R.I.P. Van Buren Bridge?

The Loss of an Unsung Landmark
Over a Century Old, the Van Buren Bridge is Set to Come Down
Imagine if the Benton County Courthouse were torn down and replaced with a building that matched the architectural style of the neighboring Benton County Jail. That’s something like what’s going to happen when the historic Van Buren Avenue bridge is replaced with a drab little span much like the Harrison Avenue Bridge.

As early as 1860, before there was any bridge on the Willamette, there was a ferry that ran near where the Van Buren and Harrison bridges now cross. By the turn of the century, it was obvious that there was enough traffic across the river that a bridge was called for, and a consortium formed by Linn and Benton Counties, the City of Corvallis, and private donors agreed to pay for one (the ballot levy was the first election in which Corvallis women were able to vote). The Coast Bridge Company of Portland put up the Van Buren Street Bridge at a cost of $70,000 (about $1.8 million today).

In 1913, the Willamette River was a busy traffic thoroughfare. Some of the steamboats which regularly passed Corvallis were so large that they couldn’t fit under any bridge which the technology of the time could create. So designer Andrew J. Porter made it a swing bridge which could turn to allow a boat through. For years, when a large boat needed to go by Corvallis, men would go to the center of the bridge and insert an immense key, very much like the winding key of a spring-powered toy, and turn the key to work the gears to rotate the bridge. It took six strong men to turn the bridge — or on one memorable occasion, a powerful wind which turned the bridge unexpectedly, stranding a pedestrian on it until the bridge keepers could row out with the key to turn the bridge back.

The bridge was seldom turned after the 1920s, the last time being in 1960. In the 1980s, the machinery to turn the bridge was found to be inoperable, and that was it for the bridge’s career as a swing bridge. The huge cylinder which housed the machinery is still there, supporting the middle of the span, adding to the bridge’s distinctive appearance.

The bridge was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, but it was never formally designated as a landmark, and thus is not protected from being demolished, which the city now wants to do. Plans to create a third bridge crossing downtown while preserving the Van Buren Bridge as a foot and bicycle bridge have been rejected. It appears that the historic bridge is going to be lost.

So, get down there while you can. Take some pictures, get your picture taken on it. Soon it will be gone, and Corvallis will have taken another step toward becoming identical to every other town in North America.

Timeline for the Bridge Replacement
Back in October, the Corvallis City Council greenlit the Oregon Department of Transportation to begin its planning phase for the bridge’s replacement in earnest. Planning will run into late 2021, with construction set to start in 2022.

While no official designs have been released, the ODOT team has shared some conceptual layouts and reaffirmed the overarching goals of their plans for the new bridge. The main goals for the new bridge are to alleviate the bottlenecking of traffic, increase the amount of weight that the bridge can handle, and create seismic stability.

In regards to the traffic bottlenecking, the new bridge will be a two-lane design with a multi-modal path on the side for pedestrians, much like the Harrison Bridge that leads into town. This will encourage a more even spread of traffic leaving town, helping to alleviate that nightmarish scenario in which Van Buren Avenue’s center lane is clogged for blocks on end.

Bridge Demolition Has Prominent Opposition 
Opinions regarding these plans aren’t all positive. While it is safe to say that smoother traffic and an earthquake-ready bridge may be desirable, many locals feel strongly that the Van Buren Bridge does not have to be sacrificed to achieve these things. Chief among the community members seeking to somehow maintain the current bridge in some way is former state representative Tony Van Vliet and the people of Preservation WORKS, a local historic preservation group.

Van Vliet and Preservation WORKS recently sent an email to the Oregon Transportation Commission, claiming that the ODOT team had not properly followed protocol while planning the Van Buren Bridge project. Van Vliet is concerned the plans ODOT presented to the City Council disregarded feedback from locals. Overall, the writers of the letter expressed that they “hope that the OTC will reform a new ODOT team that will follow the agency’s stated policy of public involvement, develop more accurate cost estimates for reusing the historic bridge, and provide the Corvallis City Council with appropriate options.”

“We’re looking at the community concerns that were shared and researching them, as we do with any questions regarding projects,” said ODOT transportation project manager, Anna Henson. “We too want to ensure that the process is followed to come to the best plan going forward.”

More information on the Van Buren Bridge project can be found at www.VanBurenBridge.com.

By John M. Burt and Thomas Nguyen