Multnomah Falls Footbridge
Benson Foot Bridge ca 1920
Benson Foot Bridge ca 1995
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Spanning the lower of two falls called Multnomah Falls on a pedestrian trail leading from the Multnomah Falls Lodge to the top of the falls, near the Historic Columbia River Highway, at milepost 32, Multnomah County, Oregon.
Date of Construction:
K. P. Biller, designing engineer, Oregon State Highway Department
Pacific Bridge Company, Portland, Robert L. Ringer, subcontractor
U.S. Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
A reinforced-concrete arch pedestrian bridge over the Lower Multnomah Falls. One of the few bridges constructed on the highway strictly for pedestrian use.
Multnomah Falls (Benson) Footbridge
Samuel Lancaster once wrote of Multnomah Falls that, “the setting is ideal. It is pleasing to look upon; and in every mood, it charms like magic, it woos like an ardent lover; it refreshes the soul; and invites to loftier, purer things.” Lancaster and his associates believed that the site was one of the most significant destinations along the planned route of the Historic Columbia River Highway. The falls lie within a sheer- walled geologic alcove, formed by repeated freezing of waterfall spray which seeped into cracks in the columnar basalt walls and broke loose small rock fragments. Because the wall is north facing, it retains moisture for much of the year and is covered with lush vegetation
Pioneers claimed that Multnomah Falls was at least 1000 feet in height: and popular literature of the early 1900s ranked it as second tallest in the United States. In 1916 the U.S. Geological Survey calculated that Multnomah Falls had a total drop of 620′. The main falls of 542′ drops over three basalt flows. A fourth flow causes the 69′ lower falls (there is 9′ vertical distance between falls). Taken together they are the fourth longest waterfall in the U.S. Lancaster and his colleagues believed Multnomah Falls, along with the surrounding landscape, required special attention for developing it as a destination for motorists.
No one knows for sure who named these cascades “Multnomah Falls.” Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and other nineteenth-century explorers mentioned the falls in their journals, but none gave them a name. Lewis A. McArthur, in his Oregon Geographic Names suggested that a S. G. Reed may have been the first to apply a name to them with the idea of trying to popularize points along the Columbia for steamboat excursions. “Multnomah” comes from a sub-group of American Indians of the Chinookan tribe and also is the name of the county in which the falls are located. For years prior to construction of the Multnomah Falls Footbridge, at least as early 1883, a timber bowstring truss bridge spanned the falls at the present bridge’s location. No doubt it was a favorite stop for passengers traveling on the nearby Oregon-Washington Railroad and navigation Co. (OWRN) main line running east from Portland, or on steamboat excursions up the Columbia. By at least 1891, the bridge was reinforced with additional timber bracing and cables but it vanished by 1899.
The Benson Bridge
One day while out at the site with Simon Benson Lancaster remarked to the wealthy Portland lumberman and good roads enthusiast, that it would “be nice if there were a footbridge across the lower waterfall, with a path up to and across it so that visitors could…look up at that magnificent waterfall above, then without moving look down on the lower one into the pool below.” Benson asked what it might cost and Lancaster calculated the figures on the back of an envelope. Benson then wrote out a check for the amount and directed Lancaster to build it. The resulting footbridge is a 45′-0″ reinforced-concrete deck arch, 105′ above the lower Multnomah Falls. The location provides a spectacular view of the upper falls. Benson later purchased nearly 1,000 acres along the Columbia River, including 140 acres around Multnomah Falls which he gave to Portland for a city park.
In 1914, the Pacific Bridge Company of Portland received the contract to construct the Crown Point Viaduct and several bridges along the 16-mile-long “waterfalls section” of the Historic Columbia River Highway, from Shepperds Dell Bridge to Horsetail Falls Bridge. As was common practice, the firm subcontracted portions of the work to other companies. Robert Lee Ringer, who previously completed an electric fountain on the state capitol grounds in Salem and had just completed the reinforced-concrete portions of the 500′ viaduct at Crown Point subcontracted work on the Multnomah Falls Footbridge. Ringer reminisced in 1967 that the Pacific Bridge Company “was too large to be concerned with the little bridge over the falls, especially at the end of the season.” As a “small-time contractor” who picked up “some lesser jobs along the highway” Ringer was ready and able to construct the bridge and finished it in the fall of 1914.
The Larch Mountain Trail
On January 28, 1915, Lancaster recommended to the Progressive Business Men’s Club of Portland that someone should build a trail from the base of Multnomah Falls across the footbridge and then to the top of Larch Mountain, a distance of seven mites because it afforded a beautiful view of the region. The Club raised several hundred dollars to finance the trail, and Simon Benson and his son Amos S. Benson pledged another $3,000 for the fund. The United States Forest Service appropriated $1,500 and agreed to survey and build the trail as well as construct a lookout on the top of Larch mountain.
