Tacoma Narrows Bridge history - Weird facts

The Tacoma Narrows Bridges have attracted a host of life's oddities. This special collection of "Weird Facts" offers the best of those fun and unique incidents. Here are the curious, funny, zany, improbable and sometimes bizarre moments that are part of the strange history of the Narrows Bridges.

Weird Fact #1: Crazy Shindler
When steamboat captain Ed Lorenz told his story about Shindler's comment to the newspapers in 1938, he added, "We all thought Shindler was crazy."

Weird Fact #2: The trashed photograph
With David Steinman's proposed bridge sketch (1929), the framed photograph by Marvin Dement Boland is nearly 5 feet long. The Tacoma-based photographer died in 1950. The only known surviving copy of this photo is in the collection of the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Museum. The image can be seen in the Museum's on-line exhibit, "A Tale of Two Gerties." A volunteer at the Museum donated this unique item after receiving it from a friend, who had found the photo in the trash next to the Rosedale Community Club.

Weird Fact #3: Understatement of the day
After Galloping Gertie's collapse, Lacey V. Murrow (former Director of State Highways now in military service at nearby McChord Air Base) was shaken and heart-broken, like many others. When interviewed the day after the disaster by a reporter, he sadly observed, "Every major bridge project is an adventure."

Weird Fact #4: The $450 car
Reporter Leonard Coatsworth, who lost his car (and poor Tubby) in the collapse of the first bridge, had trouble getting reimbursed for his loss. He sent in a claim, but six months passed with no news and no money. Finally, Coatsworth wrote a letter to the State Toll Bridge Authority, pleading for a response. But, more time passed before he received compensation. Finally, the WSTBA reimbursed Coatsworth for the loss of his car, $450.00. They had already paid him $364.40 for the loss of his car's "contents".

Weird Fact #5: Galloping Gertie has deja vu
The name "Galloping Gertie" was first used for the Wheeling Bridge. Charles Ellet built this 900-foot long suspension bridge in 1849 over the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia. Back then, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It collapsed in a windstorm in May 1854.

On the Tacoma Narrows Bridge many of the most experienced workmen had followed bridge construction projects all over the country. Called "boomers," they formed the nucleus of the crew. Many of them came from families where building bridges was almost a tradition. Possibly one of their grandfather's had worked on the Wheeling Bridge. Many had come to the Narrows Bridge project from the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Interestingly, the Golden Gate Bridge is abbreviated "G.G." and it had a tendency to "bounce" in the wind when it was first finished. In early May 1940, when workers were building forms and laying concrete for the roadway, the Narrows Bridge began its soon-famous ripple. It was probably one of the "boomers" who dubbed the bouncing span, "Galloping Gertie." Local residents picked up the nickname and it stuck.

Weird Fact #6: Tacoma Bridge spans ocean
The effects of Galloping Gertie’s fall lasted long after the catastrophe. Clark Eldridge, who accepted some of the blame for the bridge's failure, learned this first-hand. In late 1941 Eldridge was working for the U. S. Navy on Guam when World War II began. Soon, the Japanese captured Eldridge. He spent the remainder of the war (three years and nine months) in a prisoner of war camp in Japan. To his amazement, one day a Japanese officer, who had once been a student in America, recognized the bridge engineer. He walked up to Eldridge and said bluntly, “Tacoma Bridge!”

Weird Fact #7: He who jabs last, jabs best
Charles Andrew was diplomatic and subtle, but also forceful. He got in the final "jab" at federal authorities for under-funding the 1940 Narrows Bridge. In an article in Engineering News Record about "Redesign of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge," in 1945 Andrew wrote: "Traffic over the original bridge, during its brief existence, indicated that a structure of considerably greater cost would have been justified."

Weird Fact #8: Ninety-four kids reach top of tower
The towers are how tall? Try corralling 94 kids, say 7th graders with an average height of 5 feet, then stand them up straight and tall, stacking head-to-toe and they will stretch from the pier to the top of the tower! Since it only takes 93.4 such kids to accomplish that feat, the 94th lucky youngster will have his/her belly button level with the top of a tower. And, he or she will have a fine view of Mount Rainier to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the west, and Puget Sound looking both north and south.

Weird Fact #9: FHS student predicts fall of bridge
On the evening of November 6, 1940 Carol Peacock, a student at Fife High School, sat down to do her homework for journalism class. The assignment was to let her imagination run wild and write an essay that began, "Just suppose . . ." The essay she wrote, "Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses," turned out to be a shocking reality the very next day.

