Success: Creating the Narrows Bridge 1937- 1940
Factors for Success
||The State Toll Bridge Authority used
the Narrows Bridge in its logo, 1938 WSA, WSDOT records
"Can it pay for itself?" From
the very beginning, that key issue determined whether there would
be a bridge over the Narrows. Private bridge developers believed
that traffic volume would be too low. There would not be enough
revenue from tolls to pay for construction costs. The Public
Works Administration and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation
The Great Depression proved no friend
to promoters of a Narrows Bridge. The economic downturn limited
financial options and stifled interest in new ventures. To almost
everyone the venture seemed "impractical."
So, what changed? Why did the bridge get built?
By the late 1930s several factors came
together that brought funding to the bridge. Finally, the Tacoma
Narrows Bridge began to move from dream to reality.
In January 1937 the Washington State Legislature
passed a law creating the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority
(WSTBA). The legislature patterned the bill on California's law
that led to the Golden Gate Bridge and others. The legislature appropriated
$25,000 to study the Tacoma-Pierce County request for a bridge at
the Narrows. Pierce County transferred its application for constructing
a bridge to the WSTBA.
By this time, national and international
events were affecting plans for the Narrows Bridge.
A Strategic and Military Necessity
Tacoma Narrows Bridge and McChord Field, June 30-July 4, 1940"
WSA, WSDOT records
The 1940 Narrows Bridge was built "primarily
as a military necessity" to link McChord Air Field south
of Tacoma and the Puget Sound Navy Shipyard in Bremerton. This important
fact is often is often overlooked today. But, it was well known
to area residents and local newspapers in 1940.
Successful funding for a Tacoma Narrows Bridge
was closely linked with the nation's defense strategy in the late
1930s. In particular, McChord Air Base became a catalyst and ally
in the fight to get a Narrows span.
McChord Airfield began as a municipal airfield
in the late 1920s. The City of Tacoma purchased 900 acres
for an airport, and "Tacoma Field" opened in early 1929.
The United States Army became interested in Tacoma Field as a defense
base for the Northwest. By 1934 the airport was one of the largest
in the western United States. Then, Congress authorized the establishment
of airfields in six strategic areas of the country. Tacoma Field
became the site for the Pacific Northwest. Ownership passed to Pierce
Now, Narrows Bridge proponents had strong support
from the United States Navy, because of its shipyard in Bremerton,
and the Army, because of its installations at McChord Field and
On May 5, 1938 the Governor of Washington officially
authorized the transfer of Tacoma Field to the federal Government,
and it became "McChord Field." That summer, construction
on the $5 million project began on a large scale. By 1939 the Air
Corps facility included two runways, four airplane hangars, a 1,285-man
barracks, a radio transmission building, a heating plant, a hospital,
and warehouses, plus facilities and buildings for maintenance, heating,
water, fire, and electricity. In late June 1940, the first bombers
(B-18, B-18A and B-23) began to arrive.
War and worries of war after 1935 played
a role in the climate that helped create funding for the Narrows
Bridge. Japan invaded China, and fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia.
With the rise of Nazi Germany after 1933 under Adolf Hitler, war
clouds began to gather over Europe. The Nazi government launched
a massive military build up. In February 1938 Hitler appointed himself
commander of the German army. One month later, the Nazis marched
into Austria, then within months took the Sudetenland.
The Roosevelt Administration quietly bolstered
its military by funding a major re-armament program. At the
same time, the administration poured millions of dollars into public
works projects, including roads, dams, and bridges.
On May 5, 1938 (two months after Germany took
over Austria), City of Tacoma officials transferred Tacoma
Field to the federal government. Two weeks later, on May 23, 1938,
the WSTBA submitted an amended application to the federal PWA and
applied to the RFC for a loan to build a suspension bridge across
the Tacoma Narrows. The revised application included a preliminary
design by State bridge engineer Clark Eldridge. Eldridge's plan
was "a tried and true conventional bridge design." The
State estimated the cost at $11 million.
The 1940 Narrows Bridge and McChord Field
held their official opening on the same day. With the bridge connecting
the field and Ft. Lewis with the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, the nation's
defenses were an important step closer to being prepared for war.
