Bridge Workers—Nerves of Steel
"Nerves of steel" is a cliche,
but it best describes the ironworkers on the 1950 Narrows Bridge.
Daily they risked serious injury or their lives.
They were a rough group. They loved crude humor and practical jokes. The difficult, dangerous work bonded them. They didn't always get along, but there was a sense of camaraderie. They would "give you the shirt off their backs," says White.
Steelworkers had a distinct hierarchy.
Whether you were a local from the union hall or a "boomer," it prescribed the division of labor at the building site. "Bridgemen" were welders (who positioned and welded steel) or rivet men (who heated, caught, or drove rivets). Apprentices, or "punks," assisted the bridgemen, fetching needed items, sometimes trying their hand with the tools, and observing.
Usually, an apprentice became a regular bridgeman after 2 or 3 years. A first-level supervisor, called a "pusher," supervised several groups of bridgemen and apprentices. These levels operated under the watchful eye of a "walkin' boss," who reported to the construction supervisor.
Three workers lost their lives during construction of the current Narrows Bridge.
They were Robert E. Drake, carpenter at the west anchorage, May
24, 1948; Lawrence S. (Stuart) Gale, iron worker building the deck,
April 7, 1950; Glen "Whitey" Davis, iron worker building
the deck (date unknown).
Earl "Whitey" White (1921 --)
Earl "Whitey" White is a tough guy. And, he's a survivor. He "worked iron," for 43 years, on all kinds of structures.
He grew up in Puyallup and settled in Tacoma. White and his wife, Penny, raised two sons on the modest income of a welder and heavy construction steel worker.
White was born in 1921 in Wibaux, Montana. His parents moved to Puyallup when he was 3 years old, and there he graduated from high school in 1939. After a year in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), young "Whitey" had enough money to take a welding course. By 1940 he started welding at the Tacoma Shipyards. When World War II came, he decided to join the U. S. Marines. At the age of 22 in 1943, he went off to fight the war in the Pacific with the 5th Marine Division.
Back home after the war, White again took up "working iron." From 1946 until he retired in 1989, he helped build hundreds of steel structures around Tacoma and the Northwest, including many of the buildings on the Tacoma tide flats, high-rise office buildings, radar towers, dams, and most memorable of all, the 1950 Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
"Working iron" is hard physical labor. You get busted up a lot. White has narrowly missed death and had parts of his body mangled. He has had his "lunch box brought home" by a co-worker three or four times, meaning he went to the hospital from an injury. One injury laid him up for 22 months—almost 2 years.
On the Narrows Bridge from 1948 to 1950 White worked on the suspended structure, putting up the towers, cable spinning, and building the steel deck. The work was hard and conditions sometimes harsh. He saw friends die. With a somber, steady voice he talks about the day that his buddy, Whitey Davis, "went in the hole," and "hit the water with a sound like an artillery piece going off." He saw another ironworker "go into the hole with 40 ton of steel." He suffered the severe winter of 1949-50, when bitter winds, lashing rain, swirling snows, and a catwalk frozen solid with ice made work miserable for weeks.
White faced danger routinely every day while helping to build the 1950 Narrows Bridge. He and the other bridge men worked hundreds of feet over the Narrows without "tying-off" their safety lines. They felt safer working unfettered. They had no safety net. But, working at great heights is not for everyone. "I've seen guys who've worked iron all their life freeze," says White.
"Bridge workers are a different breed of cat," says White. "They're a pretty rough bunch. They worked hard, they lived hard. And, damn near every one of them would give you the shirt off his back."
You could say that about retired 82-year old bridge-builder, ironworker Earl "Whitey" White too. And, he'd take it as a compliment.
Here are excerpts from our interview with Earl White:
Joe Gotchy (1903-1994)Quite a few men helped build both Tacoma Narrows Bridges. One who has left his mark on history is Joe Gotchy.Gotchy at the age of 87 published a personal account of that experience. The book, Bridging the Narrows (Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society, 1990), is an important source of information about the construction of the two bridges and the people who worked on them.
On the two spans Gotchy handled various jobs. He supervised concrete mixing and operated cranes during pier construction. On the 1950 bridge, Gotchy worked as an operating engineer helping to build the towers, then building the deck from the Gig Harbor end toward mid-span with the west side deck crews.
