Portland's family of bridges
As these husband and wife authors remind us, Portland is all about its crossings.
It was 22 years ago that writer Sharon Wood Wortman first published The Portland Bridge Book (as Sharon Wood), her valentine to a city often called Bridgetown. "I'm still amazed those bridges had been here for 97 years, and no one had written about them until I came along," she recalls.
Yet it was only in 1993, when the author got to know longtime Multnomah County bridge engineer Ed Wortman — appropriately while touring the Fremont Bridge — that her passion for the design of these spans began to soar. She'd already been to the top of the bridge, within reach of its flagpole. But when Wortman took her to see the Fremont's less postcard-worthy footings on both sides of the river, "I was his forever."
The couple married in 1998 and subsequently became co-authors, first for two updated editions of The Portland Bridge Book and then Big & Awesome Bridges of Portland & Vancouver, intended for children but is a surprisingly worthy read for adults. First published in 2015, Big & Awesome has just been re-released in an updated e-book version.
Along the way, Sharon, in particular, has become a beloved local treasure, commonly known as the Bridge Lady for leading tours of local bridges, including their inner workings, curating exhibits, and even produced an autobiographical one-woman stage show. Together the couple belongs to a host of bridge-oriented civic committees, including task forces currently planning a new Burnside Bridge.
Ed Wortman explains that there are "bottom-up" bridge processes like the Burnside, which involves several stakeholders to determine the desired bridge, and "top-down" bridge designs like the Fremont that start with a respected architect or structural engineer's design. "Both are valid," Wortman says, "and both can produce a great bridge."
Then there's a third way: utilitarian bridges created by a public agency's in-house engineers, such as the much-maligned Marquam Bridge carrying Interstate 5 freeway passengers. That's the one to truly avoid, and it's what we were headed for with the Columbia Crossing a few years ago.
Asked to name their favorite bridge, Sharon first hesitates. "It's a family of bridges. There's a bit of everything here, and they all have their hidden stories, like people," she says. Eventually, she chooses the Fremont, both because the couple first bonded there and because it's "the Mt. Everest" of local bridges, she says: the tallest bridge with the longest column-free span.
But Ed, though he acknowledges the Gothic-style St. Johns Bridge — the one I and many others find most beautiful — offers a surprising favorite: the Ross Island Bridge, "because of the clean lines, standing out in the open, very visible," he says. "I like the curved profile of the main span, the cantilevered trusses that come together in the middle. I think that's a very attractive bridge because of its shape."
It's a good time to be thinking about bridges, not only because our nation needs to address its massive backlog of deferred maintenance and invest more fully in mass transit, but also because we as a society need to come together. As Martin Luther King once said, "Let's build bridges, not walls."
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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