Season 11, Episode 02
Re-Imagined Radio presents "A Mighty Span" to celebrate opening the Interstate Bridge linking Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River, 106 years ago, February 14, 1917.
We sample from early radio news dramatization programs, like The March of Time, You Are There, and Stroke of Fate before offering our dramatized radio broadcast from the lift span of the Interstate Bridge where state and local leaders delivered speeches. The ribbon was cut. The bridge was officially opened. Automobiles and pedestrians moved across the new bridge, back and forth between Oregon and Washington. Based on newspaper accounts and other historical records, we hope our radio storytelling engages listeners such that they can imagine being on the Interstate Bridge the day of its opening, and experiencing some of the spectacle and pride associated with opening this mighty span across the Columbia River.
Optimized for radio broadcast.
Eric Newsome as Announcer
Toni Lima as Cameron Cameron, reporter
Eli Campbell as Carrie Phillips, reporter
Ira Kourtum as Mr. Joseph Joseph, construction superintendent
Martin John Gallagher as Rufus Holman, Multnomah County Commissioner
Chris Porter as James Withycombe, Oregon Governor
Todd Tolces as H. Russell Albee, Portland Mayor
Mayor Timothy Levitt as Milton Evans, Vancouver Mayor
Curt Hanson as Edgar B. Piper, editor of The Oregonian
Sam A. Mowry as Frank Branch Riley, organizing committee
John Barber as Sam Hill, "Roadmaster of the Northwest"
Written, Produced, and Hosted by John F. Barber
Sound Design and Post Production of original "A Mighty Span" segement by Martin John Gallagher
Sound Design, Music, and Post Production by Marc Rose of Fuse Audio Design
Promotional Graphics by Holly Slocum Design
The Interstate Bridge, AKA Columbia River Interstate Bridge, Portland-Vancouver Interstate Bridge, Vancouver-Portland Bridge, and I-5 Bridge, was opened 14 February 1917. It was the first automobile bridge across the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, and only the second to span the river, after the Wenatchee Bridge, built in 1908. The name, "Interstate Bridge," described its location, at the border of Oregon and Washington, and its function, to carry traffic across the Columbia River, which divided the two states.
To be completley honest, there was no radio coverage, or broadcast, associated with the bridge opening ceremonies. In fact, there was no radio technology available in Washington or Oregon when the Interstate Bridge was opened. The first American radio broadcast of speech might have been 23 December 1900 by Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor known for his pioneering experiments with radio, while working for the United States Weather Bureau at Rock Point, Maryland. The first radio station was established in 1920 as KDKA, owned and operated by Westinghouse Corporation, East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In November 1920, KDKA broadcast returns for the Presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. The earliest voice broadcast from Portland was 20 March 1921 by Charles Austin. One of Portland's first radio station licenses was granted to The Portland Telegram who offered their first broadcast on 21 November 1921. The Oregonian was granted the ninety-eighth radio license issued in the United States and began broadcasting as KGW on 22 March 1922. Vancouver's first radio station, KVAN, began broadcasting in 1939. See Portland's Radio History for an excellent account of radio and television history in Portland, Oregon.
Despite the lack of radio coverage, reports and editorials published in Washington and Oregon newspapers about the opening of the Interstate Bridge provide many historical details about the ceremony, the setting, and what was seen and heard. With speeches by community and state leaders, the opening ceremony itself, a parade of automobiles, marching bands, and several thousand pedestrians moving throughout downtown Vancouver, sounds and sights were abundant.
Re-Imagined Radio tried to capture the sounds and sights in this imagined live radio broadcast. For example, we moved all speeches to the bridge in order to maintain the bridge as the focus of the listening context and to maintain the timeframe of the opening ceremony. Quoted remarks of the speakers were used as reported. We placed a fictional news commentator on the bridge, near the temporary platform, where he could see and hear the speeches and other events. A mobile reporter was at the south end of the bridge, the Oregon side. Another was at the north end, in Vancouver, Washington. Remarks by the news commentator and the two reporters were created from research of historical records.
NOTE: The information below about The Interstate Bridge, its background, details, and timeline is abbreviated. For a more thorough exploration see the Interstate Bridge segement of The Historic Pacific Highway in Washington website, maintained by Curt Cunningham.
Built and owned by Multnomah County, Oregon, and Clark County, Washington, the Interstate Bridge was purchased by the states of Oregon and Washington in 1928.
The original bridge, the current northbound portion of the twin pair, was 3,538 feet in length, and comprised of thirteen steel spans with three measuring 275 feet in length and the remaining ten measuring 265 feet. One of the 275 foot spans was a vertical lift capable of rising upwards 136 feet between towers that rise 190 feet above the roadway. When fully raised, the span provides 176 feet of clearance for river traffic, below.
The steel bridge was built atop pile caps, concrete slabs surrounding the tops of wooden pilings driven approximately seventy feet into the river bottom.
The original paved roadway was thirty-eight feet wide, with a five foot sidewalk.
Total cost: $1,700,000, which included the cost of approaches, lights, fences, and other features.
