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Lyons Ferry Bridge - Washington State Route 261

One of the more interesting bridges found in Washington State is the Lyons Ferry Bridge. On the surface, the bridge may seem rather average. The Lyons Ferry Bridge is a steel cantilever bridge, spanning 530 feet across the Snake River near the confluence with the Palouse River, at the foot of Lyons Ferry State Park, and just a few miles south of the famous Palouse Falls. Washington State Route 261 (WA 261) is the highway that uses the Lyons Ferry Bridge to cross between Columbia County, Washington, and Franklin County, Washington. But what makes the bridge interesting is how the Lyons Ferry Bridge came to be.

The story of the Lyons Ferry Bridge has a few different origin stories. The oldest human remains discovered in Washington State, just a few hundred yards from the current bridge site, dating back more than 11,000 years. For centuries, Native Americans crossed the Snake River here, followed by the explorations of Lewis & Clark. Later, early settlers following the Mullan Road between Fort Benton, Montana, and Walla Walla, Washington passed by what would become Lyons Ferry. Starting in 1859, a ferry was operated to cross the Snake River at the current site, which made it one of the oldest operating ferries west of the Rocky Mountains, and the longest continuously operated cable ferry west of the Rockies by the time the ferry service ended. The ferry service was first known as the Palouse Ferry but became known as the Lyons Ferry by 1926, named for one of the former ferry operators.

By the 1960s, the Lower Monumental Dam was constructed 15 miles downriver on the Snake River from Lyons Ferry. As the water widened behind the dam, the distance the ferry had to cross grew longer and slower, causing the current to disappear as it evolved from a river to a lake. As the ferry was steam-powered, it relied on the river's current to help power its way across the river. These changes, along with projections that the ferry would not be able to handle future traffic growth, convinced the powers that be in Washington State that a bridge would be needed at Lyons Ferry.

The bridge that would be constructed at Lyons Ferry had a previous life before making its current home in this quiet corner of southeastern Washington State. The narrow two-lane bridge once served since 1927 as the crossing of US 10 over the Columbia River in Vantage, Washington, replacing a different ferry known as the Vantage Ferry. But by the late 1950s, changes were afoot. The Army Corps of Engineers built the Wanapum Dam downriver from the Vantage Ferry Bridge, as it was then called. The dam's construction caused the rising Columbia River to flood the town of Vantage and the bridge. Also, with the advent of the Interstate Highway System, a wider bridge was needed anyway. The Washington Department of Highways decided to replace the old Vantage Ferry Bridge with a four-lane bridge better able to carry the increased traffic on what would later become part of Interstate 90. The old bridge was dismantled in 1963 and put into storage.

This made the old Vantage Dam Bridge a perfect candidate to be relocated to Lyons Ferry. This was a period of infrastructure growth and with changes to the landscape, along with an increased traffic count, it was decided to move the old bridge to Lyons Ferry. It was shipped in pieces to Lyons Ferry, where it was held in storage for a few years until reconstruction could begin. Before work to reassemble the bridge could begin, iron workers sandblasted the sections, ground out rivet holes, and straightened kinks to get the bridge to current standards. Relocating bridges was not unusual in the 19th Century when most large bridges were constructed of expensive steel. However, the practice had fallen out of favor by the middle of the 20th Century when more bridge spans were built with concrete. The Lyons Ferry Bridge is the longest bridge in Washington to be rebuilt at a location different from its original construction site, and the oldest steel cantilever highway bridge still in service in Washington State.

The Lyons Ferry Bridge appears much the same as it did at Vantage. Ten tall reinforced concrete piers were built on rock below the river's bottom. The piers are similar to the old Vantage piers. New approach spans were built and the truss was reassembled. The top and bottom chords of the truss were sloped for balance. New reinforced concrete decks were poured, and the rebuilt structure has a modern safety barrier railing. Peter Kiewit and Sons of Vancouver, Washington constructed the reinforced concrete piers. Murphy Brothers of Spokane, Washington reassembled the bridge and built the new approach spans. The cost of the entire project was $976,261 and the bridge was renamed the Lyons Ferry Bridge due to its new location, opening to traffic on December 26, 1968.

Today, the Lyons Ferry Bridge fits seamlessly into the landscape, carved not only by Ice Age flooding but also by the might of mankind. While traffic counts may be low, perhaps under 1,000 vehicles per day cross the bridge, it is a vital link in the transportation network in southeastern Washington State. If you are driving WA 261 from the north, you also get to see the Joso High Bridge (a railroad bridge) as you descend towards the Lyons Ferry Bridge. It is a magnificent bridge in its own right. A stop at the Lyons Ferry State Park, which is next to the Lyons Ferry Bridge, provided me with some great views of the bridge, along with the bluffs surrounding the Snake River and Palouse River. I found it to be a nice, quick stop, and then I crossed the bridge to continue on my day's journey.

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Sources and Links:
Reading the Washington Landscape - Lyons Ferry Bridge has Crossed Two Rivers - Lyons Ferry Bridge
Union-Bulletin - History of the Lyons Ferry Bridge and the Crossing of the Snake River (April 24, 2022)
Washington Rural Heritage - Lyons Ferry on the Snake River, southeast Washington State, circa 1915-1925 - Washington rebuilds an historic steel cantilever bridge as the Lyons Ferry Bridge across the Snake River in 1968


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