When People Lived on The Steel Bridge. A fictional history.

The Steel Bridge might just be one of the most interesting bridges in Portland. Firstly, they didn’t really name it – but rather described it. The Steel Bridge is the only bridge in Portland that allows two types of rail traffic (Light Rail on the main deck, Heavy Rail on the bottom), as well as cars also on the main deck. Add the fact that both decks have a pedestrian and bike way, and you’ve got a transportation hub across the Willamette River.

Another curiosity of the Steel Bridge, it’s the only public bridge in Portland which is not owned by a municipal agency, such as ODOT or Multnomah County. The Steel Bridge is actually owned by the railroad company! Because of this, the Steel Bridge operators were not under the same rules as those who operated any other bridge in the city. In an experiment, the operator would live in the machine house on top of the bridge. So when the bridge opened in 1912, there was a person on duty 24/7 – even in the middle of the night.

The man’s name was John Slythmore, and he had a daughter Shelly. They lived in Pendleton until a stampede of spooked cattle killed his wife on her father’s ranch. Slythmore needed a new start, so when this job was created, and came complete with housing, he couldn’t resist the opportunity.

There was a few drawbacks to the job. One, he couldn’t just have anyone come to his house. The railroad company had dangerous machinery in the Slythmore’s dwelling, so any visitors had to be cleared by the railroad company. His elderly mother was actually denied permission as the railroad company didn’t know if she could make the steep climb up the stairs to the machine house.

Slythmore also couldn’t leave… or if he did, he had to get a “sitter” for the bridge. Luckily, the Railroad company allowed him this privilege several times a week. Another drawback to his new job – Slythmore was constantly getting woken up in the middle of the night as ships wanted to get past the bridge at late hours.

Slythmore’s daughter, Shelly, loved living in the machine house though. She loved climbing up and down the stairs everytime she needed to go to school or wherever else. Several times the police were called, as motorists on the upper deck saw a little 9 year old girl ascending and descending the steep stairs to and from the machine house. Child services were called many times, and every time Slythmore had to explain to cops and social workers and everyone else that they lived there.

Shelly also loved it when her dad had to raise the top deck of the bridge. It was like an amusement park ride to her. Sometimes she’d jump up and down as the bridge raised. This was her favorite thing to do.

Of course – one day, Shelly fell while the bridge raised, and ended up with a nasty scrape as she fell into some of the machinery. John had to rush her to nearby Good Samaritan hospital, for stitches. The hospital wanted to know how the little girl got a cut on a piece of machinery. Slythmore explained his living situation and job. Still, a nurse felt like this was no place for a child and blabbed to social services. This was the beginning of the end for the Slythmore’s living on a bridge.

More social workers were called, and this time they went to the railroad company. They expressed their concerns about a little girl living in the machine house. The railroad was understanding, and eventually told Slythmore that he couldn’t live on top of the bridge anymore.

John wasn’t left out in the cold though. Yes, his living situation and even employment was terminated. Still – one of the railroad locals had a buddy with the county – and the nearby Burnside Bridge needed an operator. So Slythmore got the job, and even ended up making more money. Still – the adventure that both John and Shelly had living on top of the bridge was now just a memory. Shelly would visit her dad in his new workplace from time to time, but it wasn’t the same. The operator’s room was on top of a short tower, and did not lift with the bridge. It wasn’t even the same type of bridge, as the Burnside Bridge is a bascule bridge, and the Steel Bridge is, of course, a vertical lift bridge.

Oh – but this story has a surprise ending! One day, while Slythemore was at his post on the Burnside Bridge, a woman crashed a brand new Model T Roadster into the side of the bridge. Slythmore rushed to the woman’s rescue! She was fine, and as a thank you, she invited Sythmore to dinner. A year later, they were married. Shelly adored her step-mother, and the three lived happily ever after.


This, as always, is a work of Fiction. The characters of Shelly and John Slythmore are fictional. To my knowledge, know one has ever lived on top of the Steel bridge. Nor would it be safe to do so.