The Forest Service sent out locating crews in April 1915, but Bridal Veil Lumbering Company and Crown-Willamette Paper Company, who owned land surrounding the proposed trail, protested its location on the grounds that bringing people into the forests increased the risk of fires. Nevertheless, Forest Service officials assuaged the lumber interests fears by convincing them that the trail actually facilitated fire fighting and could help lessen timber. In July 1915, the companies granted right-of-way for the trail. By early October, the trail was dedicated at the Larch Mountain lookout.
Meanwhile, Simon Benson, purchased several tracts of land along the Columbia River’s south bank to preserve them for recreational use. On Labor Day 1915 he donated land including Multnomah Falls and Wahkeena Falls to the city of Portland, and the parcel that later became Benson State Park. Still, land at the base of Multnomah Falls, near an OWRN siding, was out of his reach because the rail company held title to it. Finally, Portland Parks Superintendent C. P. Keyser persuaded the OWRN to donate the land for public use, but with the understanding that the city would build a lodge on the site.
On June 7, 1916, Multnomah Falls was the scene of what historian Ronald J. Fahl called “an elaborate and idealized pageant commemorating the history and lore of the Columbia Gorge and dedicating the highway itself.” The Multnomah Falls Footbridge was part of the backdrop of the natural amphitheater in front of the falls that served as the setting. A crowd of 10,000 participated in ceremonies featuring the Portland Rose Festival Queen and her royal entourage of King Joy, Miss Columbia, maids-in-waiting, crown bearers and the like. Promoters, politicians and other dignitaries from throughout the Pacific Northwest participated in the HCRH’s formal dedication.
The Multnomah Falls Lodge and Footpath
When the Historic Columbia River Highway opened in the Multnomah Falls section in 1915, it attracted concessionaires who catered to motorist’s needs. In addition, some amenities were available at the nearby OWRN station house. Yet many early HCRH motorists wanted more. They were accustomed to having Sunday dinners of chicken, rabbit, or salmon at several places along the highway. These included Chanticleer Inn, Crown Point Chalet, Latourell Falls Chalet and its successor, Falls Villa, Bridal Veil Lodge, and Forrest Hall. Some even kept a few rooms for road weary travelers. So, in 1925 the city of Portland commissioned local architect A. E. Doyle to design a structure. Doyle had already completed several structures in Portland, including, the Multnomah County Central Public Library, the Meier and Frank Department Store, the U.S. National Bank Buildings and the Benson Hotel. He created a 2-1/2 story rustic masonry lodge for a site below the falls and near the highway. The firm of Waale-Shattuck constructed it for $40,000.
The lodge exterior was in the “Cascadian” style, using native split fieldstone laid irregularly and varying in shades from black and gray to brown and red. Its encounter English’s form includes a steeply pitched cedar-shingled gable roof with dormers and massive chimneys. It was completed in 1925, and provided both meals and lodging for travelers (NOTE: There may be some confusion over the Multnomah Falls Lodge and the Multnomah Lodge. I think Dr. Hadlow is wrong, and that the lodge at the falls was always a day lodge. There was a Multnomah Lodge at the base of Mist Falls, about a mile west of Multnomah Falls, that, I think, did offer lodging. There is information on the Multnomah Lodge here and here ). By 1927, the building was enlarged, and in the next 65 years has undergone several remodeling, both inside and out, but still retains its original charm and character. Since World War II, it has provided meals ranging from simple snacks to elegant dining, and houses a gift shop: public restrooms and an interpretive center. The lodge is by no means “rustic” in the same sense as Civilian Conservation corps and Works Progress Administration buildings constructed in the gorge in the 1930s. Instead it has a sense of restrained elegance that catered to wealthy Portlanders who ventured out of the city in their motor cars to “rough it” the country
The lodge marks the beginning of the footpath that takes travelers to the Multnomah Falls Footbridge, to the top of the falls, and eventually another 6 miles to the top of Larch Mountain. The area between the lodge and the footbridge, along with adjoining stone walks, benches, and interpretive displays, has been remade and remodeled continually since the 1920s. Beginning in the late 1980s, Multnomah Falls Scenic Area came under the jurisdiction of the newly organized Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, with planning strategies for its future coordinated with similar U.S. Forest Service activities at other sites in the gorge.
Design and Description
The Multnomah Falls Footbridge is a reinforced-concrete structure consisting of one 45′-0″ parabolic barrel deck arch anchored into rock cliffs. Curtain walls are made of spandrel columns topped with arched curtain walls. Railings are constructed of precast cylindrical balusters and beveled rail caps. The height from deck surface to top of balustrades is 3′-6″. The top end of each 5″-diameter baluster is formed with halves of elliptical arches so that when assembled they created a course of miniature arches that echoed the spandrel walls. In addition, balusters were cast with additional collars, or astraddle, near their ends for added detail. Total length of the structure is about 52′.
