Oregon’s distinctive bridge style is Conde McCullough’s legacy
Legendary engineer's genius was in making gorgeous architecture cost-effective; his spectacular bridges on the Oregon Coast highway are nearly tourist attractions in their own right.
Conde McCullough’s Oregon City bridge, built in 1922, as seen shortly
after it was opened. [Larger image: 1800 px wide]
By Finn J.D. John — November 13, 2011
Anyone who’s done much driving around Oregon — especially the more scenic parts — knows the state’s bridges have a particular and distinctive style. Especially the older ones.
Not every bridge you’ll see in the state fits that style, of course. It’s a big state, and there are a lot of bridges in it.
But chances are pretty good that if you stumbled across a photograph of, say, the Yaquina Bay bridge, or the bridge over the Rogue River at Gold Hill, you’d instantly notice that it looks like an Oregon bridge.
There’s a reason for that. Dozens of bridges large and small around the state, including the spectacular chain of bridges built on Oregon Highway 101 during the Depression years, are from the pen of one man: Conde McCullough.
This 1960s-era postcard image of the old Alsea Bay Bridge shows one
of the few Conde McCullough bridges that don’t survive. This bridge,
by the 1980s, had deteriorated in the salty air to the point where
chunks of concrete were spalling off and falling, threatening the boats
passing beneath. It was replaced in the late 1980s with the bridge
that is there today. (Image: Mike Roberts Productions, Berkeley,
Calif.) [Larger image: 1800 px wide]
Now, if you happen to be a structural engineer, you can probably stop reading now; you surely know all about McCullough. But for the rest of us, well, here’s the story.
McCullough grew up in the state of Iowa, and after graduating from college there quickly became one of the state highway department’s rising stars.
During those early years, McCullough got busy making a name for himself as the worst nightmare of fly-by-night bridge company salesmen. In those years before the First World War, Americans were clamoring for better roads, and a cadre of slick characters was diligently trying to turn that desire into profits by barnstorming the country pitching “patented” bridge projects to county commissions and city councils. Frequently they’d sell a design that they had a dubious patent on to politicians with no clue about engineering, then install it whether it worked on the site or not. Some of these bridges failed in a matter of months as floodwaters washed out their footings; for others, the adaptations necessary to make them work cost more than the bridge itself. One Iowa bridge that crossed a county line turned out to have been fully paid for twice — each county had gotten, and paid, the full bill.
The bridge at Depoe Bay is one of McCullough's smaller bridges, and
many visitors never step off the deck to look at what's beneath.
[Larger image: 1200 px]
As part of the Iowa highway department, McCullough helped county governments stop these practices, and in 1914 essentially put one of the hucksters out of business after the poor sap sued one of Iowa’s state contractors for patent infringement, claiming ownership of some design concepts that went back to the 1800s. When the case reached the court, the judge read McCullough’s 600-page report and invalidated nearly all of the plaintiff’s patents.
Moving to Oregon
Conde McCullough moved to Oregon from Iowa in 1916. His career was starting to really take off in Iowa at the time, and it’s not clear exactly why he decided to leave his job there and move to Oregon. But it can’t be an idle coincidence that the historic Columbia River Highway — peppered with bridges following the style he favored and created with an eye toward enhancing rather than suppressing the scenery it traversed — had just been built. Perhaps McCullough saw this project and thought, “Here’s a state that looks at highway engineering the way I do.”
The McCullough bridge across the Umpqua River at Reedsport. The
green arch in the middle is the painted steel swing section of the
bridge. [Larger image: 1800 px]
In any case, he and his family settled in Oregon and, following three years teaching as a professor in civil engineering at Oregon Agricultural College (now OSU), McCullough started working for the state’s fledgling highway department.
The high cost of a cheap bridge
McCullough brought a very distinctive philosophy to his new job as Oregon’s top bridge man. First off, he felt that in most cases, cheap bridges were strictly for suckers. A bridge made of lumber might be slapped across a river for a quarter of the cost of one of his reinforced-concrete designs, but it would last just a few years and look awful in the process. By the time that bridge had been replaced a few times, the government agency responsible for it would have paid, in maintenance and replacement costs, far more money than it would have cost to do the job right in the first place.