A toll of 5 cents per vehicle, or horse and rider, was charged from opening day, and continued until 1928, when the bridge was purchased from Multnomah and Clark counties by the states of Oregon and Washington.
Electric streetcars ran back and forth across the bridge from opening day until 3 September 1940. A dual-gauge track bed accommodated the different track gauges of the Portland and Vancouver streetcar lines. Before the bridge, Portland offered a Vancouver streetcar line which ran to Hayden Island. From there, passengers boarded a ferry owned and operated by the streetcar line, and continued across the Columbia River to Vancouver.
Prior to 1915
Traffic across the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, was handled by a ferry system operated by the Pacific Railway, Power & Light Company. The ferry itself, City of Vancouver, was overcrowded. Citizens in both Portland and Vancouver advocated for a bridge to connect their cities, and states.
Construction began in March, with money from the sale of bonds in Multnomah and Clark Counties.
14 February 1917
Bridge opened as a single bridge, the one currently carrying northbound traffic. Shortly before the bridge opened, two streets in North Portland, Maryland Avenue and Patton Avenue, planned as the main route to and from the bridge, were renamed Interstate Avenue. The bridge deck included a roadway for automobiles, a walkway for pedestrians, and tracks for electric streetcars. Toll charges were used to repay the construction costs.
The bridge became part of the new Interstate 5, itself part of the national Interstate Highway System.
A second, twin bridge opened (the one currently carrying southbound traffic). The new bridge was built with a longer (531 feet) humped section mid-span that provided seventy-two feet of vertical clearance for river traffic, thus minimizing bridge openings. With the new bridge open, the original bridge was closed for rebuilding to give it a matching humped section.
Both bridges opened concurrently. Tolls were reinstated: 20 cents for cars, 40 cents for light trucks, and 60 cents for heavy trucks and buses. Tolls were removed in 1966 after construction costs were repaid.
Interstate Bridge added to the National Register of Historic Places as the "Portland-Vancouver Highway Bridge."
Our radio storytelling with this episode was influenced by early experiments with news reporting and commentary. In the 1920s, the first decade of radio broadcasting, radio producers sought to define the new medium, and attract listeners. Previously, the only way to share an experience with others was to attend it together. But radio broadcasting changed that dynamic with its ability to share content with listeners across the country. These listeners, although separated by distance, and sitting in their own homes, could share listening experiences together, at the same time, by listening to radio programs.
But what types of content would make for compelling communal listening experiences? Music, reading of literature, and drama were early radio favorites.
News was more difficult. The lack of international telephone networks made live, on-the-scene radio news reporting technologically difficult. Location recordings were impossible. Potential listeners were accustomed to getting their news from reading newspapers. How to get them to listen to news on the radio?
One answer was to read the news for listeners, and comment. An early example of this approach is Pop Question, a 1924 radio quiz program conducted by Briton Hadden, who co-founded Time magazine with Henry Luce, in March 1923. Although no recordings are known to exist, one imagines contestants being asked questions about current news events drawn from the pages of Time magazine.
H.V. Kaltenborn, son of a German aristocrat and Harvard University graduate, became radio's first news superstar. He was heard first in 1925, on a program called Kaltenborn Edits the News offering his analysis of news events, often without a prepared script, but always in a clipped, autocratic style, often casually crossing the line between news and opinion. Kaltenborn remained the definitive radio news analyst into the 1940s.
In February 1930, Floyd Phillips Gibbons (1887-1939) began providing news commentary on an NBC, National Broadcasting Company, program called Literary Digest, sponsored by and named for the respected American general interest weekly magazine.
Gibbons came to national attention while reporting the 1916 skirmishes between Francisco (Pancho) Villa and the U.S. Army under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, who led an invasion of Mexico to capture Villa.
During World War I, as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Gibbons reported from European battlefields, was wounded at the Battle of Belleau Wood, and lost his left eye while rescuing wounded Marines.
In his written accounts, Gibbons conveyed the adventures he was living. This approach carried over to his first radio role as a "storyteller" on station WGN, owned by the Chicago Tribune. Fast living and fast talking, Gibbons recounted his World War I adventures at speeds up to 217 words a minute.
Then, there was Lowell Thomas, well known for his public lectures about Thomas Edward Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," a British Army captain noted for his role encouraging Arabs of Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula to revolt against the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Thomas began his career as a radio news commentator September 9, 1930, hosting a competing version of Literary Digest for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Network. Within six months Literary Digest dropped its sponsorship of the CBS newscast and replaced Gibbons with Thomas at NBC.
From there, Lowell Thomas and the News became a radio institution, with 2.4 million people listening each weekday evening.
Thomas is credited with establishing modern journalism and as the first newsman to break his program into three now-familiar news categories: international, national, and local.
Beyond readers, commentators, and analysts, another approach to radio news was dramatization.
In September 1928, Roy Edward Larsen, then circulation manager and radio producer for Time magazine, collaborated with Fred Smith, General Manager of WLW radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, to start a radio news venture called NewsCasting, which featured daily, ten minute news briefs read by an announcer from the pages of Time magazine. NewsCasting was offered to thirty-three radio stations around the country.
