“It was beauty killed the beast.”
Robert Armstrong, as Carl Denham in “King Kong,” 1933 Obsession with beauty led to King Kong’s downfall, and it did the same for “Galloping Gertie,” the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Gertie was gorgeous, the modernist-art deco culmination of an engineering trend that had gradually placed form before function. She died a martyr whose failure was as spectacular as her beauty.
When Gertie tumbled into Puget Sound 129 days after opening in 1940, she took a fall for the cause of better bridge building, starting with the “Sturdy Gertie” commuters have used to cross the Narrows since 1950.
In “Catastrophe to Triumph: Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows,” Whidbey Island author Richard S. Hobbs tells the story of Gertie and her successor in meticulous detail. His book, bursting with historical photos, charts and diagrams, is presented in an upscale style that makes it worthy of coffee-table status. But this book won’t gather dust: It has too good a story to tell.
Hoffman presents the history of the Narrows and offers an education in the science of bridge building. But he doesn’t get so technical that readers will glaze over and begin thumbing through the pictures. After watching a new bridge rise over the past couple of years, local bridge buffs are likely to devour the technical details.
And Hoffman keeps things lively by presenting history through the lives of community activists, engineers, construction workers, bureaucrats and those who witnessed Gertie’s death throes.
The first bridge originally was designed by Clark Eldridge, an engineer from the State Highway Department. It called for two lanes, narrow considering its 2,600-foot center span. But the $11 million design counted on 25-foot deck trusses to reduce flexibility in the wind.
The price tag left the door open for Leon Moisseiff, an esteemed New York bridge designer who believed in elegance and economy. Moisseiff impressed the Public Works Administration with his art deco design. It was a feast for the eyes, but perhaps most attractive to the bureaucrats was its cost: $6.4 million.
To enhance beauty and cut costs, Moisseiff abandoned Eldridge’s trusses in favor of solid steel girders 8 feet deep. He increased the length of the center span by 200 feet. At one point, he suggested making the bridge of aluminum instead of steel to save $400,000. The idea was rejected.
Eldridge’s design for Gertie’s substructure was retained after a consultant’s design was rejected as impossible to build by companies bidding on the project.
Sadly, Moisseiff’s career followed Gertie to the bottom of Puget Sound, where it rests beside Eldridge’s enduring contribution: Gertie’s piers, which were strong enough to be retained for the current Narrows Bridge.
In chronicling construction of the bridge, Hobbs tells colorful stories of the “boomers,” itinerant bridge workers. Fresh from completing the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, they likely gave Galloping Gertie her name, possibly while sucking on the lemons they used to ward off seasickness while working atop her swaying heights.
Gertie undulated so much that cars would disappear and reappear in traffic, as if riding waves. Drivers took it in stride, their faith in technology absolute.
Experts, including Eldridge and aerodynamics expert Burt Farquharson of the University of Washington, were researching ways to stabilize Gertie. Cable tie-downs were added to her side spans to reduce “deck flutter.”
But on the windy morning of Nov. 7 the bucking got worse than usual. Just after 10 a.m., a logging truck, a delivery van, one pedestrian and a 1936 Studebaker driven by Tacoma News Tribune editor Leonard Coatsworth remained on the bridge.
Suddenly, Gertie’s centerspan deck began twisting. The truck spilled its logs. Coatsworth escaped through the window of his Studebaker.
People ran – crawled, really – for their lives, taking a beating as the twisting became faster and more violent. Everyone made it off. The van’s occupants were rescued by two men who backed their vehicle onto the bridge.
Coatsworth, whose cocker spaniel, Tubby, was the only fatality that day, called in reporters and photographers. Farquharson arrived at the scene, one of several who showed up with movie cameras and caught Gertie’s last moments. He made a valiant effort to rescue Tubby, who rewarded him by biting his finger.
Hoffman is at his best in this chapter, detailing every moment with a timeline and offering his opinion of who was the last person on the bridge. He follows through on the lives of those involved, and includes interviews with some of the many Tacomans who rushed to the scene.
The second part of the book deals with the fallout. Interrupted by World War II, it would be a decade before another bridge was built. Ferries again crossed the Narrows. The difficult job of deconstructing Gertie began, a story in itself.
The new bridge rose on Gertie’s piers, with drama of its own. The winter of 1949, which included a memorable blizzard, made for miserable working conditions. The earthquake of 1949 knocked a 28-ton cable saddle from the top of a tower to the bottom of the Narrows. Accidents killed four workers.
Only one piece of the first bridge survives above the water line. Near the west shore, an undamaged portion of Gertie helps support her successor. Deep below, Gertie’s mangled centerspan serves as a 20-acre sanctuary for an abundance of marine life.
Hobbs interviews the people who maintain the Narrows Bridge. They consider it to be a machine, one that moves in harmony with the elements.
Gertie was too flighty to be a machine, but her foundation lives on, safely carrying commuters. A new bridge rises nearby, its stout design not much different than the one Gertie bequeathed us with her untimely fall.
Pat McCoid: 253-597-8272
email@example.com “Bridging the Narrows,” an exhibit presented by The News Tribune and the Washington State History Museum, opens Saturday at the museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. The exhibit reveals how nature, engineering, labor and politics have shaped all three Narrows bridges. It will feature the work of News Tribune reporter Rob Carson and photographer Dean J. Koepfler and will run through Nov. 18.
For details, visit www.wshs.org. Catastrophe to Triumph: The Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows
By Richard S. Hobbs
Washington State University Press, paperback, 188 pages, $24.95
Internet slide show
To view a series of photos about the Narrows bridges, please see our Web site.