Weird Fact #10: Bridge failure turns to heart failure
Engineer Moisseiff's heart also failed. The fate of Leon Moisseiff, whose design for Galloping Gertie now rests on the floor of Puget Sound at the Narrows, is a curious tale. After Gertie collapsed in 1940, the once proud and honored engineer continued to work. But, his brilliant career had ended in tragic failure. He was gravely dismayed and disheartened. Only three years later, at age 70, he died—of heart failure.

Weird Fact #11: Legend of thefearless motorcycle ride
One area resident, Jean Robeson, recalls a story of a wild motorcycle ride by one of the bridge workers in 1939. Soon after workmen completed the first catwalks on the bridge, one of them rode his motorcycle all the way from one end of the unfinished bridge to the other—and lived to tell about it. 

Weird Fact #12: Zero to 60 in 4 seconds
On June 28th, 1940 Pete Kreller, a 26-year old painter, fell 190 feet into the Narrows and survived with relatively minor injuries. Bridge engineers told Kreller that his tumble of 190 feet lasted 4 seconds and he reached a speed of 60 miles per hour. The next person to survive a fall from the bridge was a woman in June 1983.

Weird Fact #13: Eight legs are better than two
One of the world's largest octopus species makes its home in Puget Sound. A popular starting point for scuba divers visiting Galloping Gertie's sunken ruins is Titlow Park, just under the current Narrows Bridge. From the late 1940s through the 1960s Gertie provided the backdrop for local fans of "octopus wrestling."

Weird Fact #14: Coug gal helps build bridge
The only woman working on the 1940 Narrows Bridge was the twenty-something blonde, Miss Marie Guske, a 1938 graduate of Washington State College. The workforce on the 1940 Narrows Bridge project typically included over 200 men. Miss Guske handled secretarial work and answered telephone calls for engineer Clark Eldridge.

Weird Fact #15: Gephyrophobics anonymous
"Gephyrophobia" is the fear of crossing bridges. There is no statistical data available on the impact that the collapse of Galloping Gertie may have had on gephyrophobics.

Weird Fact #16: Earthquake breaks bridge, bridge bashes barge
On April 13, 1949 an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale shook the Puget Sound region. The current Narrows Bridge's towers swayed as much as six feet from perpendicular. The 28-ton cable saddle on the north side of Tower 5 (East Tower) was in place, but not secured. It fell over 500 feet, plunging through a barge below (which sank) and dropping 140 feet to the bottom of the Sound. It took workmen 3 days to retrieve the cable saddle. It had suffered a small bend on one corner of the base, which was repaired. After a total of 10 days, workers replaced the cable saddle on top the tower.

Weird Fact #17: Pesky paint pontificators ponder Gertie green
What's that color? Some call it "Gertie Green." It's a grayish, queasy shade according to some pesky paint pontificators. Officially, it is "Narrows Green." The paint is manufactured by Wasser High-Tech Coatings in Seattle. Today, most places on the Current Narrows Bridge have a thick coating of paint. At least four layers have been added since the bridge opened in 1950. The same color was used on the 1940 Narrows Bridge.

Weird Fact #18: Golden rule gets wagon across bridge
Who was the last car to make it safely across Galloping Gertie? A family of three in a bakery wagon, says one report. On the morning of November 7, 1940, Elbert Swinney drove his regular route for the Golden Rule Bakery, crossing the Narrows from Tacoma toward Gig Harbor. In the truck were his wife, Hazel, and their 5-year old son, Richard. It was an exciting trip for the lad. Years later he recalled, "The sides of the bridge were solid walls. I would see water on one side and then the other. My mother was screaming a lot."

Weird Fact #19: Golden rule record challenged by doctor
Who was the last car to make it safely across Galloping Gertie? A newspaper report on November 9, 1940 credited Dr. Jess W. Read with being last person to drive safely over the bridge.

Weird Fact #20: Never salt your saddle
The legacy of that 1949 earthquake remains today. The cable saddle on the East Tower (Tower 5) that spent 3 days on the bottom of the Narrows remembers its tumble very well. Today, that cable saddle rusts more quickly that the others. "It seems likely," says Kip Wylie, "that the cast steel absorbed just enough salt water that paint doesn't bond to the surface as well as on the other saddles, so it corrodes faster."

