Eight lyrical bridges along the Oregon Coast Highway pay elegant tribute to their innovative designer, who called them "jeweled clasps."
Conde McCullough's career in Oregon spanned nearly 30 years. The bridges he built spanned much more than that. From 1919, when he became state bridge engineer for the Oregon State Highway Commission, until his death in 1946, McCullough presided over a golden age of engineering—and a crucial phase of development in the state. Hired to fill the gaps in Oregon's highway system with carworthy crossings over gullies, rivers, bays, and streams, McCullough is credited with constructing some 600 bridges. But his crowning achievements came during the 1920s and '30s, when he designed a series of stunning coastal bridges along Highway 101 that solved architectural problems without sacrificing aesthetic appeal. Each of these marvels of engineering is graced with much artistic detail: leaping Romanesque arches, elegant Gothic spires, stately art deco obelisks. For all his commitment to engineering, McCullough held a dim view of the field. Once, when asked to assess the engineer's import to society, he replied, "From the dawn of civilization up to the present, engineers have been busily engaged in ruining this fair earth and taking all the romance out of it."
As McCullough saw it, his job was to reverse that trend. Born in the Dakota Territory in 1887, he earned his degree at Iowa State, then signed on as an assistant professor of civil engineering at Oregon State. His guiding philosophy had a lasting impact on Oregon's scenic coastal roadway.
"McCullough was a tremendously important figure, not only in Oregon but in other parts of the world," says Don Peting, a professor of architecture and director of the University of Oregon's historic preservation program. McCullough's approach helped shape the Inter-American Highway in Costa Rica, where he worked for several years. "He was a pioneer in trying to use bridge design to make an elegant statement," Peting says. "McCullough wanted to elevate the act of crossing a bridge into a special experience and not just solve the problem of getting from one side to the other."
Some of McCullough's coastal bridges have not survived, but many of his original spans remain and can be visited during a scenic two-day drive on Highway 101 along the Oregon coast. Today these bridges are considered state treasures. McCullough preferred to call them "jeweled clasps in a wonderful string of matched pearls."
Wilson River Bridge Tillamook County (1931)
There's nothing cheesy about this bridge. It's a bowstring arch design, just like the span farther south over Big Creek. The bridge stands a fair distance from the ocean, where the highway curls in from the coast. Most tourists who cross this span are making tracks for Tillamook's famous cheese factory, a good spot to sample a slice of local life.
Yaquina Bay Bridge Newport (1936)
Someone once compared this bridge to a ballerina taking a series of small steps followed by a single great leap. This no doubt referred to the five concrete support decks that lead to a dramatic, high-soaring steel arch. Each end of the structure has a pedestrian plaza with winding stairways that lead to lookout spots.
Big Creek Bridge Lane County (1931)
This small stream crossing posed big problems for McCullough: a sandy foundation, high-rising water, and corrosive salt air. Traditional arches wouldn't have been sturdy enough, reinforced concrete girders would have been too close to the water, and steel trusses wouldn't have withstood the elements for very long. So he built a bowstring arch bridge, which functions somewhat like a real bow and arrow. The deck (the string) holds the arch (the bow) in its charming curved shape. Just something to think about as you shoot across.
Cape Creek Bridge Near Heceta Head (1932)
McCullough took his cue from the architecture of antiquity—especially Roman aqueducts such as the Pont du Gard, near Nîmes, France—when he designed this span, with its two-tiered viaducts. The yawning central arch stands 104 feet above the creek below. The setting as you drive across is spectacular, but the best place to see the bridge is from nearby Devils Elbow State Park.
Siuslaw River Bridge Florence (1936)
Though it's one of several McCullough drawbridges, the Siuslaw stands out, with art deco detailing on its four guardhouses. Stop in downtown Florence for a splendid view of the structure.
Umpqua River Bridge Reedsport (1936)
When faced with a shallow crossing that was too wide for a drawbridge, McCullough did some deep thinking and dreamt up this unusual span. It's the state highway's largest swing span bridge, which means it moves side to side, instead of up and down, to let ships pass. It may be outdated bridge technology, but it looks right at home today.
Coos Bay Bridge Coos Bay (1936)
When it was completed, this 5,305-foot bridge was the longest in the Oregon highway system and the largest structure in all of McCullough's impressive oeuvre. It's a green steel giant, with huge cantilevers hung high above the water for easy shipping clearance.
Rogue River Bridge Near Gold Beach (1931)
McCullough owes a debt here to Eugene Freyssinet, an engineer-architect known as the inventor of prestressed concrete. The Rogue River Bridge was the first in the country built employing the Freyssinet method. The span's seven reinforced arches relieved stress, allowing McCullough to create a lighter, more elegant bridge. Pausing to watch the Rogue River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean provides a different kind of stress relief.
For more information on McCullough, check out Robert Hadlow's Elegant Arches, Soaring Spans.
Photography by Lara Swimmer
This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.