Oregon national associate Judith Kenny and videographers Logan Duello and Alex Hilton recently produced a short video on the five Public Works Administration (PWA) bridges that completed the Oregon Coast Highway (Hwy 101). The five bridges serve the southwest coast and are valued by many as spectacular in their beauty as the coast itself.
While the video emphasizes the remarkable design of the bridges, it also places their completion in a story of the long, drawn-out process of the construction of highway access along Oregon’s coast. Despite the campaign to “Lift Oregon out of the Mud” that was launched in 1917, the state’s project budget was spent by 1932 and there were still five broad estuaries or bays left without bridge structures between Newport and Coos Bay. Oregon entered the New Deal era with the most expensive and challenging bridge structures left unbuilt and state-operated ferries the only option for crossing the watery gaps left in the highway.
Among the State’s first requests for PWA funding, federal approval of the $5,600,000 budget for the bridges came in late 1933. Conde McCullough, Oregon’s highway bridge engineer, went to work with his design team to develop beautiful structures that also suited the demanding, local environmental conditions. With final PWA approval of the plans, construction began less than a year after the project’s initial approval. Construction workers completed all five bridges by September 1936.
The impact of the bridges was noted almost immediately. A Newport newspaper reported that the daily traffic on their new Yaquina Bay Bridge equaled the number of cars carried by the state-operated Yaquina Bay ferry in a month. In addition to improvements in local traffic, the Oregon State Highway Department predicted that the sound of tourist traffic across the bridge would resemble the sound of the surf.
Even today, tourists value the access the bridges provide on that nearly one-hundred- mile scenic stretch of coastal highway from Newport to Coos Bay. Their contribution to debates surrounding highway projects and the scenic quality of the coast is noted in the video as well. Reflecting on the Depression-era bridges, the majority of Oregonians have concluded that the standard has been set, and spectacular scenery merits spectacular design.