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Coos Bay's Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge: History, Construction of S. Oregon Coast Landmark

Published 12/28/23 at 5:05 p.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

History of Coos Bay's Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge: Construction of S. Oregon Coast Landmark

(Coos Bay, Oregon) – [UPDATED] "As you approach this magnificent mile-long bridge along U.S. Route 101, you know that you are about to cross into someplace very special," says Oregon's Adventure Coast.

The agency overseeing tourism in the Charleston / Coos Bay / North Bend area sums up what many have thought for decades about the Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge.

As many have said or written in the past, this was the beginning of the end of isolation between Oregon coast towns. Highway 101 had been largely completed by the mid 1930s, but these little burghs were about to go from pioneer posts that barely had contact with each other to true tourism destinations once the five big Oregon coast bridges were completed. Florence, Newport, Gold Beach and Waldport were the other four: the fifth at Coos Bay was the most ambitious and glorious of them all at the time. (Above: the Coos Bay Bridge construction, 1935, courtesy Oregon State Archives)

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What was officially named the Coos Bay Bridge at the time began construction in 1934, as part of the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA) and its employment programs, bringing together various bodies from various industries to create many of America's landmarks. It was a big part of the answer to the Great Depression, helping it fade away.

The designing architect was Conde B. McCullough, who was hailed for this one especially, though many of his bridges snagged much attention – and still do. He was known for being a pioneer in bridge building around the world, and in fact after this one was finished the State of Oregon lent him and his genius to a bridge project in South America.

These days, what's known as the Conde B. Mccullough Memorial Bridge is a wonder and a masterful feat of great beauty, stretching 5,305 feet across Coos Bay, with a steel cantilevered design that was new back then, and a truss some 1,708 feet. Its road is 150 feet off the water.

History of Coos Bay's Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge: Construction of S. Oregon Coast Landmark
Courtesy Oregon's Adventure Coast

It was finished in 1936 and dedicated with a week-long celebration in what were then called Marshfield, Empire and North Bend. Unlike many origin stories on the coast, this landmark had few dramas or intrigue during construction. Well, maybe there was one quirk in that tale.

The first week in June of '36, as the opening celebrations began, The Coos Bay Times noted how at the beginning of the whole planning process, the State Legislature was urged by local timber companies to make the bridge out of wood instead of the concrete and steel that it became. They estimated over four million feet of lumber would be needed, which would feed a lot of timber industry families in the region.

Library of Congress

The state went for the steel and concrete, which the Times noted wound up using more wood than if they had built it out of that material. It was a humorous “paradox,” the newspaper called it: the building of the scaffolds and other structures required some six and a half million feet of lumber (some later accounts differ on that number). A steel and concrete structure actually brought more payroll dollars to the area – still suffering from the Great Depression – than a wood bridge. Besides, the newspaper noted, they got a better bridge.

Also see When Marshfield and Empire Became Coos Bay: Votes That Changed S. Oregon Coast History

In the '30s, as it was getting completed, it was considered one of the longest cantilever bridges in the world, and by far the longest on the Oregon coast (until the Astoria-Megler Bridge in the '60s). Its blend of Art Deco, Gothic, and Modern design elements still illicit reaction today as people drive above and over Coos Bay. McCullough designed it so when you enter, it feels as if you're driving under arches. He painstakingly designed a lot of elements both large and small to achieve this, while also keeping it all functional in a cutting edge manner.

This hand-colored print of a drawing by Frank G. Hutchinson was made in 1935, the year he began working with the Oregon Highway Department. Frank's drawings for this agency and others are quite revered, almost as much as MucCullough himself.

Everyone called it a jewel, even then. That term gets thrown around a lot in historical accounts and travel media, and it was so since its construction. McCullough himself called it the “most important of his career,” and certainly others echoed that then as they do now. Back then, national magazines covered the bridge's creation, especially design and engineering publications.

Library of Congress

It and he were rock stars for awhile.

The Coos Bay Times at the time reported how the structures holding it down from above were called “wind anchor shoes,” keeping it steady in the windiest of Oregon coast moments. Roller bearings allow the span to move back and forth a few inches and as temperatures change. But the shoes penetrate into the concrete above, “allowing it to slide back and forth but not sidewise,” the paper wrote. “They check a tendency for one end of the steel span to blow away from the bridge.”

Resistance for each shoe was was over 100,000 pounds, enough that, as they put it: “all the the trees in the bay would be blown to the earth before the Coos Bay Bridge even groaned.”

Library of Congress

Most historical accounts of the bridge say it was officially named the Conde B. McCullough Bridge in 1947, not long after he died. That's true, but it's also true that more often than not the media referred to the bridge as the McCullough Bridge as early as a year or so before construction began. Newspaper clippings in the '30s reporting on his talks to various groups called it the “McCullough Bridge” rather than its intended Coos Bay Bridge.

Fun Facts (according to Oregon State Archives): the Conde B. McCullough Bridge was constructed with 12 million pounds of steel and 48,000 cubic yards of concrete. Each of the four towers weigh 34 tons.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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