Drive down any freeway in the state, and you’ll see the same dull gray pavement, with tarry black repairs. The roads look the same on both sides of the mountains and whether they are on dry land or bridges. We’ve come to take these roads and bridges for granted, to the point where we can estimate to within minutes just how long a trip ought to take. But it wasn’t always so.
After they offed the Astorians, the Hudsons Bay Company established routes that provided for the safe distribution of trade goods and transportation of furs gathered over an entire year. In auspicious places, the English built forts to store the furs that came from far north in what is now British Columbia, and from the Snake River country and Montana. Fort Spokan, Fort Walla Walla and Fort Okinagan provided relief to travelers making their way across what is now Eastern Washington. But here’s the rub: travelers moving upriver had to have horses. They followed trails established by the Native Americans, wending their ways across the interior, far from the rivers and following creeks that were often meager, polluted or salty. It took ages. It was on the return trip that canoes could be used to speed through the rapids to an eventual meeting with parties from other regions, to pass with the safety of numbers through the last challenges of the Columbia River Narrows near The Dalles, Oregon.
Well past the fur trade era, though, travelers still had the challenge of crossing the Columbia to get where they needed to go. Native Americans had long since divined the best places and the best ways to make the crossing. Using canoes fashioned from timber far up the river, they exploited eddies in the current to make the crossing easier. One such crossing was at White Bluffs, where the Big Eddy provided a boost to crossing the river. Ferries continued to use the Big Eddy route for decades after Native American canoes had disappeared.
As technology improved, ferries required less of an assist from natural currents. Motorized ferries could be placed wherever it was convenient. Older ferries were replaced by motorized versions.
It should be remembered that the ferries weren’t really as important as the river boats were. Supplies and passengers continued to rely on river boats until the road systems and railroads were improved enough to make river traffic obsolete.
When the Milwaukee Road developed a spur line to Hanford, river transportation was doomed. Regular service to White Bluffs and Hanford by rail meant that boats could no longer provide the type of service that residents of those communities wanted.
But railroad transport wasn’t the be-all and end-all. As early as the 1920s bridges over the Columbia River were being built. The road system might have been rough and unreliable, but the Columbia was no longer a barrier to cross-state travel after the Vantage Bridge was built.
Washington State prides itself on its ferry system, but those ferries are mostly located in Puget Sound these days. Until recently, though, river crossings like the one at Vernita were supported by ferries. The Vernita Bridge replaced the old ferry in 1965.