ODOT at 100: Conde McCullough’s Legacy in Steel and Concrete
Guest Column by Robert W. Hadlow, Ph.D., ODOT Senior Historian
As ODOTs celebrates its 100th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the evolution of Oregon’s transportation system and the legacies of those who built the state. To remember one engineer whose iconic bridge designs continue to shape our experiences, ODOT has created a new video showcasing some of the beautiful work of Oregon’s pioneering bridge designer Conde B. McCullough.
Travelers along the Oregon Coast Highway will cross several striking bridges over rivers, bays, and inlets. Most impressive is the mile-long span at Coos Bay, a graceful concrete and steel structure of rhythmic beauty that flows across the open water. This bridge and others along Oregon’s “blue highways,” are Conde B. McCullough’s legacy. During his years with the Oregon State Highway Department, McCullough became one of the leading bridge engineers in the United States. His work in Oregon—hundreds of structures including over 30 arched spans—was part of the state’s nationally recognized highway system at a time when the automobile first claimed its place in the life and character of America.
After designing bridges for the Iowa Highway Commission, McCullough moved to Oregon to teach structural engineering at Oregon Agricultural College (known today as Oregon State University). But McCullough was a bridge designer at heart, and by April 1919 he left teaching to become the Oregon’s State Bridge Engineer, heading the Highway Department’s bridge design and construction program for eighteen years.
The pinnacle of McCullough’s career in Oregon was completion of five major bridges along the Oregon Coast Highway in 1936—the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport, the Alsea Bay Bridge at Waldport, the Siuslaw River Bridge at Florence, the Umpqua River Bridge at Reedsport, and the Coos Bay Bridge at Marshfield/North Bend. McCullough was an impassioned promoter of state-sponsored bridge building that incorporated engineering efficiency with economic practicality and aesthetic appeal. Many of his bridges are rich in architectural detail; the finest among them are embellished with Classical, Gothic, and Art Deco/Moderne elements. One author characterized the last five bridges, funded in part through New Deal money during the Great Depression, as “examples of optimism during a period of great austerity.”
When design work was complete on the five major Oregon Coast Highway bridges in 1935, McCullough headed off to Central America where he designed several structures for the Inter-American Highway. When McCullough returned to Oregon in 1937, he left bridge designing altogether for administrative duties within the highway department. He died from a stroke in 1946, just weeks short of his 59th birthday, having created a lasting legacy cast in steel and concrete.
In 1999, McCullough was among ten bridge engineers whom Engineering News-Record included on a list of the people who had made outstanding contributions to the construction industry in the 125 years since the since the publication’s founding in 1874. “These leading designers dared to span great lengths with the most elegant, constructible and economical solutions possible.” In 2005, twelve of McCullough’s bridges were listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Robert Hadlow is an ODOT historian and author of Elegant Arches, Soaring Spans: C. B. McCullough, Oregon’s Master Bridge Builder, published by the Oregon State University Press in 2001.