BOISE, Idaho — When the Oregon Trail Memorial Bridge opened in 1931, Boise and the country were in the midst of the Great Depression. The city threw a party anyway. Businesses and city offices closed for part of the day. Residents paraded. Musicians played a concert in the 3-year-old Julia Davis bandshell.
The Idaho Statesman raved, describing the bridge as a “masterful work of art” with “glistening white concrete sides that reflect the sun’s rays.”
The Capitol Boulevard bridge spans the Boise River between Boise State’s campus and the Cabin literary center, near the spot where pioneers crossed. It is glistening again, thanks to a restoration project that began in 2013, Boise’s sesquicentennial year.
The project is now complete. The final touch — the installation of six lights below street level on the bridge’s piers — casts a glow onto the water, just as the designer, State Bridge Engineer Charles H. Kyle, intended.
Boise craftsman Greg Marsters re-created the lower pier lights based on an image from a 1925 catalog.
“No one knows when the originals were lost, or where they’ve gone,” said Marsters.
The original lights were cast iron. Anticipating modern wear and tear, Marsters made the new fixtures out of steel. But they have the same silhouette and character as the originals.
He based his re-creation of the lights that are higher up, at street level, on the bridge’s original blueprints.
All the new lights have the best of both worlds. They look old but have been updated to accommodate energy-saving LED fixtures.
The bridge got a structural remodel in the late 1980s, when the original light poles were replaced with less substantial ones. Marsters re-created the old ones, studying the originals that now lie in a pile of salvage at the Idaho Botanical Garden.
New paint and teamwork
The desire to restore the bridge to its 1930s appearance has been on radar screens for a long time, said Terri Schorzman, director of the Boise Department of Arts and History.
Schorzman said getting the project done was a team effort. The Ada County Highway District, the bridge’s official steward, came up with $230,000 to repaint it. The city provided around $30,000 through a neighborhood reinvestment grant to help pay for the lights and poles. The Idaho Heritage Trust gave $5,000 for the lights. Arts and History came up with a couple thousand dollars to clean the bridge’s Works Progress Administration tile and bronze work, and to create medallions that will be set into the bridge to commemorate the city’s 150th anniversary.
A small number of the medallions will be for sale in the future, said Schorzman.
The city’s Public Works and Planning and Development Services departments also were involved. Parks and Recreation cleaned the riverbank and cut back foliage to make the improvements more visible.
Getting the details right
It took some time to figure out what color the bridge should be, said Schorzman. Longtime Boise architect Charles Hummel told Schorzman the bridge’s original “glisten” probably came from the aggregates in concrete, rather than paint.
Staffers in Schorzman’s department took swatches of different shades of white paint to the bridge several times to figure out the best color. They settled on Ivory Lace.
“It’s a beautiful, rich white that picks up color from the sky,” said Schorzman.
Mike Hedge, city lighting technician, said it was a challenge to make sure that Marsters’ re-created light fixtures meshed smoothly with new LED systems, and that the manufacturer would provide a warranty for the lights in the fixtures.
“It took a little time and patience before everyone was happy,” he said.
The bridge’s lights operate on a photo cell that automatically turns them on when it gets dark.
The pier lights will be especially effective when the river flow is high, Hedge said.
It’s impossible to duplicate the exact color of the light from the bridge’s original incandescent bulbs, said Marsters. But the overall effect of the restoration is that the bridge now looks much as it did on opening day.
The city is planning a dedication in the spring.