Portland, Oregon: City of Bridges, Books, Beer, Bikes and Blooms

The “Rose City’s” culture simmers in hip coffeehouses, Native American art galleries, ubiquitous bookstores and lively brewpubs. Portland is a pedestrian-friendly city that encourages exploration by bicycle or on foot.

If you get tired of walking, you can ride the only three-door elevator west of the Mississippi at Powell's City of Books. With more than a million new and used volumes, Powell's is the nation's largest independent bookstore (it occupies an entire city block). Visitors, however, don't need to worry about getting lost inside Powell's; friendly staff members distribute maps detailing the store's floor plan and sections. The bookstore has a great coffee shop, and the neighborhood is home to countless one-of-a-kind java joints.

If you prefer another type of beverage...the city’s love affair with beer stretches back more than 100 years, when Henry Weinhard proposed pumping ale through the Skidmore Fountain. Today, more than 25 craft breweries have earned Portland the nickname "Münich on the Willamette."


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Finding Bridges Between Writing, Publishing and Life

It is said that there are three stories for every book: the story the book tells, the story about the book’s effect on its readers, and the story about the publishing of the book. Portland, Oregon author and self-publisher Sharon Wood Wortman thinks there is a fourth story -- the story about how a book can alter its author. Indeed, over a period of 16 years and three editions, The Portland Bridge Book has lived up to its metaphor and been a catalyst -- and bridge -- for its author. Here, in her own words, is Sharon Wood Wortman’s bridge book story.

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As 2006 came to a close, The Portland Bridge Book was ranked on Powell’s Books website as #16 in its top 20 bestsellers. Just before Christmas, it climbed to #10. Not bad for a self-published book (I founded Urban Adventure Press in 2005 to publish small books of poetry). I am also the distributor -– not really what I had in mind when writing the book, but even this is going fine so far, one day at a time.

When our hoped-for distributor fell through, we rented a 10x20-foot air-conditioned and heated storage unit three miles from home and filled it with 12 pallets of books. I’m getting very good at handling my lightweight aluminum handtruck. Since November 20, I’ve hand-delivered or shipped $20,000 worth of books to 23 bookstores in Oregon and Washington, and now Barnes & Noble have also called requesting product.

This is the third edition of The Portland Bridge Book, and it has evolved into an entirely different book: twice as large as the first edition (1989), and 50 percent larger than the second (2001). The first edition was written when I was just Sharon Wood. It evolved from an 11-week newspaper series I’d written for The Oregonian newspaper in the spring of 1984.

After many rewrites and more research, the Oregon Historical Society Press published 5,000 copies. A small book, only 97 pages, it had no index, but whimsical drawings by Portland artist Jay Dee Alley. I started leading bridge walks for Portland Parks in 1991, and began teaching a bridge walking and bridge building class for elementary students sponsored by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in March 1993.

In November of 1993, I was writing a twenty-year anniversary story about the raising of the Fremont Bridge for The Oregonian. The Fremont was some bridge, its six thousand-ton center span put together at Swan Island, floated upstream and then lifted into place with hydraulic jacks -- the largest bridge lift of its type in the world up until that time. In the course of my research, I interviewed Ed Wortman. Ed had been the field engineer for the contractor, working with the ironworkers to put Fremont together twenty years before. Ed and I were married in 1998 next to a small pedestrian bridge near the house we live in together now in Southwest Portland. Ed contributed some to the second edition, published in 2001 (also by the Oregon Historical Society Press), and still with drawings, but not enough to add his name to the cover.

The second edition benefited from the research about the Willamette River bridges conducted for the Historic American Engineering Record, if not from the planning of the publisher. OHS Press only printed 2,500 copies and the second edition, to my dismay, went out of print in four short months. In fact, I was going to all the Portland-area Costco stores to buy up copies that cost me less than I could buy them from OHS.

This third edition, with its photographs, all the Historic American Engineering drawings, and new chapters, however, is something different -- Ed wrote the chapter, “How and Why Bridges are Built,” contributed greatly to the 198-term structural glossary, and also did most of the book's editing. Still, the cover of the third edition credits "Sharon Wood Wortman with Ed Wortman," not "Sharon Wood Wortman and Ed Wortman." One reason is that all the basic research, even in this third edition, stems from my research and writing that has spanned more than two decades, one of those decades before I met Ed. What's true, too, is that I was the driving force for starting and finishing the third edition. My poor husband, who had never been involved in any publishing project before this, was pretty dismayed at the end of the process when we were putting in 18-hour days and money was going out the door faster than a runaway barge on the Mississippi. I think Ed and I have finally fixed the out-of-print business.

