Local history buff recalls early impact & events
By Mike Clark
This March 29 marks the 82nd anniversary of the opening of the Longview Bridge. No event since has brought so many people together from both sides of the river, including the governors of Oregon and Washington. The Rainier Review reported in its April 4, 1930 edition that cars on the Oregon side “were in line from Rainier east as far as Goble,” and after the opening at 2pm until midnight, 11,327 autos had crossed over. The only snag in the ceremony was that the bottle to be used in the christening had been forgotten, so they had to “perform the stunt in the approved manner.” There was no report on what that was.
But the merriment of the day was marred by a long-forgotten tragedy following the activities. A double-decked excursion barge, carrying about 300 people, was making its leisurely way from the bridge celebration back to Vancouver. It was late, but a party was in full swing, with noisemakers and colorful party hats distributed and many dancing to the strains of a jazz band.
Near St. Helens, the tug pushing the barge let out three blasts from its horn that went mostly unnoticed by the passengers who were either watching or participating in a waltz contest. Moments later the barge collided head-on with a fully loaded lumber freighter heading downriver. Many passengers were injured; seven lost their lives.
Bridge revenue was not good during the 1930s
It was during the Depression and few could afford to cross. The toll was 80 cents to cross by car, comparable to $10.50 today. The Depression also squelched the plan for the newly planned city of “West Rainier” to be built at the foot of the bridge. Two realtors, W. B. Martin and W. E. Proctor founded the Columbia River Bridge Townsite Company in late 1928, laying out streets and offering lots for sale for both homes and businesses. Their pamphlet (pictured at left) urged investors to not postpone investigating this exceptional opportunity and claimed that the new city would grow and prosper right alongside its counterpart across the river. Those who drive from the bridge into Rainier today will notice that the new city never materialized.
The high bridge toll forced some who lived in Rainier to find cheaper ways to get to work in Longview. A new breed of entrepreneurs saw an opportunity by modifying their trucks to carry passengers. One added bench seats and a canopy to his truck bed. He carried eight passengers in back and two up front. Another option was to cross the river on one of the small passenger ferries. Jeff Barton operated one that ran from Dibblee’s Point to Weyerhauser. The other was the “Elsinore” that made separate trips between Rainier and the Longview Fibre Mill, the Long Bell Mill, and to the Wasser Brothers Shingle Mill upstream of Rainier.
WW II came early to the bridge
The Rainier Review, published four days after the Pearl Harbor attack, reported that army troops arrived in Rainier Dec. 8 and set up headquarters at the city hall and then moved to the nearby K. P. Hall. Soldiers were temporarily quartered at the high school and grade school gymnasiums and other available buildings. Their main objective was to protect the bridge from sabotage. They built a guard shack on the Oregon side of the bridge.
Stories passed down
Larry Rea gives an account on his website of his father, Ed Rea, and Dick Jenkins remembering the guards. Ed Rea said, “ They wouldn’t allow any explosives on the bridge — they even confiscated some 22 (shotgun) shells I had in the car. At night they enforced a blackout. You weren’t supposed to use any lights on your car. One night, Jess Perkins turned his lights on to orient himself —he couldn’t see to drive — and a soldier boy stepped up and broke out the headlights with the butt of his gun.
Dick Jenkins said the guards “would ride across with every car, rain or shine. If there wasn’t room inside the car they would hang on outside and ride the running board.”
My uncle, Nelson Lepin, who turned 90 last January, told me a whimsical tale about a guard he and his friend, the late Orville Elliott, met at the guard shack.
They were going to a dance at the Log Hall near Delena and had mentioned it to the guards. One of them, a young lad from Texas, got quite excited and asked if he could come along, too. So the guard got into their car, with his rifle, and away they went. A few hours later, they returned him and his rifle to the shack and drove home.
Visit Larry Rea’s webpage here.
Note: Mike Clark has in his collection a copy of the first Rainier Review, printed in 1895. It ceased to publish sometime during the next 10 years and started up again as Volume 1 in 1905. It continued until its demise in 1976. Another paper, the Rainier World, started that same year and lasted until 1979.
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Rainier native Mike Clark lives in Seattle but remains keenly interested in local history. Both he and Mike Perry (“Postmarks Along the Trail”) collect old postcards depicting the Longview-Kelso-Rainier area as it developed. Over the next few months, the two will collaborate on articles and share their favorite postcards and historic memorabilia with CRR readers.