Until 1909 the only way for anyone up or down the Columbia River or to cross to the other side required boarding a ferry.
One hundred fifteen years ago this month, the Columbia River Bridge in Wenatchee changed that. It became the first road bridge on the river south of Canada and Waterville gained an access point to the Chelan County side of the world. The intended purpose was an irrigation water pipeline, followed by everything else that might need a bridge.
One year later, the Washington State Transportation Commission realized the value of the Columbia River Bridge and bought it from the investors, who made a $3,974.48 profit on their $178,233.07 investment.
Ten years later, an orchard company built the second bridge across the Columbia River, and for the next 40 years, it profited from the irrigation flumes on the bridge that nurtured its orchards and the tolls charged to cross the bridge.
The Beebe Orchard Company spent $75,000 on the construction of its bridge, but the dollar value of the investment is beyond measure. That bridge supplied irrigation water from the springs on the Chelan County side to orchards on the Douglas County side. The abundant and consistent supply of water helped Beebe Orchard Company become the largest fruit producer in the United States.
Beyond the supply of water existed the potential for shipping fruit and the boon to local travel. In 1919, Beebe did not intend for the 12-foot-wide wooden deck to be used for cross traffic, but the opening of the bridge attracted a large crowd. And while Beebe may not have seen it coming, it provided a giant step to economic development in this region.
The road up to the Beebe Bridge remained an unimproved dirt road until the state completed the new Beebe Bridge. By 1959, trust in the old bridge had deteriorated to the point that the Waterville game buses traveling to Chelan, Manson, or beyond would stop and wait while students crossed the bridge on foot. The bus crossed after the students completed their foot journey.
When Beebe built its bridge, it constructed the first suspension bridge in the state of Washington and the largest privately-owned bridge in the world. In the late ’50s, the state finally stepped up to see the value in the Beebe Bridge. In 1959, the state started construction of the current steel through arch bridge. It needed to complete this project before the Rocky Reach and Wells dams created a water-born obstacle.
The state project came to a halt for over a year while it contended with Beebe over property rights. The state finally settled with Beebe and made a $4,000 payment for the property and the Beebe Orchard Company’s interests. After the state completed the new bridge, it dismantled the original bridge and left the concrete suspension towers in place.
The new Beebe Bridge opened for traffic in 1963 and stands 100 feet above the Columbia River. Except for its closure to make structural repairs after a semi collided with the bridge in August 2009, Beebe Bridge has continued as a testimony to ingenuity. It signals the growth and development as an essential link to travel in the Big Bend of Washington, “all that land lying within the bend of the Columbia River proper, which is west of a line drawn from the mouth of the Spokane river southwest to Wallula, a little below the mouth of the Snake River,” according to “Illustrated History of The Big Bend Country,” in 1904.
News articles in the archives of Douglas County Museum. Pictures are public domain.
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