Joe Gotchy loved bridges. Born on February 3, 1903 in Bothell, Gotchy grew up in rural Thurston County. He worked on bridges all over Washington State. A high school dropout, he lacked formal education. But, he read avidly and became a life-long learner.
In his career, Gotchy was an operating
engineer, an ironworker, and a lumberjack. He cared deeply about
his family, fellow workers, his community, and the environment.
Gotchy and his wife lived in Gig Harbor in his last 23 years. He
passed away on December 3, 1994.
Kip Wylie, Maintenance Supervisor for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, is a quiet man with a passion for windsurfing and restoring the 110-year old historic house he calls home.
He's also passionate about the span he's responsible for maintaining. To walk around the Narrows Bridge with him is to plant one foot in the past and one in the future. You're suddenly deluged with a wealth of facts, details of the maintenance routines, bridge history, and odd anecdotes. At the same time, his bright, watchful eyes point you toward the current problems and how they can be managed to keep the bridge working tomorrow for the public.
Wylie has worked for WSDOT at the Narrows Bridge since 1983. He was an experienced painter and brought that to the job his first day. By 1988 Wylie was lead technician ("line boss"), but his duties remained about the same—it was still a working position.
As head of maintenance operations at the bridge, Wylie supervises a crew of 5 men—3 painters and 2 ironworkers. There is a lot of replacement and repair work on The Narrows Bridge, now over 50 years old.
He not only schedules the crew's work, but also manages the maintenance budget for the bridge--$1.7 million for the 2-year budget period. Wylie handles a growing assortment of safety issues in cooperation with local fire departments and police. And, on any given day you may find him repairing phone lines or ordering supplies.
Wylie has seen some terrific windstorms in his tenure at the Narrows Bridge. The highest wind he recalls was clocked at 100 miles per hour. As for the Bridge's movement, that is hardly noticeable. "Nothing happens all of a sudden," says Wylie.
That's because the hydraulic dampening jacks and stiffening truss below the roadway keep all movement of the span very slow and virtually imperceptible. "Even in a high wind," he notes, "I'll sight down the deck and see the bridge is moving only slightly." The label once applied to the bridge, "Sturdy Gertie," has not become a household word, but, says Wylie, "It's justified."
Kip Wylie is now in his 20th year working
on the Narrows Bridge. It's almost like his second home. "I
live with it all the time," says Wylie. "I know its sounds,
creaks, groans and movements. I feel like this bridge is a member
of my family," he smiles.
The Maintenance Lead on the Narrows Bridge is Jon Moergen—simply "Moergen" to his friends. A genial, middle-aged man with a prominent handle-bar moustache draped under his nose, Moergen spends off-work time with his dog, two cats, and a 1930s era power boat he's restoring.
Modest and matter-of-fact in his approach to the daily routines of his job, Jon Moergen is also fiercely proud of the almost 20 years he has worked on the Narrows Bridge. "It's good maintenance that has kept the Narrows Bridge functioning and in good shape for over 50 years—so you don't notice problems," he points out.
On any given day, you might find him repairing a $2,000 arc welder in the bridge's shop, or walking the main suspension cable to check out a maintenance need.
Occasional visitors to the bridge ask Moergen questions that range from predictable to bizarre. Most often, he hears, "The bridge moves? I didn't realize the bridge moves." That brings a smile, and a patient reply that wins friends. "People look at the bridge as a static structure. They just can't seem to grasp that it is a constantly moving machine. Once they get the idea, they begin to think about the stresses the bridge must withstand."
Like Kip Wylie, Jon Moergen also has a hefty supply of historical facts, odd tales, anecdotes, and personal experience. Some of his daily routine is hair-raising to non-bridge folk. And, the tough, dangerous work has taken its toll. Moergen has had his share of injuries on the job—and narrow brushes with death.
Ask Moergen what really keeps him coming back
to his job, day-in, day-out. He'll tell you how he loves working
outside, especially on warm summer days. Then, you'll hear something
you didn't expect: "The most invigorating thing about this
job," he says with a dead-serious stare, "is the unknown.
You never know what to expect when you come to work each day. It's
always a challenge. Some days, that's also the worst part of the