In 1985, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. released “Vision Quest,” a coming-of-age teen movie that was set and filmed in Spokane. The big news locally was that pop icon Madonna made her film debut singing “Crazy for You” in a Spokane tavern. Beyond that, a joke made the rounds that there were so many scenic shots of bridges that Spokane would soon be known as the “City of Bridges.” In fact, the opening scene shows a featured performer running in and around downtown Spokane across no fewer than five different bridges—and none of them was the notable Monroe Street Bridge because the director saved that location for a montage at the end of the film.
In reality, Spokane can never compete for the title of “City of Bridges” because by actual count Spokane County lists sixty-nine bridges and the city itself possesses only fifty. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is the true “City of Bridges” inasmuch as it has 446 bridges within its city limits—a number even greater than Venice, Italy. Worldwide, Hamburg, Germany is reputed to have more than 2,300 bridges. OK, but does any city love its bridges more than Spokane? No!
The first bridge (a toll bridge!) to cross the Spokane River took shape in 1864 near where the state lines of Washington and Idaho converge at I-90. The inhabitants of Spokane Bridge, as the community was called, began to move to the falls beginning in 1873, but especially after 1881, when the Northern Pacific Railroad entered Spokane County in Washington Territory.
A wooden bridge at Post Street in Spokane served the public in the early 1880s, but it was the Monroe Street Bridge that triggered the most appreciation by local citizenry. It, too, was constructed of wood, but, alas, the first Monroe Street Bridge survived only one year before it came down, on July 22, 1890, from a fire ignited by an overheated cable on a streetcar. Steel replaced wood as the construction material for the second Monroe Street Bridge in 1891-1892. All went well until the summer of 1905 when an engineer for the National Good Roads Association inspected the bridge and deemed it unsafe. An engineer contracted by the city gave a second opinion: “Should a street car run off the track, or a bunch of steers be driven over it, the whole thing might collapse.” When Ringling Brother’s Circus came to town the elephants instinctively refused to be led across the bridge. . . thank goodness! (Another steel bridge across the Spokane River, this one on Division Street, similarly opened to traffic in 1892, but it collapsed on December 18, 1915, probably from metal fatigue, killing five persons and injuring a dozen.)
City leaders recognized the Spokane River as an economic asset, but they also knew it could become a disadvantage unless there were bridges to cross it. In 1900 Spokane boasted a population of 36,000, but as it approached 1910 that figure tipped closer to 100,000 persons, many of them employed in 300-or-so manufacturing plants. . . or 108 salons. Spokane Chamber of Commerce President E. T. Coman confirmed the obvious when he said: “The growth of the city is traced in the growth of its bridges.” In the first decade of the twentieth century the most employable person in Spokane would be a civil engineer.
Clearly, the most essential bridge in the city—the one over the Spokane River Gorge on Monroe Street— should not only look important but also it should be of the most modern materials. This time the bridge would be built of concrete. It took until 1908 for City Engineer John C. Ralston to complete his design for the bridge and then begin construction. Demolition of the steel bridge turned out to be easier than expected inasmuch as a portion of the south bank of the river collapsed and the mudslide took out a large chunk of the old steel bridge.
When completed, in 1911, the Monroe Street Bridge—for the first time an official name—contained the longest concrete arch in the United States at 281 feet, just edging out Cleveland’s Rocky River Bridge (1910-1980) by a foot. The city also maintained it had the third longest concrete arch in the world. Only a concrete arch in Rome, Italy at 328 feet and another in Auckland, New Zealand at 320 feet surpassed the Monroe Street Bridge.
Fame, however, is fleeting for almost immediately Cuyahoga County, Ohio sued Spokane for $150,000, claiming unauthorized use of its Rocky River Bridge design. Cleveland lost the case. Moreover, within a year the Monroe Street Bridge dropped in its ranking on the world list. Even worse, in 1914 the Monroe Street Bridge lost its pleasing look when the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company, with the approval of city officials, built a double track rail trestle above and across it! The Union Pacific Railroad purchased that bridge, renamed it the Steel Bridge, and, across from downtown Spokane, established a roundhouse and switching yard on seventy-seven acres.
Now the Union Pacific needed a back door out of its switching yards, so to that end it bought The Trestle from the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad. The Trestle, renamed High Bridge, was spectacular: track ran on girders for more than a half-mile, and at an elevation higher than half of a football field, across both the Spokane River and Latah Creek.
The Union Pacific holdings in Spokane— the Steel Bridge, High Bridge, and the switching yards—remained operational until the run up to Expo’74 brought an appeal by fair organizers for the UP to reroute its rails. Thus, in 1973, the Union Pacific removed the Steel Bridge from over the Monroe Street Bridge and it abandoned High Bridge. Dismantling High Bridge took place in 1978 and 1979 and removal of the last concrete abutment happened in 2013. Still, High Bridge lives on in four concrete pylons fixed into the Spokane riverbed that today support the Sandifur Memorial Bridge (2004) on the Centennial Trail. The switching yards became, after 2010, Kendall Yards, a residential neighborhood.
The team of city employees and construction engineers that successfully accomplished the Monroe Street Bridge had worked together previously on civic projects, in various combinations, and they would do so again. City Engineer John C. Ralston served as the design leader on six of the nine bridges built in Spokane between 1907 and 1914, and he planned more than $8 million worth of municipal improvements. J. F. Greene, a construction supervisor, and Morton MacCartney continued to design and build additional facilities in Spokane.
After taking part in the Monroe Street Bridge project, Morton MacCartney, the new city engineer in 1911, turned his attention to designing a bridge over Latah Creek. (John Ralston, following the legal complaint by Cleveland, Ohio, departed the office of city engineer.) The Latah Creek Bridge, also known as the Sunset Boulevard Bridge, appears somewhat similar in style to the Monroe Street Bridge because of the use of semi-circular Roman arches. The National Register of Historic Places has honored both bridges and notes that “. . . it is the magnitude of the Monroe Street Bridge and the Latah Creek Bridge that make them particularly unique. Their rhythmic arch forms are commanding architectural focal points within the city.” Both bridges, adds the National Register, are forerunners in the design of long-span fixed arches that point “toward the future in concrete arch design.”
The Latah Creek Bridge is about 174 feet longer than the Monroe Street Bridge, it has more arches, used more concrete yet cost $75,000 less to build, and it has one additional unique attribute in that it makes a slight curve that is difficult to engineer. Given their choice of the two bridges, architects show greater appreciation for the Latah Creek Bridge because it is nearly unaltered, whereas the Monroe Street Bridge replaced large volumes of original bridge material during a 987-day and $18 million rehabilitation between 2003 and 2005.
So, which is your favorite Spokane bridge? And will you ever again see a new bridge built in Spokane?