About the time the Oregon Historical Society Press went out of the book publishing business entirely, we mortgaged our home for $85,000 in order to publish 8,000 books, mostly softcover. We hired James Norman to produce and design the book. Norman is the photographer who took the large format photographs found in the third edition, which were originally taken for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) when the lower Willamette River bridges were recorded for the Library of Congress in 1999, a project both Ed and I also worked on -- Ed as the engineer advising the architects rendering measured drawings, and I as one of the project’s two full-time historians. We also hired Joseph Boquiren, one of six architects from the HAER study, to illustrate cut-a-ways of the movable bridges so the reader can see how the counterweights shift in vertical lift and bascule bridges. In fact, we’ve included all the HAER drawings in the book’s appendices.

A cross between a coffee table book and a third grader’s text, this edition (225 pages) includes 100 contemporary photographs, 50 historic photographs, 25 annotated drawings, new chapter on the Sauvie Island Bridge (the first new river bridge Multnomah County has built in 50 years), chapter on How and Why Bridges are Built (by Ed), a 198-word engineering glossary localized to Portland and easy on the syllables, plus song lyrics, and poetry.

It’s a heavy book: 2.8 pounds softcover and 3.2 pounds hardcover -- heavier than some babies. When you're talking bridges, especially Portland bridges, there are many ways a story might go. When I lead walks, I say I’ve either got a pretty good scam going or there is something wonderful about Portland’s bridges -- and it’s truly the latter. Here we have examples of all three main bridge types, all three main movable bridge types, most of them only 1/3 mile apart, and safe and legal to walk across. Among 15 highway spans, we have the oldest vertical lift bridge in the world, the longest tied-arch bridge in the western hemisphere, plus one each unique Rall bascule and an industrial-strength double-decker railroad-vehicle-pedestrian lift bridge, all right here in one eye-catching stretch.

Bridges, they say, are metaphors for crossing into Heaven. Around here it’s a given that we spend our days more than halfway to Heaven. Portland, with its Willamette River drift and ladder of high bridges, has been lifting our everyday errands and missions way above street level since 1887. On winter mornings like today, cross the Fremont and Marquam bridges, high interstate bridges that bookend the story that’s my hometown, and you’ll find yourself driving through some tall clouds. According to our citizens with gephyrophobia (see p. 165 in the Glossary), however, our arrangement of bridges is not always a blessing.

Love them or hate them, it’s a subject people everywhere have strong opinions about. While I was finishing the third edition, I almost killed myself putting together a grant proposal for the Regional Arts and Culture Council – and I got it! I knew the one thing this edition lacked was my bridge walking itineraries. Because of the grant, I’ll be able to design and publish Walking Portland’s Bridges Using Poetry as a Compass. This self-guided walking tour will include poems about bridges written by Northwest poets who have been featured on my bridge walks for Portland Parks this past year. Though it wasn’t designed for this reason, I think this little book of poetry/bridge walking itineraries will help sell the bigger book. Powell’s Bookstore has already booked a reading from this next book for November 21, just in time for Christmas sales.

I have no idea of how far a bridge can go. Looking back, the bridges have been a means of many avenues for earning money and carving out a career as Portland’s “Bridge Lady,” my nickname with school children (last year I took almost 2,500 people bridge walking). Meeting Ed, however, was like winning the love lottery. Nothing else in my evolution with bridges can compare with the way Ed has engineered my heart’s capacity for more than 13 years now.

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About the author: Born near Willamette River Mile 26 (Oregon City), Sharon Wood Wortman is a first generation Far West American. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from Linfield College in 1993, and a Master’s of Education from the University of Portland in 1998.

About the book:

The Portland Bridge Book (3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded)

By Sharon Wood Wortman with Ed Wortman Urban Adventure Press

225 page softcover; ISBN: 0978736516 

A richly detailed history of the bridges spanning the Willamette and Columbia Rivers in Portland, Oregon, with over 175 photographs and illustrations.