He had a deep appreciation for scenic beauty, and felt that a good bridge ought to harmonize with its surroundings. Aesthetics were very important to him. But McCullough also felt that economy was one of the most important factors, possibly the most important factor, in bridge design. And it was an aspect that was, then as now, left out of many civil engineering textbooks.
An image of Conde McCullough’s “Caveman Bridge” over the Rogue
River at Grants Pass, from a hand-tinted postcard mailed in 1936.
Wesley Andrews, Portland) [Larger image: 1800 px]
What McCullough realized was that if a bridge didn’t make sense economically, it wouldn’t be built. If a beautiful bridge cost more than an ugly one, the caretakers of the public treasury would be unlikely to pay the premium for it.
Luckily, though, the most elegant design is often also the least expensive in the long term. And that was McCullough’s particular genius: Figuring out how to make the most gorgeous soaring arches and architectural lines cost less, rather than more, to build and maintain.
At this, he was unequaled.
There is no truly typical Conde McCullough bridge; McCullough knew that picking just the right design and material for each project could save huge amounts of money, so each bridge he built was different — sometimes radically different — from the next. But in general, he preferred to build bridges in reinforced concrete, using clean and elegant arches, sparely decorated with a nod to Gothic cathedral architecture or possibly art-deco skyscraper design.
The prize-winning McCullough steel bridge over the Clackamas River
north of Oregon City in the early 1930s. [Larger image: 1800 px]
McCullough’s first major bridge for the state was the Rock Point Bridge over the Rogue River, in Jackson County, in 1920. Two years later, he’d designed five more bridges, including his first multi-arch bridge in Myrtle Creek and the remarkable soaring concrete-covered-steel arch bridge that links Oregon City with West Linn.
Other major bridges he was responsible for include the “Caveman Bridge” over the Rogue at Grants Pass; the Santiam River bridge just outside Jefferson; and the McLoughlin Bridge over the Clackamas River north of Oregon City. Once you’ve seen, and associated his name with, several of his bridges, you’ll likely find you can pick them out of a lineup pretty easily.
He’s most famous for the bridges he designed for the Roosevelt Military Highway — now known as Highway 101. These include the bridges at Gold Beach, Reedsport, Florence, Newport, Depoe Bay and — the mile-long piece de resistance that bears McCullough’s name today — Coos Bay. These classic art-deco-influenced bridges are, today, almost as much a part of Oregon Coast’s attractiveness to visitors as are the beaches.
McCullough’s death and legacy
McCullough died abruptly of a brain hemorrhage while gardening in 1946. He was just a few days shy of his 59th birthday. And while it was perfectly clear to everyone that the state had lost a true treasure, McCullough set the tone for bridge design in Oregon in ways that go far beyond the relatively few bridges he designed personally.
Even the most plebian culvert today is designed with his concepts and philosophy in mind. And when one of his most loved bridges had to be replaced — the one at Waldport, which had been built with salty sand from the bay — it was replaced with a clean, elegant arch structure that clearly shows McCullough’s design influence.
(Personal note: That new bridge at Waldport that I mentioned — I actually had a part in building it, a very small part. I had a summer job at Western Coatings in Eugene while going to college as an undergraduate. My job was to feed the pieces of rebar used to reinforce the concrete of the bridge into a powder-coating machine that would protect it from the corrosive salts of the bay. It was a very boring job and a surprisingly grueling one, especially when the smaller diameter rebar was being processed;, and I really couldn't wait for the summer to be over so I could go back to school -- but today I'm actually rather proud of it. Every time I drive across that bridge, I think, "I helped build that!" — fjdj)
(Sources: Hadlow, Robert W. Elegant Arches, Soaring Spans: C.B. McCullough, Oregon’s Master Bridge Builder. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2001; Smith, Dwight & al. Historic Highway Bridges of Oregon. Portland: OHS Press, 1989. Thanks to Dale Greenley of Myrtle Creek for the story idea.)
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