The Money Comes—With Strings Attached
On June 23, 1938 the Public Works Administration
granted funds for the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It marked the
culmination of over 14 years of community efforts.
The full story behind this event is not well
known. Federal authorities had been skeptical for several
years about whether tolls on a Narrows span could generate enough
revenue to repay a loan. But, now eastern engineers entered the
According to Clark Eldridge, "eastern consulting
engineers" went to the PWA and RFC and said that the
bridge could be built for much less than the $11 million Eldridge's
design would cost. By "eastern consulting engineers,"
Eldridge meant the noted and nationally prominent New York bridge
engineer Leon Moisseiff. The message fell on willing ears.
Federal authorities made the award, but
the money was less, only $6.4 million. And, it came with strings
attached. They required the State Toll Bridge Authority to hire
outside consultants for the bridge design. Those outside consultants,
Clark Eldridge later claimed, were mandated by the Public Works
Administration. He put it in simple words. "We were told we
couldn't have the necessary money without using plans furnished
by an eastern firm of engineers, chosen by the money lenders."
The State Toll Bridge Authority reluctantly
agreed. Leon Moisseiff of New York became the consultant
hired to design the superstructure (towers, cables, etc.). The firm
of Moran & Proctor of New York became the consultants hired
to design the substructure (piers).
When Moisseiff's design arrived at the
Washington State Highway Department in Olympia, the agency's engineers
protested. The state's experts called Moisseiff's plan "fundamentally
unsound." The design made the Narrows Bridge lighter and narrower
than any bridge ever built, they said, "in the interests of
economy and cheapness."
Groundbreaking—start of construction, November 23, 1938
Nevertheless, the project went forward.
On September 27 the state opened construction bids. The Pacific
Bridge Company submitted the low bid for building the Tacoma Narrows
Bridge in the amount of $5,594,730. The associate contractor for
supplying steel was the Bethlehem Steel Company. John A. Roebling
Sons Company of New York supplied the wire. The design consultants,
Moisseiff's firm and Moran & Proctor, divided the standard architect
fee of 2-1/2 percent of the construction cost, amounting to $139,868.
November 23, 1938 was a day for Tacoma and
Peninsula residents remember. Construction started on first Narrows
Bridge. The official "start date" according to the construction
contract was two days later, November 25.
Completion of the bridge led
directly to the development of land in the region for new
homes and businesses. Farm acreage also increased, as farmers could
more easily get crops to the larger urban markets in nearby Tacoma
The area's population had begun to grow when
construction began too. Timber companies found they had ready access
to the wealth of great trees on the Olympic Peninsula. And, there
were some mineral resources that could more easily be exploited
with a quicker route to Tacoma's industrial center.
The tourism and recreation industries benefited
enormously from spanning the Narrows. Civic leaders on both
sides of the water hailed the positive economic impacts of The Narrows
Bridge. The bridge formed a closer link between the state's great
federal parks, Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National
Park (created in 1939). Thus, the bridge acted like a magnet, opening
up new recreation opportunities for local residents as well as tourists.
Loved by Locals, From the Beginning
On Sundays during the construction of
the 1940 Narrows Bridge, many area residents would pack a picnic
basket and find a spot overlooking the site where they could watch
the bridge's progress.
On January 10, 1940 cable spinning began.
This novel feature of suspension bridge construction attracted many
sightseers. By the first week of May, bridge workers completed the
steel floor system. They began to notice that the bridge "bounced."
By June 1940 workmen finished concrete pouring for the roadway.
The July 1 opening day rapidly approached.
One Worker Died
Only three days before the Narrows Bridge
officially opened, tragedy struck. On June 27, 1940 a workman suffered
the first and only death during construction. Fred Wilde, a carpenter,
stumbled and fell 12 feet. Oddly enough, on the very next day, a
painter fell off the bridge and survived.
July 1 -- Official Opening
"A dream come true," they said
on July 1, 1940. The day brought clear blue skies and a crowd estimated
at 7,000 people to the bridge for the official dedication and opening
Governor Clarence D. Martin conducted
ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Then, National Guard soldiers fired a
19-gun salute. Politicians and citizens praised the bridge's beauty
and proclaimed the military and economic benefits sure to follow.
The Governor paid the first toll and his car sped across the bridge.
Parades with marching bands and floats held in Tacoma, Gig Harbor,
and at McChord Field celebrated the events with great fanfare.
