The river that lent its name to Spokane has also been a barrier to the development of the city. No sooner was Spokane established than city fathers looked for places to bridge the raging currents. Today's Monroe Street Bridge, a Spokane landmark, is the third bridge on this site.
The first Monroe Street Bridge was constructed of wood and built with horses and wagons in mind. The city, the Cable Railway Company, and property owners along Monroe Street split the cost of $42,500.00 to build the bridge. A new Monroe Street Bridge constructed of steel was completed in 1890. The steel bridge represented a step towards modernity, and was completed just in time to accommodate an unprecedented time of expansion for the city. The bridge boasted updates such as overhead lighting and the ability to accommodate doubled-tracked streetcars. But the new bridge soon became a source of controversy.
It was immediately apparent that the bridge vibrated heavily, perhaps dangerously, with any sort of traffic. In 1905 the bridge was deemed unsafe by National Good Roads Association, and the next year a bridge expert labeled the bridge an accident waiting to happen: "Should a street car run off the track, or a bunch of steers be driven over it, the whole thing might collapse." In 1907 the elephants of the Ringling Brother's Circus refused to walk across the shaky span. Three years later the south side of the bridge collapsed after a mudslide.
Spokane had plenty of trouble with its bridges in those days. In 1915, the Division Street Bridge collapsed, dropping a street car into the river resulting in 5 deaths and twelve injuries. These tragedies fueled an intense demand for safer concrete-arch bridges.
A grand new Monroe Street Bridge was designed by Spokane City Engineer John Chester Ralston, and Spokane's most celebrated architects: Kirtland K. Cutter and Karl G. Malmgren. Construction over the 140-feet deep and 1,500 feet wide gorge was challenged by severe windstorms, high water levels, and swift-moving currents. Two laborers died and over fifty were injured. Ralston was removed from the project after he was accused of stealing the design from Rocky River Bridge in Cleveland, and replaced by his assistant. Today's Monroe Street Bridge opened November 23, 1911 with over 3,000 Spokane citizens on hand to celebrate. It was the world's largest concrete arch-bridge.
In 1914, just a few years after completion of this visual landmark, the city fathers permitted a railroad bridge to be built right over the top of it, marring the beauty of the structure. The Great Northern railroad bridge remained in place for over half a century, until it was removed as part of the preparations for Expo 74.
Today the Monroe Street Bridge today looks very much as it did in 1911, thanks to the removal of the railroad bridge and a 2003-2005 reconstruction project. Reconstruction was necessary because by the 1990s the bridge had begun to drop large chucks of concrete into the river below. The rebuilding preserved the structural features from the original 1911 design, including Cutter and Malmgren's life-size buffalo skulls, wagon wheels, wagon pavilions, and chain handrails that embody the pioneer spirit of Spokane's earliest settlers.