The following year, 1929, Larsen and Smith created a new program of ten minutes of recorded dramatizations of current news featuring professional actors and sound effects. They called their new program NewsActing.
Later that year, Larsen and Smith combined their two programs into a fifteen minute radio show of both read and dramatized news reporting. This new iteration of NewsActing was offered free of charge to radio stations in exchange for their broadcasting advertising for Time magazine.
The most memorable radio news dramatization program was The March of Time. Launched by Larsen and Smith and broadcast on CBS radio, The March of Time used actors skilled in dialects and voice patterns of news personalities, sound effects, and music to present dramatizations of news events.
The first episode, broadcast March 6, 1931, began with the announcer describing the intent of the program, "TONIGHT, THE EDITORS OF TIME, THE WEEKLY NEWS MAGAZINE, ATTEMPT A NEW KIND OF REPORTING OF THE NEWS, THE RE-ENACTING AS CLEARLY AND DRAMATICALLY AS THE MEDIUM OF RADIO WILL PERMIT, SOME THEMES FROM THE NEWS OF THE WEEK. FROM THE MARCH OF TIME. FROM EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD COME NEWS FACTS ABOUT POLITICS AND SCIENCE. PEOPLE, TIME AND RELIGION. ART AND ECONOMICS. THERE IS ONE PUBLICATION WHICH WATCHES, ANALYZES AND EVERY SEVEN DAYS REPORTS THE MARCH OF HUMAN HISTORY ON ALL ITS FRONTS. IT IS THE WEEKLY NEWS MAGAZINE, TIME. TONIGHT, WITH THE MARCH OF TIME AND A NEW KIND OF REPORTING OF THE NEWS, LET'S REVIEW SOME OF THE DRAMATIC EVENTS OF THE WEEK."
The March of Time was the pioneer news dramatization series, and is often cited as the best such program ever to be heard on radio. Production values were high. Research was exacting. The format for each episode featured between seven to eight reenactments of memorable news events, each 90 seconds to four minutes in length. A fast-talking narrator provided terse comments between the reenactments. This narrator was known as "The Voice of Time." The earliest "voices" were Harry Von Zell and Ted Husing. The best known voice was Westbrook Van Voorhis.
The March of Time continued to reenact news events into the 1940s, when evolving technologies made communication between distant parts of the world more practical. Dramatizations were phased out, and replaced by news actualities as much as possible. Hundreds of Time reporters around the world were expected to broadcast live interviews and reports from the scene of developing news.
The March of Time series ended in 1945. Two years later, in 1947, another program of dramatized news events, CBS Is There, picked up the legacy of The March of Time and carried it forward.
Created by Goodman Ace (noted for Easy Aces, a long-running serial comedy), early episodes of CBS Is There began with the announcer intoning, "COLUMBIA ASKS YOU TO IMAGINE THAT OUR MICROPHONE IS AT THIS FAMOUS EVENT. ALL THINGS ARE AS THEY WERE THEN, EXCEPT FOR ONE THING, CBS IS THERE!"
The program name was changed to You Are There with the broadcast of episode 28, May 2, 1948.
No matter the series name, episodes were presented as thirty-minute news broadcasts, complete with on-the-scene reporters and commentators. Each was designed to bring past historical events to radio audiences.
The historical information was accurate. The narrative believable. The dialogue in character. Relying on verified historical facts, sound effects, and the professional CBS news staff, episodes sounded like live reports of current events. John Daly, Richard C. Hottelet, and Don Hollenbeck, noted for their overseas reporting during World War II, and other distinguished reporters, provided narration. Some episodes featured Major George Fielding Eliot, military expert for CBS radio.
Episodes were crafted as realistic, believable, and immersive experiences. Each episode placed a news commentator and mobile reporters at the scene of an historical event. Historical accuracy and realistic sound effects were hallmarks of the series. Both contributed to a sense of hearing the events live as they unfolded. The intended result was to make listeners feel present at an historic event, hearing it unfold.
Re-Imagined Radio modeled its production of "A Mighty Span" on You Are There, and its sense of "being present at the center of the news."
Re-Imagined Radio celebrates the story of the Interstate Bridge. ClarkCountyToday.com, 6 Feb. 2023.
Re-Imagined Radio. City of Vancouver.
"Re-Imagined Radio celebrates story of I-5 Bridge with 'A Mighty Span.'” The Columbian, Events, n.d.
Seekamp, William. Radio Show Takes Us Back to the Opening of Interstate Bridge: A "Mighty Span" Celebrates Its History and Heritage in Monday Broadcast. The Columbian, C1, C5, 19 Feb. 2023.
Print article is slightly compressed for online version.
Vondersmith, Jason. Short List: Portland events include "Young Americans" by Lauren Yee at The Armory. Portland Tribune, 15 Feb. 2023.
See "Our Bridge" at the bottom of this article.
A Mighty Span web poster by Holly Slocum (240 x 356)
A Mighty Span cover graphic by Holly Slocum (820 x 360)
A Mighty Span landscape poster by Holly Slocum (1910 x 1080)
A Mighty Span square poster by Holly Slocum (2000 x 2000)
A Mighty Span full poster by Holly Slocum (2000 x 3000)