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Cultural landmarks will capture history, connect communities
Public weighs in on design enhancements for Willamette River Bridge
People of all ages gather to view models of the proposed enhancements
People of all ages gather to view the proposed enhancements
The gold-leaf statue of the Oregon Pioneer glimmering atop the Capitol building transports history buffs and students alike to the era of the Oregon Trail and the state’s first European settlers. The pioneer seems ready to begin building his homestead, with a splitting axe in his right hand and a tarp in his left.
Without this work of art, the building would be less monumental to Oregonians. In the not too distant future, artistic elements will commemorate a different group of Oregonians at another significant site. Thanks to federal grant money allocated for aesthetic enhancements, ODOT's new Interstate 5 Willamette River Bridge will be graced with a cultural landmark. Five design groups submitted proposals to enhance the areas around the bridge and reflect the legacy of the Kalapuya tribe, people who came to this area at least 10,000 years ago, according to archeological evidence, and were the first inhabitants of the Willamette Valley.
"We really wanted to make sure that when we were all done, there were some lasting imprints, some extra enhancements, if you will, that the community can enjoy for decades to come," said Sonny Chickering, Region 2 manager.
The five design groups submitted work in response to an assigned topic: the Whilamut Passage, which includes the natural surroundings of the bridge and the river itself. In early April, an open house gathered community feedback on the proposed enhancements. More than 75 people attended in person and more than 80 others delivered their feedback about the design enhancements via a virtual open house accessible from the Willamette River Bridge website.
In four of the five proposals, the designers dedicated some part of their work to the popular Kalapuya myth "Coyote Takes the Water from the Frog People." According to the myth, the frog people were hoarding all of the area’s water until one night when the coyote came along. With five large gulps, he released the water from the frog people's custody and gave the Willamette Valley the plentiful waters of the Willamette River.
Camas flowers — native to the areas that surround the bridge — are displayed in three design proposals. Camas played a vital role in the Kalapuya culture; its bulbs provided nourishment and also acted as a form of currency. To this day, camas flowers grow on the hillside south of the bridge. Two of the proposed structures display the vibrant blue camas flowers in a basket used in harvesting the bulbs. One group took a more abstract approach, proposing free-standing steel structures shaped like camas petals.
Throughout the design selections process, project team members have worked with a Community Advisory Group, consisting of Eugene, Springfield and Kalapuya representatives, to ensure the chosen artwork resonates with the local community and stakeholders. In late April, the CAG and Project Development Team presented their preferred designs to ODOT: two depicting the vibrant blue camas in baskets and one portraying the Willamette River. Project managers plan to announce the selected proposals in mid-May.
The selected designs will be installed along the I-5 median and freeway, but other areas of the bridge will also receive aesthetic enhancements: the Whilamut Natural Area and the river’s southern bank. The Whilamut Natural Area will feature enhancements such as perches for birds created by supported tree snags, a public plaza around a Pacific dogwood and a braided river railing depicting the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers.
For the south bank of the river, interpretive kiosks will provide information about Native American populations. ODOT is partnering with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde to develop this signage; an ODOT historian and archeologist will do the same to document the historic Eugene Millrace. 
All of the bridge project’s design enhancements tap into the Eugene-Springfield area's history, creating structures of community significance that mirror the cultural legacy of the Oregon Pioneer.