Weird Fact #21: Gertie rests 30 fathoms under the sea
Exactly where were Galloping Gertie's remains later that day? On November 28, 1940 the U. S. Navy's Hydrographic Office released current location information for the first Narrows Bridge: latitude 47:16:00 north; longitude 122:33:00 west; 30 fathoms deep.

Weird Fact #22: Lovejoy collapses at ruined bridge
On November 12, 1940, Mrs. Gertrude Lovejoy of Puyallup was "stricken" and died suddenly while viewing the shocking sight of the ruined Gertie.

Weird Fact #23: Last man walking
Newspapers at the time, and over the years since 1940, have given the title "Last Man on the Bridge" to Leonard Coatsworth, Howard Clifford, Barney Elliott, and Professor Farquharson. Some people have thought that the "mystery man" pedestrian, college student Winfield Brown, was last.

At first, Leonard Coatsworth became most widely heralded as the "Last Man on the Bridge." That may have been because newspapers across the country published the reporter's dramatic story of his flight off the doomed bridge and the loss of his car and dog Tubby.

Actually, in their departures from the bridge, Brown outran Coatsworth. Coatsworth was already back safely when Clifford sprinted past Elliot. Farquharson stayed after Elliot straggled to the safety of the Toll Plaza. Farquharson, driven by the desire to record for engineering science the fate of the failing bridge was the last man on Galloping Gertie.

Weird Fact #24: Here comes the bridge
It was a brisk Friday morning at the end of October 1998. Commuters crossing the Narrows Bridge might not have noticed the bride and groom. Airman First Class Bobby Collins and optician April Koons, both 22 years old and in love, became the first couple married on the Current Narrows Bridge at a brief ceremony. Why the Narrows Bridge? Why not? "That sounds cool," said Collins when the idea came up. After the ceremony, he told a local newspaper reporter, "It's the greatest feeling in the world."

Weird Fact #25: Reporter banks on bridge security
"As secure as the Narrows Bridge," proclaimed a large billboard for the Pacific National Bank along the 6th Avenue route between downtown Tacoma and the Narrows Bridge. Photographer Howard Clifford and reporter Bert Brintnall from the Tacoma News Tribune saw the sign as they drove toward the Narrows Bridge on the morning of November 7, 1940. Clifford made a note to get a photo of the billboard on their return downtown. Within an hour after the bridge disaster, a crew of workmen covered the sign with plain white paper. By the time Clifford and Brintnall returned, there was nothing to photograph. But, the story made it into the newspaper, and thus, into history.

Weird Fact #26: Coast Guard comes in first -- and last
First - and last - under the bridge was the Coast Guard Cutter, Atlanta. The Atlanta became the first ship to pass under the Narrows Bridge when it opened on July 1, 1940. On November 7th, the Atlanta was on a routine trip northward through the Narrows. Only moments before the center span fell into the Narrows, (probably around 10:30 to 10:45 a.m.) the Atlanta cruised beneath the rolling span. Chunks of concrete hit her decks, but caused no damage. Commander of the vessel, Lieutenant W. C. Hogan, watched closely as the bridge swayed and twisted above them. "It looked as though it would surely break up," Hogan told the newspapers later. When Gertie did fall into the Narrows, Hogan radioed the news to his Seattle headquarters, becoming the first to tell the world of the great disaster.

Weird Fact #27: From steel to sausage
"Steel Men," is a 1962 folksong about bridge workers and two different bridge collapses, but not Galloping Gertie. The song, written by David Martins and sung by Jimmie Dean, is part of the work song collection of the Folklore Heritage in the Pacific Northwest.

Weird Fact #28: Poetry in motion
The 50th anniversary for the 1950 Narrows Bridge moved one local poet, Bette Dawson, to pen a poem about its predecessor. The poem takes the musical title for its own: "The Ballad of Galloping Gertie."

Weird Fact #29: How many 7th graders does it take...?
How big was the 1940 Narrows Bridge? Use a teenager for a yardstick. The deck was narrow, only 39 feet wide. That means it would take about eight 7th-grade students (averaging 5 feet tall) lying head-to-toe to stretch across the bridge. How about the length? The bridge was 5,939 feet long. That would take about 1,188 of those average 7th graders.

Weird Fact #30: Top box office has 14 year run
The revenue collected on the first day of operations totaled a whopping $11,541. That daily record held for an astonishing 14 years, until August 1964.