Original designs for the Multnomah Falls Footbridge called for constructing a Melan arch over Lower Multnomah Falls, consisting of a light steel frame surrounded by concrete. It was an advantageous alternative because the structures construction made centering unnecessary. Nevertheless, those involved in its design found upon further investigation that the cost of the steel frame was considerably higher than simple reinforcing. Further, the advantage of not having to erect falsework was reduced when plentiful free lumber became available after completion of the nearby West and East Multnonah Falls Viaducts and the Multnomah Creek Bridge on the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Robert Ringer, the subcontractor, wrote that “the bridge had to be built 135 feet in the air above the base of operations at the foot of the lower falls. It was straight up a rocky cliff” he added with “water dashing over one side of it. It was a wild tangle of Nature and we had to climb on our hands and knees to reach the building site. We installed an aerial trolley operated by horses to put up all the materials.” He fashioned a simple a wooden trussed arch bridge to suspend the formwork for the footbridge.
Ringer added, “one day when the job was nearly completed, Mr. Benson Jr. (Amos S. Benson) visited us; and I asked him if it would be all right if I put my name on the bridge in the concrete as is done on famous projects. He readily gave assent.” But, “when the bridge was completed, Mr. Benson, some friends, and the engineer of the Pacific Bridge Co. visited the site and we had a general jollification and everybody was happy except the bridge company engineer.” The company representative “concealed his wrath from the guests, but he was furious to see my name on the bridge. After all, I was only a sub-contractor.” Ringer had not yet been paid for his work and to assuage the engineer’s anger he agreed “without any fussing to cement over the offensive letters.” But when he “was alone and attending to the last chores. (He) cleaned up the lettering and smeared it lightly with wet clay–to which cement will not adhere permanently–and carefully troweled the place over to match the rest of the deck.” Ringer did not again visit Multnomah Falls and the footbridge for two years. Baby that time the winter frosts had done their Work and routed out the inscription, which reads-“R. L. Ringer, 1914.”
The designer, K. P. Billner, used a combination of steel lacing and plates for the arch reinforcing and steel bar for the deck, spandrel columns and the railings. His skeleton for the barrel arch consisted of five ribs of lacing forming the vertical components of four compartments. The intrados surface of the arch, or bottoms of these compartments consisted of “3 Rib hybrid” plates, while the extrados surface was made of steel straps. Glenn S. Parson, Bridge Engineer for the Oregon State Highway Department speculated about the reinforcing in the spandrel columns in 1944. He wrote that “the ‘two-rib’ and ‘three-rib’ studs shown (in a construction drawing) as reinforcing for the spandrel columns are undoubtedly a Truscon Steel Company product.” He went on to write that “about the time this bridge was built, thin partition walls were quite the fashion in building construction, and they often used an expanded metal vertical stud on which metal lath were attached and then plastered over.” He suspected that the spandrel column reinforcement in the Multnomah Falls Footbridge Were these studs.
Billner also designed the Multnomah Creek Bridge, a reinforced-concrete road bridge at Multnomah Falls. Unlike the other reinforced-concrete arches on the HCRH that take the form of ribbed deck arches with spandrel columns, this 67- foot span is a barrel arch both solid spandrel galls. Both the road bridge and the footbridge receive heavy use at what is one of the most popular scenic areas in the state of Oregon.
Repair and Maintenance
Maintenance records on the Multnomah Falls Footbridge are incomplete through the mid 1930s. In July 1937, there was some concern over the unstable nature of the handrails on the span, and a year later they were repaired. On 29 July 1939, the city of Portland relinquished its land holdings and by 1943 its buildings in the Columbia River Gorge. It deeded Benson Park to the state and gave all land south of the OWRN right-of-way to the U.S. Forest Service. This included Multnomah Falls, the Multnomah Falls Lodge, and the footpath. They became additions to Columbia Gorge Park, which the Forest Service had formed in December 1915. In 1944 Assistant Regional Forester James Frankland corresponded with Oregon State Highway Department personnel concerning the U.S. Forest services plans for some repair work on the bride’s handrails and spandrel columns. Maintenance on the Benson Bridge from then to the present is unknown, but it has been regularly looked after as indicated by its generally clean appearance and evidence of recent deck work.
Excerpted from Historic American Engineering Record, Multnomah Falls Footbridge (Benson Footbridge), HAER 0R-OR-36-I.
Historian: Robert W. Hadlow, Phd., September 1995.
Transmitted by: Lisa M. Pfueller, September, 1996.