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Behind the Bridge at Depoe Bay: Deeper Oregon Coast History

Published 11/21/21 at 5:44 AM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Behind the Bridge at Depoe Bay: Deeper Oregon Coast History

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(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – These days it's a kind of forgotten icon. People ramble over it tens of thousands of times per day and don't notice much of its graceful lines. They are, understandably, more absorbed by the ocean view that whizzes past.

Yet this is a rather distinctive Oregon coast landmark, one that achieved status on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, and it won't be long before it will be celebrating 100 years. The Depoe Bay bridge was designed by famed architect Conde B. McCullough back just before 1927, the man who helped create Highway 101 as we know it and who designed famed bridges at Coos Bay, Otter Crest Loop and a now-replaced bridge at Waldport.

There's some history to this architecture – and in turn this landmark has witnessed some curious history.

McCullogh was head of the highway department at that time and spearheaded much of the construction of what was then called the Roosevelt Military Highway as it was slowly getting hammered into place in the 1920s and ‘30s, piecing together a disparate set of little communities along the Oregon coast that often didn't have any contact with each other if they were more than a few villages away.

Depoe Bay in the '40s, courtesy North Lincoln County History Museum, Lincoln City

At the time, Depoe Bay wasn't even an official town – it wasn't incorporated until 1973, by the time the Beatles had already broken up, King Crimson was just producing its best material and World War II was almost three decades in the rearview mirror. The little Oregon coast hotspot was still barely anything but a fishing village in the '20s.

It was the Kuckenberg-Wittman Company of Portland that built the original span, a reinforced concrete deck with arches that was finished in 1927. It was and still is considered one of McCullough's finest artistic feats, stretching 312 feet in length and with 150-foot rib arch decks. However, it was only 18 feet wide and had no sidewalks.

Depoe Bay in the '40s, courtesy North Lincoln County History Museum, Lincoln City

Once it was completed, and 101 on the central Oregon coast was decently connected together, tourism slowly exploded. Something called the Sunset Investment Company started promoting the development of the “playland facilities along the Roosevelt Highway,” and very soon people started wandering parts of the bridge, turning the watching of boats going through the tiny channel into a big pastime.

It didn't take long for this and for major traffic to start creating problems on the Depoe Bay bridge, and in 1940 the state set about building a newer, wider one. But no one wanted McCullough's creation to suffer, so it was carefully widened to actually recreate the design on the new portion of the bridge that was built on the seaward side.

This construction was done by the Oregon City Construction Company, started in February of that year and completed before the end of ‘40. Machine shops and tool sheds were built nearby for the work. One newspaper article at the time (Jan. 29) noted how “Footings for one pier have been completed and other work is going forward at a rapid pace.”

It was now almost 50 feet wide and had a sidewalk, along with that engaging stairway down to a viewing area. This is still an enormously fun place to watch the boats and whatever else is happening in the bay. During winter storms, it's not a bad place to watch wild waves smack the channel exterior.

At the end of the construction project, tragedy struck. A civilian defense guard on the bridge was pinned by an automobile that veered out of control on December 9, 1940. Driven by Jerry Sittser, publisher of the News-Guard back then, the car pinned Orville Garrison of Taft up against a railing, killing him (he presumably died later). Sittser himself was also injured.

The Depoe Bay bridge saw the growth of the Depoe Bay Aquarium (which had preceded the Seaside Aquarium's start in ‘37 by a few years), and it saw World War II patrols play out just a couple years later. In fact, the military regularly launched out of Depoe Bay to cruise up and down the central Oregon coast, looking for enemies but also checking the “blackout” policies of the region. Homes were required to block out all light coming from windows at night to keep the enemy from being able to navigate well.

Local military authorities had to threaten marshal law once or twice on the local population because some were not complying, thereby giving any possible enemy more than enough clues.

The Depoe Bay bridge was then witness to Depoe Bay becoming the attraction it is now, even if its magnificent beauty isn't noticed much except by those who take the time to pause while wandering close on foot.

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