The Astoria-Megler Bridge that connects Astoria, Oregon, with Washington state is an engineering marvel. At 4.1 miles long, it is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America.
Before the bridge was built, moving people and goods across the river to the Washington town of Megler was a much different proposition.
“All there was between Oregon and Washington was a wooden ferry that made a half dozen trips a day,” Astoria businessman Jeff Daly said.
“There are certain things you’re going to bring across on a small ferry boat, and there’s things you’re not going to bring across on a ferry boat,” said Mac Burns, Clatsop County Historical Society Executive Director.
Not the most efficient way to cross the river. But it worked.
In the mid-1950s a group of Astoria businesspeople got their heads together and hatched a crazy plan.
“A lawyer. A doctor. There was even a dairy farmer among the group. There was a dozen of them. They got together with one goal in mind and that was to build a bridge.” Jeff said.
He’s the son of one of those early bridge promoters.
“They thought about it and they thought about it and they said, ‘You know what? If we get some of those people from Washington to come here on a bridge, they’d spend a lot more time here and a lot more money,” Jeff said.
The story goes that when Salem politicians heard about this effort, someone said something to the effect of, “Those clowns in Astoria think they’re gonna get a bridge.”
Well, now they had some attention and the Astoria Clowns were born. They made clown outfits and bought an old hearse from a local funeral home and began their campaign of awareness.
“They weren’t trying to raise the money. They were just trying to get everybody to say, ‘Let’s build it,” Jeff said.
And so they hit the road, taking their message around Oregon.
The clowns took part in special events and parades all over the state for years, spreading the message that Astoria needed a bridge.
“My dad was on every weekend as an Astoria clown. This group of guys, they would get in this old ’48 Chrysler and they would sometimes do three parades in one day. They would drive down the coastline to Florence. Then they would drive up to Salem and then they might end up in Bend that night for a final parade,” Jeff said. “Their sole concept, their whole goal was to promote the idea of building the bridge.”
The old hearse got repurposed as the Astoria Clown calling card.
“The Astoria Clowns bought this from the local mortuary here for $450. That painted it fluorescent orange,” Jeff said. “And they had a message they painted on the side of the doors which was, ‘Let’s build the bridge.’
“But it was a community effort. They came together and thought, ‘If we could do this for our town, this will put our town on the map.’”
The Astoria Clowns’ 10-year effort to garner statewide support for a bridge across the Columbia River ultimately paid off. The governments of Washington and Oregon heard the clowns’ message and agreed.
Construction of the bridge began in 1962. It would be another four years until the old ferry was retired and drydocked.
And to think it all started with a bunch of clowns and a crazy idea.
“But a dozen guys were able to add a piece of America to the United States, which is a continuation of Highway 101. Who else could build a bridge with a bunch of clowns?” Jeff said.