The Oregon Trunk Rail Bridge or Celilo Bridge, which opened in 1912, is a single-track railroad bridge spanning the Columbia River just east of The Dalles. The bridge is downstream of the site of Celilo Falls, now submerged by water impounded by The Dalles Dam. It is not hard to imagine these conversations by the men who worked on it.
Ghosts on the Bridge
By Larry D. Rea –
Today’s the day we put the last chunk of steel in place . . . a million-dollar railroad bridge* . . .
I’m ready to celebrate . . . free whiskey tonight if we get that last beam into place today . . . we put up 5,000 tons of steel and it is damn cold out there. . . wind’s blowing a gale . . .
Hear that Columbia River water roar? That’s why the Indians call these falls “Celilo” – the echo of falling water.
A million and a half gallons of water passing by every second . . . that’s a lot of water under the bridge . . . can’t even hear myself cuss.
We’re lucky no one has been killed on this job . . . these Swedes are tough. One fell off the bridge into two feet of water and just got up and went back to work . . .
“Give me Swedes, snuff, and whiskey, and I’ll build a railroad through hell;” James J. Hill, Canadian-American Railroad Executive.
“Indians not very friendly . . . claim we are waking evil spirits . . . all the big shots are hanging around wanting to be the first man to cross the bridge.
We’re heading to California when this job is done . . .
“Boss, the last piece of steel is an inch too short . . . I’m not kidding . . . it’s an inch too short . . . we need a bridge stretcher.”
Build a bonfire on the bridge, Hill says . . . it will grow. The difference between Hill and hell is just one letter . . . if Hill were in hell we would all feel better.
“With this token, I christen this bridge Celilo and pray that happiness and prosperity may be the chief fruits of its existence;” Mrs. H. M. Harps, 6 January 1912.
Her words nearly lost in the roar of wind and water.
All aboard for Bend.
For more information about the Celilo Bridge, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_Trunk_Rail_Bridge
* 25 million adjusted for inflation (2017).
Photo of Celilo Railroad Bridge where it crosses the Columbia River by Larry D Rea.