Gig Harbor’s future history museum will showcase pieces of Galloping Gertie, the first bridge across the Tacoma Narrows that swayed violently before blowing apart in 1940.
The state Department of Transportation agreed to furnish the exhibit after DOT workers disturbed pieces of the sunken span while installing caissons for the new Narrows bridge.
Several of Gertie’s underwater pieces are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The four or five chunks that builders removed – together weighing a couple of tons – technically aren’t on the register because they came from outside the recognized boundaries of Gertie’s ruins.
But the state agreed to give them up to compensate for the historic areas that were disturbed.
The exhibit will be ready by the time the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society & Museum opens its new waterfront museum in 2008, said executive director Jennifer Kilmer.
The state already has given the museum the smallest of the loosened pieces – a 5-foot-by-5-foot, twisted chunk of metal already on display. The museum will receive more pieces by the time its new facility opens across the street at Harborview and North Harborview drives.
The exhibit will likely be popular, Kilmer said. About one-third of the museum’s customers visit specifically to see items related to the Narrows Bridge.
“It may just be a twisted piece of metal, but it’s an important piece of not just local history, but of bridge-building itself,” Kilmer said.
She said the state also plans to provide a $10,000 grant to help establish the exhibit.
But Robert Mester, a professional underwater salvager and Gertie preservationist, argues the exhibit doesn’t make up for damage still being done to the historical pieces underwater.
“That’s a travesty of the honor that’s owed to that bridge,” he said.
State officials disagree. Eric Ostfeld, the DOT’s design project engineer for the new bridge, said the removed pieces are secured on the project site.
“It’s a good, substantial, pallet-worth of material,” he said.
The world’s third-longest suspension bridge became an international star on Nov. 7, 1940. When a prevailing wind out of the southwest topped 40 mph, the bridge went into a spastic fit and fell apart. The entire center span, about a half-mile long, fell into the Narrows and sank 200 feet.
Gertie’s replacement, the bridge still in use today, was built in 1950 on top of the old foundations, which were not damaged in the storm.
To protect the collapsed deck from salvagers, many of those pieces are on the National Register of Historic Places. Mester and other preservationists say that guarantees protection, but officials have argued it’s more of an honorary distinction.
Chains attached to anchors that held the new bridge’s caissons scraped the historic pieces during construction, Ostfeld said. But almost all of the collapsed deck remains undisturbed, he said.
“We went through quite a bit of effort to make sure we minimized the impact,” he said.
The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma is working with the Gig Harbor museum to obtain one or more pieces, said Redmond Barnett, the state museum’s head of exhibits.
The Gig Harbor museum already has artifacts relating to Gertie, including a camera used to snap pictures of its collapse.
“In the new museum, we will have a special section on Gertie, and we’ll have another section on the three bridges’ history,” Kilmer said. “We’re very excited.”
The state also has started a Web site with information on Gertie’s collapse, and it has hired a historian to write a book about the bridges of the Tacoma Narrows.
But Mester, who has dived onto Gertie’s underwater ruins hundreds of times, argues the DOT struck a deal with the Gig Harbor museum to justify the damage.
He said the state should recover a larger portion of the span and display it in a manner that’s archaeologically sound. It should also try to restore the man-made reef Gertie had become.
Mester also wants the state to designate an underwater trail for divers near the bridges, and put more information and pictures on the DOT Web site.
“Taking a piece of metal which has no significant cause for the collapse of the bridge is far from what I consider mitigation,” he said.