by Margaret O’Hartigan, King Neighborhood resident and author of the walking guide “Walnut Park Revealed”.

Portland owes its existence to the Willamette and Columbia rivers, and the people who make their living on those waters despite the very real risks that work entails. Accidents – sometimes fatal – occur. The following is an account of an accident which luckily resulted in no physical injuries to anyone.

On the evening of January 31, 1941, the 5500-ton steamer Coast Miller collided with the Burnside Bridge. Five cargo booms, the mainmast and the stack on the 336-foot long ship were damaged. The bridge was out of commission for hours with the west portion of the drawspan elevated 5 feet by the impact of the ship.

The operator of the bridge was W.A. Wrenn – a resident of what is now King neighborhood – who’d  worked at the bridge for 13 years, six of them as operator.

The ship had been under the guidance of Columbia river pilot M.A. Cloninger. According to Cloninger, he was downstream of the Steel Bridge at the time he whistled for the Burnside Bridge to open. But Wrenn maintained that the Coast Miller was upstream of the Steel Bridge at the time it whistled, and that the Burnside then failed to respond to Wrenn’s operation of the levers. Cloninger asserted that the bridge only signaled an alarm when the ship was within 15 feet of the it , and that he’d already reversed engines and dropped the ship’s stern anchors. 

The gears of the Burnside Bridge; photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Four days later, the Burnside Bridge failed once again to open for an approaching vessel, but in this case the pilot managed to stop the ship before striking it. A preliminary investigation the following day was conducted by District Attorney James Bain.

The ship’s master — Captain L.A. Rasmussen — and Cloninger both testified that the bridge had opened but then lowered as the ship approached. Various members of the ship’s crew corroborated that testimony.

Supposition of sabotage — based on a finding that the electric switches controlling the bridge drawspans had been pulled open and that the bridge was consequently inoperable  — was derided by both master and pilot.

Commander John Beckwith, chairman of the state board of pilot commissioners, called the bridge a “menace to navigation”.

On February 18, Lieutenant-Colonel C.R. Moore with the Army Corps of Engineers submitted a report to the Multnomah County Commission which did not address any possible cause of mechanical failure, opting instead to simply suggest that a danger signal be sent immediately to approaching vessels upon the first indication that anything appeared to be amiss.

 Damage to the Coast Miller resulted in $22,810 for repairs, according to R.W. Tucker of the board of marine underwriters in San Francisco, and repair work occurred at the Albina Engine & Machineworks.

Coastwise Line – owner of the Coast Miller – filed a claim for $50,000 against Multnomah County for damages, contending negligent operation of the bridge.

While the Burnside Bridge continues to operate to this day, the Coast Miller wasn’t so lucky. One of 86 ships loaned to the Soviet Union during World War II, it was illegally retained by the Communists after the war, and as of June 1949 was reported by Charles Marshall — general manager of the United States Maritime Commission – to be irretrievably lost.

— Photos courtesy of wikimedia: – Taken by User:Cacophony., CC BY-SA 2.5,