

He founded his own construction company and began a bridge building journey across the western United States. Bailey bridges were built in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho where J.J. Hill hired him to build all the Great Northern bridges across the Idaho panhandle.

Bailey settled in Wenatchee in early 1892 and was soon at work again for J.J. Hill’s Great Northern building a bridge across the upper Wenatchee River nine miles west of Leavenworth.

J.J. Hill wanted his Great Northern tracks to run along the Wenatchee River. The proposed right of way would pass through Deak and Lucy Brown’s land at Brown’s Flat as well as the land of their neighbors, George and Ida Richardson. 

A story from the Brown Family history, as told by Jack Pusel, claims that J.J. Hill came, personally, to the Brown cabin to negotiate the right of way.

Deak, his brother George, Jim Weythman, a neighbor and George Richardson met with J.J. Hill. They said they would agree to the right of way if the Great Northern built a bridge from Brown’s Flat across to the north bank of the Wenatchee River. 

Hill agreed to the bridge but insisted he would not put a train stop at any place called Brown’s Flat. George Richardson suggested the town name be changed to Monitor in honor of the civil war Union Navy’s ironclad ship of that name.

A man lazily rides a bicycle on the bridge that crossed the Wenatchee River near the confluence.  This view looks northward across the bridge into the Burch Flats and Olds Station area.  This was the second bridge — built of wood and steel by I. J. Bailey in 1895 — to cross the Wenatchee River at the mouth of the river. The wood portion burned a few years later and the structure fell into the river.  Photo courtesy of Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, 85-0-87

Eva Anderson wrote that the Great Northern built not only the Monitor bridge but also a bridge across the Wenatchee “near Mike Horan’s place” just west of the Wenatchee/Columbia confluence. No surprise then that J.J. Hill tapped his friend, I.J. Bailey, to build Wenatchee’s first bridge in 1892.

Two years later the massive 1894 flood lifted the wooden bridge off its piers and carried it into the Columbia River. 

The next year Bailey built a new bridge in the same location. It was a steel trestle bridge with wooden decking. The Wenatchee Daily World reported that on Sept. 17, 1908 the wooden decking caught fire “for the seventh time.” It was suggested the fires were caused by cigar butts thrown onto the bridge from passing wagons. 

On July 4th, 1917 boys on the bridge shooting off fireworks ignited the creosote covered support timbers below the deck. All of the wooden parts burned and the steel structure fell into the Wenatchee River.

The current concrete auto bridge crossing the Wenatchee River at Wenatchee was built in 1932 and widened to four lanes in 1954. 

The two inverted siphons crossing the Wenatchee River on a trestle bridge immediately upriver of the auto bridge bringing irrigation water to the Wenatchee Flat were financed by the Great Northern and installed in 1898 and 1904.

In 1897 Charles Albert (C.A.) Harris got into the bridge building business when he and two partners were given the contract to build a road from Wenatchee to Twisp in the Methow Valley. The project included the first bridge across the Entiat River and several crossings of the Methow River.

When the town of Entiat was moved, the bridge was dismantled and replaced in a new location. Some of the heavy timbers made their way to Wenatchee and became the very visible outer walls of the iconic home at the south east corner of Miller Street and Bryan Street.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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