Pictured in this photo from the collection of the Wahkiakum County Historical Museum, a pile driver works on a pier for construction of the PI bridge in 1939.
The Cathlamet-Puget Island Bridge was dedicated during a celebration August 26-27 in 1939.
The bridge provides a vital link in area transportation. The bridge connects to the Ferry Wahkiakum via SR 409 during closures of SR 4 and is a tourist attraction or an aid to commuters at other times. Travelers monitor an osprey nest for activity in spring and watch for osprey fledglings as the year progresses.
Before the bridge was built in 1939, ferries carried passengers to Oregon and Washington. A ferry crossed from Westport, Oregon to Sunny Sands and then passengers could ride a bus across the Island to a ferry on the north side of the Island that took them to the Town of Cathlamet dock.
Ties to Oregon were stronger than to Washington for some families living on the south side of the Island. Gary Bergseng remembered that when his parents were married, their mailing address was Westport, OR. Like other long-time Puget Island families, he said many relatives are buried in Westport.
Bergseng remembered ferrying families across the river to bury someone with the rest of the family in Oregon even after the bridge was built, in his first years running the ferry.
Islanders were also used to taking the ferry to Cathlamet for work or groceries.
Puget Island resident Bob Box remembered his grandfather taking the fishing boat to bring Dr. Fritz from Cathlamet to deliver his sisters.
Local resident Leroy Wika remembers going with his father to Cathlamet in the gillnet boat to shop.
“The best thing about the bridge going in was that you didn’t have to wait for the ferry anymore,” Wika and other Puget Islanders say.
“In the earlier days, before you went to town, you checked with neighbors to see if they needed something from the store,” Wika said.
"When the route for the bridge was discussed, some residents wanted it built off the head of the Island to Nassa Point, but Cathlamet merchants were anxious to have traffic through town,” Island resident Art Vik said.
“The road to the bridge was straightened,” Wika said, creating the configuration of SR 4 as it is today.
Lacey V. Murrow, R. W. Finke and Clark H. Eldridge designed the bridge, which spanned 2,433 feet and consisted of four steel spans when first constructed.
The bridge was built over the Cathlamet Channel by the Washington Dept. of Highways with federal aid using Wolmanized Douglas Fir.
The Crossett-Western Company at Wauna, Oregon provided the Wolmanized, or treated, lumber for the bridge and supervised the installation. Steel comprises the majority of the truss bridge’s structure now.
Locals talk about youth climbing a ladder and crossing the bridge before it was completed.
Wika remembered that older teenage boys carried their bicycles with them, climbed a ladder onto the unfinished bridge and rode toward Cathlamet.
Karen Healy remembered her father, William Anderson, painting the bridge. Bob Box remembered painting it later, when he was a teenager.
On August 26 and 27, 1939, the Cathlamet-Puget Island Bridge Dedication and Pioneer Picnic was held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Washington statehood.
The program for the dedication gives evidence of vibrant communities with business supporting fishing and dairies, three groceries, a theater, variety and hardware stores, clothing stores and many fraternal organizations up and down the county. Phone numbers were only two digits long. Goodfellow's Drug Store had “the best in fountain service.” Maude Kimball Butler (Julia Butler Hansen’s mother) was the superintendent of the county’s school districts.
The bridge dedication festivities started with a pre-celebration on Friday that included a carnival on River Street, a ball in honor of Miss Wahkiakum (Elsie Hill), Miss Puget Island (Frances Wood) and Miss Cathlamet (Leona Doumit). Firemen displayed their skills on the school grounds.
Saturday started with a marine parade and water sports on the Columbia.
The Redmen Lodges of Raymond, Long Beach, Skamokawa, Cathlamet and Vancouver drilled on the courthouse lawn.
The “last official crossing from Puget Island to Cathlamet” was celebrated with a “gigantic parade of yachts and fish boats” and a demonstration of laying out and picking up nets.
A parade from Una Street marched to Main Street off the bridge at one p.m., when a half-hour state-wide broadcast on a station from Centralia-Chehalis, KELA, was made from the bridge.
At 1:15, President Franklin D. Roosevelt “pressed a golden [telegraph] key at the White House, cutting ribbon, officially opening” the bridge.
Members of the Sons of Norway walked in Viking helmets and skins from the Sons of Norway building across Birnie Slough to the bridge. “I heard it was very hot in those skins that day,” Wika said.
In the afternoon, a program was held at the Grange field on Puget Island with Julia Butler Hansen presiding and an address by Martin F. Smith, US Representative to the Third District.
In the evening, a children’s parade preceded a banquet at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church with speeches from Andrew Shold, and Mitchell Doumit of the Lower Columbia Associated Chambers of Commerce, and an address by state Governor Clarence D. Martin, that were also broadcast statewide.
At 9 p.m., dances were held in both Cathlamet and in the Puget Island Grange Hall; tickets were interchangeable.
Sunday, a regatta with visiting queens, church services and the pioneer picnic completed the weekend.
The program’s authors, Julia Butler Hansen, Mitchell Doumit, P.S. Nielsen, Howard Olsen and Otis Wright praised the “men of vision and their dogged determination.”
After the bridge was completed, Puget Island children rode school buses to Cathlamet. Integration of Puget Island children into the Wakiakum schools included some tension.
“They called us swamp rats,” Wika remembered, but “then we became best of friends.”
County bridges are inspected every two years by engineers from the state Department of Transportation. Wahkiakum County Public Works Director Pete Ringen coordinates between the county and DOT as needed. The bridge passed its last inspection according to Washington Department of Transportation.