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The Hawthorne Bridge: A Love-Hate Relationship

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The Hawthorne Bridge is the creaky old senior citizen of Portland's numerous Willamette and Columbia River spans. Nearing its 100th birthday in 2010, the Hawthorne is our city's oldest bridge. I've always considered it my home bridge, so to speak, in that it's the one I use by far the most. It's not only convenient to where I live, but it also has the best pedestrian and bike amenities of just about any local bridge. But it's also the Portland span with by far the most draw bridge openings, which also take longer to complete than any other in town. Since I cross it a few times every week, I have come to think of it as the engineering version of a grandparent I love, but one who's a real nuisance sometimes too.

Yesterday while biking home from downtown around 2PM, I wheeled toward the bridgehead just as the warning lights came on and the guard rails came down. It was time for the Portland Spirit to move tourists upriver. Admittedly, I'm an impatient person, but in situations like this I grumble inside about how one tour company is making scores or hundreds of people wait. Then the wait got longer and more frustrating than seemingly was necessary. Even though the drawbridge only needed to be raised about halfway in order for the Spirit to pass through, the Hawthorne was raised all the way to its top. So what was already about a seven-minute wait now became more than ten minutes. Were I a better person, I'd have accepted this as a Zen-like pause in the day's proceedings. Instead, I ridiculously contemplated flipping off the bridge operator as we finally wheeled by.

Initially I was tempted to make this post a mere rant about how much of a pain the Hawthorne can be and how river traffic seems to get more of a priority than they deserve given the overwhelmingly larger number of people trying to use the bridges. But instead I first decided to talk with Michael Pullen, an old friend I used to work with who now is a spokesperson for Multnomah County about bridges, land use, and other public concerns.

The Hawthorne has about 300 openings a month, Mike told me. That compares to just two or three openings a month for the Broadway Bridge, which sits higher on the river. But the ambiance I feel as a pedestrian or cyclist is the flip side: the Hawthorne is lower on the river than other local spans, so there's a greater feeling of connection with the river, and less of a barrier at the bridgehead without the need to ease back downward so much to street level.

That feeling I had yesterday that the bridge was raising much higher than necessary for the Portland Spirit to pass actually was true. Apparently the Hawthorne is such an antique that the bridge has to be raised to its full height every eight hours, every day, just to keep the cables and lift mechanism properly lubricated. Usually they try and complete those lifts as much outside of peak times as possible. One happens in the middle of the night, for example. But in this case, since the bridge had to be opened anyway and it had been several hours since a full lift, Grandma Hawthorne needed us all to wait while she completed her stretches.

There are two rush-hour times when river traffic can't get a drawbridge opening unless it's an emergency: 7-9AM and 4-6PM. And those peak-hour moratoriums actually required an act of Congress to be approved. Mike tells me that the government's principle is that the river was here before the bridges were, so it has the right of way. That means for 20 hours of the day, one person on a sailboat can hold up traffic with a drawbridge opening pretty much whenever he or she wants.

This question of how low to make a bridge, and the trade-off between a low bridge's intimacy and a higher bridge's fewer drawbridge openings is a relevant one, because we'll soon have a new pedestrian and light rail bridge. I'll bet the city planners want a low bridge for ambiance and the transportation people, who are usually concerned with movement over aesthetics, will surely want one tall as can be (and preferably as ugly and cheap as possible).

So as I both rant against and celebrate the Hawthorne, just how much of our oldest bridge's ways do we want in our newest?

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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