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A trip down memory lane: A look back on the construction of the original Willamette River Bridge
Nearly 50 years ago, ODOT solved a major mobility issue with the construction of the original Interstate 5 Willamette River Bridge in Eugene-Springfield. Before this link in the nation’s north-south interstate highway system on the West Coast was complete, drivers through this area had to exit the unfinished interstate and navigate local streets before reconnecting with I-5.
 
The construction of the Willamette River Bridge was a significant step toward the completion of Oregon’s portion of the nation’s interstate system. Now, after carrying traffic for half a century, ODOT is replacing the Willamette River Bridge.
 
As construction continues and milestones are met on the new bridge, historic photos provided by former ODOT employee Kenneth Lodewick show the construction of the original bridge and how it helped pave the way for Oregon’s interstate future.
The photo on the right shows the area prior to the construction of the original bridge. Here, Alton Baker Park is seen on the north side of the river. A crane can be seen on the right as construction crews prepare to set a bent form.
 Early in construction, crews diverted the Willamette River to the north to allow for work on the southern portion of the bridge. This image (left) shows crews constructing the diversion dam off the southern bank, which allowed crews to work directly from soil on the riverbed instead of building from on top of the type of work bridge typically used today.
Not only does the Willamette River Bridge serve as an important interstate river crossing, it also crosses Franklin Boulevard, one of Eugene’s main thoroughfares. This photo (right) shows the scaffolding system around one of the columns that would eventually support this section of the bridge over Franklin Boulevard. 
 Although the technology and tools used in 1961 were suitable for the time, preparing for construction over a heavily flowing river is never an easy task. Looking toward the north side of the Willamette River, the center of this image shows where crews started forming and building falsework around Pier 3, one of the five piers of the original bridge that touched down in the river. A diversion dam can be seen to the right of the photo off the southern bank. Pier 5 is visible in the foreground, and the staging progress on the northern half of the bridge can be seen in the background.
The original bridge was essentially built across the river from south to north (right to left in the photo on the right). Here you can see a great deal of progress on the southern half of the box girder bridge. Pier 2 is already built and can be seen mid-stream. Upon completion of the southern half, crews built another diversion dam under it and built the north half.
 
Crews working on the deck of the original bridge are installing the box girder soffit on the river spans of the bridge in the photo above. A soffit is the undersurface of a structure, so what we see here is, in essence, the formation of the bridge’s underbelly.
The profile of the bridge is starting to take place in the photo on the right, which shows the completed box girder falsework for the northern half of the bridge. As with construction on the southern half, the river was diverted to allow crews and equipment access to the work site.
 
Crews worked tirelessly to finish the $2.3 million project, which would be worth $16.7 million in 2010 dollars. Their efforts paid off when, on a foggy December morning in 1961, the bridge was opened to traffic. Lane County District Court Clerk Marjorie Hansen (right) did the honors at the ribbon-cutting ceremony (left), which was attended by Gov. Mark Hatfield and other city and county elected officials.
 
Lane County Commissioner Kenneth Nielson, Eugene Mayor Ed Cone, Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Don Derickson, Highway Interim Committee Chairman Norman Howard and State Highway Department Representatives Tom Edwards and Forrest Cooper each made brief dedication remarks at the ceremony.
 

The original Willamette River Bridge connected the existing stretches of I-5 and made travel along the interstate easier and faster than ever before: Completion of the bridge cut 12 miles and nearly 90 minutes from the drive to Portland from Eugene. The 1,800-foot-long structure stood for nearly 50 years, until safety concerns led to its temporary replacement in 2004 and demolition in 2009 for construction of the new Willamette River Bridge.
 
The new Willamette River Bridge, scheduled for completion in fall of 2013, will be two graceful, parallel deck-arch bridges that stand approximately 63 feet above the water. The northbound structure will measure nearly 2,000 feet long while the southbound will come in at 1,760 feet. Both bridges will be about 67.5 feet wide to accommodate three lanes of traffic plus a shoulder.
 
Unlike the original bridge — which touched the water in five locations — the new bridge will only have a single touch point in the middle of the river. In addition to being more aesthetically pleasing than the original bridge, this means the new structure will be more environmentally friendly, too, with the single in-water pier providing less of an obstruction for fish and animals in the river.