The US Constitution guarantees access to navigable waterways, those rivers affected by the tide’s ebb and flow and those used for interstate or international commerce. Multnomah County, Oregon employs a corps of bridge tenders to guarantee 24-hour access to vessels skippered up-or-downriver on the Willamette. Between 1987 and 1997, I worked as a bridge tender on four of Portland’s drawbridges. While sitting in the control shacks or scuttling about the catwalks through rigging, girders and machine rooms, I saw many opportunities to capture hundreds of photographs. The best of these became true “old-school” darkroom prints from that era, the days when developing and printing processes took hours and chemistry, not minutes and megabytes. Images are from 35mm chromes or black-and-white film; some were shot with a 6cm x 6cm Hasselblad. Many of these views are unique because the vantage points are not accessible to the public, skylines are forever altered, or the occasions captured have passed into history.

Bridge tending is isolating, yet it also provides the gift of solitude. One sees the world outside—traffic, pedestrians, boats, the passing weather—but interacts with it mostly in emergencies such as traffic accidents and jumpers. I listened to dissonant metallic complaints of old machinery, the whir and hum of tires over pavement and steel grating, the clatter of bicycles across the Broadway Bridge’s now-replaced boardwalk and the wind howling through girders on stormy nights. While I spent much time reading or looking out the windows at Portland’s dynamic skies, I also explored the bridges with my camera: the cavernous pits with inconceivably huge counterweights; the towers’ heights with panoramic views; the underbelly webworks of geometrically interwoven girders. These windfalls of form, shadow and color became my camera’s subjects and expanded my general appreciation of the cityscape.

The bridges provided a photographic playground, a jungle-gym of vantage points with serendipities of framing, composition and color. My familiarity with Multnomah County’s four drawbridges (Broadway, Burnside, Morrison, Hawthorne) grew with recognition of their qualities, and by extension I grew to appreciate the character of bridges everywhere. Pedestrians and drivers experience the monolithic constancy of Portland’s bridges as a reflection of the city’s history as a “river town.” As I saw more of the bridges–lifted them, clambered along the elevated catwalks, greased the massive gears–I grew to take delight in the uniqueness of each bridge. I began to see these century-old structures as adaptable and contemporary.

Thirty years ago, in more relaxed times, personnel of both the Union Pacific-owned Steel Bridge and the Oregon State-owned St. John’s Bridge extended warm welcomes to me as a bridge enthusiast and photographer. With access to those bridges, I felt even more appreciative of the wealth and variations of Portland’s bridge architecture. Having scaled the majestic and iconic St. John’s Bridge to its southwest saddle nearly 400 feet above the water, I am grateful to have seen our bridges from such intimate perspectives. Scaling the towers of the Hawthorne Bridge to 165 feet provided extraordinary and stunning views, yet those vistas remained less enticing than the structures themselves, the views of the bridge decks, the girders, the counterweights, suspension cables, suspenders and the river below.
As a bridge tender, it amused me that I worked not on solid ground, not in East Portland and not in West Portland. I walked just halfway across a bridge to go to work, and at shift’s end I’d walk back the way I’d come, rarely making it all the way into town. This augmented the sense that I had entered a unique world—neither here nor there, but rather a special environment filled with giant and wondrous machinery and a veritable feast of views.

FRANK ENGEL photography

Portland, Oregon


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