About the Willamette Light Brigade

In response to a citizen request in 1986 to enhance the Hawthorne Bridge (by painting it indigo), County Commissioner Pauline Anderson and City Commissioner Mike Lindberg convened a public meeting to talk about all the bridges that span the Willamette River in central Portland.  The group chose the goal of putting lights on the 10 bridges used by vehicular traffic* and formed the volunteer-based non-profit Willamette Light Brigade (WLB) to do just that.  Although they had hoped to light a bridge a year, their decision not to request public funds inevitably made that task much harder to accomplish.

First Lightings

The first two lightings came quickly.  The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the local members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) approached the Willamette Light Brigade with an offer to light the Morrison Bridge piers.  WLB accepted with enthusiasm.  On December 12, 1987 at a grand public celebration (which included singing carols afterwards), Flood light with color filters were first beamed on the north and south piers of that mid-town bascule bridge.  (See our Morrison Bridge page for more information about that lighting and the recent upgrades.)

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first transmission of electricity to Portland—June 2, 1889 from Oregon City to downtown Portland via the Hawthorne Bridge— Portland General Electric (PGE) stockholders proposed a “contribution to the community”.  In the spring of 1989 they funded a temporary outlining of the Hawthorne Bridge’s arches, towers and railings with about 8,000 1.65-watt “beads” in clear plastic 20-ft. long tubes filled with silicon gel.  WLB was happy to assist PGE with this “fairy lights” project. (This was, actually, the 2nd set of decorative lights for the Hawthorne; see our Hawthorne Bridge page for more of the Hawthorne’s history.)

Involving the Community

To build awareness of the bridges and support for lighting them, in 1996 WLB helped organize the first Portland Bridge Pedal. This provided a chance for folks of all ages to bike across as many as eight Willamette River bridge on lanes closed to vehicular traffic. During those early years WLB volunteers staffed a booth during the event and sold locally-designed and produced bridge art posters and t-shirts to help fund their lighting efforts. This 2d-Sunday-of- August event (owned by for-profit Bridge Pedal, Inc.) soon became one of the largest bridge-biking events in the USA.  Along with Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, for several years WLB was also a beneficiary of this event and received a small percentage of the registration fees.

More Lightings and More Community Involvement

WLB continued its private funding efforts and secured donations from scores of individuals and corporations.   Grants from two public utilities allowed us to complete our efforts to add permanent lights to the Hawthorne (PGE) and to upgrade to energy-efficient LED fixtures for the Morrison (Pacific Power).  Because the LEDs can be programmed via computer to do both static and moving patterns of colored lights, WLB wanted to involve the public in the day-to-day choosing of the color schemes.  The County agreed and in July of 2009 started the Lighting Partner program with WLB contracted as its administrator.  (See Lighting for more information and an application.)  Now all year long individuals and groups put their colors on the Morrison to promote awareness of social issues and efforts to cure diseases or to celebrate events, such as movie releases, weddings and birthdays or college and professional sporting matches.

* Multnomah County owns 5, State of OR owns 4, the Union Pacific Railroad leases the top deck of its Steel Bridge to the City of Portland.