"Everyone marveled," historian
Murray Morgan wrote later, "at the gossamer grace of a structure
so long." The third-longest suspension bridge in the world
featured a main span of 2,800 feet. Only the Golden Gate Bridge
in San Francisco (completed in 1937 with a center span of 4,200
feet) and the George Washington Bridge in New York City (completed
in 1931 with a center span of 3,500 feet) surpassed the Tacoma Narrows
Bridge in 1940.
The streamlined ferry Kalakala, built
in 1935, also participated in bridge-opening festivities. The Kalakala
held the honor of making the very last ferry run across the Narrows
on July 2, 1940. Over 1,400 people made the voyage that stopped
at Point Defiance and Gig Harbor. They celebrated for hours with
music and dancing sponsored by the Young Men's Business Club of
Edward R. Murrow, the well-known CBS
correspondent, attended the opening ceremonies. Murrow was also
the brother of the State Highway Department Director, Lacey Murrow.
The Tale of Traffic and Tolls
Tolls on the 1940 Narrows Bridge were
necessary to repay the loan from the RFC that had helped build the
span. Residents on both sides of the Narrows wanted the bridge,
but the tolls were controversial.
The problem was that it cost motorists
more to cross the Narrows using the bridge than by the old ferry
service. The fare for car and driver was $.75 each way ($1.50 round
trip), and 10 cents for pedestrians.
Traffic across the bridge quickly surpassed
all expectations. Local citizens (and the State Toll Bridge Authority)
thought the new bridge would bring a population boom and boost the
area's economy. But, actual use dramatically exceeded their highest
hopes. On opening day, some 2,000 cars crossed the bridge.
Traffic was more than triple the figures
projected by surveys. Soon, the number of vehicles crossing reached
145% higher than earlier ferry traffic. In 1939 the ferry service
had carried 205,842 vehicles across the Narrows, an average of 564
per day. In the first four months after the Narrows Bridge opened
(July-October 1940), some 1,661 vehicles a day paid the toll and
crossed. The four-month total of 265,748 vehicles was more than
had used the ferries during the entire 12 months of 1939.
Because traffic—and, therefore, revenues—greatly
exceeded all expectations, Toll Bridge Authority reduced the commuter
toll. Two months after that, the Authority refinanced the bridge
bond issues and reduced the basic toll by another 5 cents.
"Baby Brother" of the Golden Gate Bridge
Some called the 1940 Narrows Bridge the
"baby brother" of the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in
1937. It was similar in "style of structure" to the bigger
San Francisco span, but was built with far less steel. The Narrows
Bridge was built to withstand a wind of 120 mph, projected to cause
a 20-foot deflection, or sideways movement, of the deck. In contrast,
the heavier and wider Golden Gate Bridge had a 13.5-foot deflection
"Galloping Gertie" Earns Her Name
Even in a light breeze, the Narrows Bridge
moved. Suspension bridges are supposed to move. But, this was different.
The roadway sometimes "bounced"
or "rippled" in a wind of 3 or 4 miles per hour. Often,
several waves of 2 to 3 feet (and on a few occasions up to 5 feet)
would move from one end of the center span the other. There seemed
to be no correlation between the wind speed and the size of the
waves. Sometimes the span would "bounce" for a few moments
then stop. Other times, the waves lasted for 6 or even 8 hours.
Thrill-seekers drove to the Narrows from
miles around when the ripples started. Some motorists became "seasick"
and avoided using the bridge. But, for adventurous spirits the bridge
became an amusement ride. Drivers crossing the span at times saw
a car in front of them suddenly disappear into the trough of a wave.
Moments later it reappeared as the roadway rose. According to one
report, a couple of times drivers experienced waves 10 feet high.
What was that motion? In the first weeks
after the bridge opened, the newspapers referred to its movement
as "the bounce" or "the ripple." Here are other
terms used to describe the movement, used by a variety of locals,
engineers, and other observers:
- up and down
- crests and troughs
- peaks and valleys
- rising and falling
- like a roller coaster
- vertical oscillation
- vertical flexibility
How did she get her name? Only later,
in the autumn of 1940 about the time of the collapse, did the nickname
"Galloping Gertie" make it into the newspapers.
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