Cable bridge celebrates 30 years of suspense

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerSeptember 14, 2008 

A web of cables has kept four lanes of asphalt suspended over the Columbia River between Kennewick and Pasco for 30 years.

Since opening to traffic Sept. 16, 1978, thousands of motorists have driven across the picturesque span. Many are aware of its aesthetic beauty but few cognizant that the bridge is the legacy of Pasco insurance salesman Ed Hendler, who spent one-seventh of his life trying to get it built.

The cable bridge was a $30 million project, 11 years in the making, says Hendler's son, Jeff, of Pasco.

Sharp-eyed motorists can notice a weathered brass plaque mounted in a stone base on the Pasco side of the bridge that credits Hendler, a former mayor and city council member.

"I was in high school when the whole thing started. I went with my dad on speeches to civic groups. He wanted to have a new bridge that would revitalize the downtowns of Pasco and Kennewick," Jeff Hendler said.

There were two bridges over the river in the late 1960s between Pasco and Kennewick. The Pioneer Bridge, known today as the blue bridge, was completed in 1954. Further east was the two-lane green bridge, which was nearly a half-century old and so narrow that oncoming vehicles' side view mirrors could touch while passing.

Hendler believed a new bridge would be safer and draw more traffic to the downtown areas, his son said.

Hendler promoted his idea from Olympia to Washington, D.C., eventually persuading government officials to put up lots of money.

Pasco and Kennewick put in $210,000 each, and the counties contributed $420,000 each as matching funds. And because the federal transportation officials considered the green bridge one of the 10 most dangerous in the nation, Hendler's bridge became eligible for federal bridge replacement money, Jeff Hendler said.

Originally intended as a two-lane project, Hendler managed to round up more money and got two more lanes for the bridge.

Gary Crutchfield, city manager for Pasco, remembers how pleased Hendler was to get the federal government to back the bridge.

"He was very proud he got the feds to fund it. He convinced them it was a prototype of a bridge that would be the first of its kind built in the U.S.," Crutchfield said.

In fact, the bridge was the first cable suspension bridge, of European design, to be built in the U.S.

The bridge today is known as the cable bridge. But for the first 18 years of its existence, the official name was the Pasco-Kennewick Inter-City Bridge. Large plaques on the bases list the names of every council member and mayor in the two cities who served in office during the decadelong project.

Credit to Hendler, who led all the way, was shared with many others who did much less. It was a bitter time for the family, Jeff Hendler said.

But time passed, and Hendler eventually got his due one April day in 1995 at the statehouse in Olympia.

Hendler, then 73, had been coerced to accompany Leonard Dietrich of Pasco to attend a legislative session. When they arrived, legislators surprised Hendler by officially renaming the bridge after him.

State Rep. Shirley Hankins engineered the surprise, with help from Sen. Pat Hale and Sid Morrison, then secretary of the state Department of Transportation.

"It was the first thing in his life he didn't orchestrate," Morrison told the Herald at the time.

No celebrations are planned for the 30th anniversary this week, but there was a big party when the bridge opened to traffic in 1978.

Jeff Hendler has several silver and gold coin medallions that were made just for the occasion. The silvers, made from two ounces of sterling, were given to the sponsors of the dedication event, about 100 in all.

And the solid gold ones were made especially for the contractor, Peter Kiewitt and Sons, the architect and engineering firm, Arvid Grant Company, and for Hendler, who was chairman of the Inter-City Bridge Committee.

There were supposed to be just three, but Jeff Hendler has a secret he feels is safe to tell.

Hendler had three more gold coin medallions made that he gave to each of his three sons.

"No one was supposed to know," Jeff Hendler said as he opened display boxes showing the silver and gold objects, each depicting the bridge.

Thanks to their father, the sons now have gold heirlooms to pass on to four grandsons, Jeff Hendler said.

Then there is the story about the first accident on the bridge.

Jeff Hendler said his father took his wife on a Sunday drive across the completed, yet unopened span in September 1978. He easily moved the barriers on the Pasco side to get onto the bridge, but was unable to move the heavier barriers on the Kennewick side to complete the crossing.

Dismayed, Ed Hendler got back into the family car and began to back it up, unaware that his son Jeff, had pulled up close behind in a second vehicle.

The resulting bumper bender was the first accident on the newly constructed bridge, and the guilty driver was the man who got it built.

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