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Bill Baarsma, Deb Freedman discuss 5 disastrous days in Tacoma

Tacoma historians Bill Baarsma and Deb Freedman shared their perspectives on five notable events chronicled in the book “Rising Up from Tacoma’s Twenty-One Disasters and Defeats” that Freeman co-authored with middle school students. Among them was the story of Galloping Gertie, the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which was brought down in 1940 by a windstorm.
Tacoma historians Bill Baarsma and Deb Freedman shared their perspectives on five notable events chronicled in the book “Rising Up from Tacoma’s Twenty-One Disasters and Defeats” that Freeman co-authored with middle school students. Among them was the story of Galloping Gertie, the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which was brought down in 1940 by a windstorm. Staff photographer

Tacoma Historical Society president Bill Baarsma and society board member Deb Freedman offer their takes on five incidents covered in the new book, “Rising Up from Tacoma’s Twenty-One Disasters and Defeats.”

LINDBERGH OF THE PACIFIC

July 28, 1929

Buoyed by Charles Lindbergh’s successful trans-Atlantic flight a young Olympia/Tacoma pilot, Harold Bromley, wanted to be the first person to fly nonstop across the Pacific Ocean.

Bromley operated a flight school near Tacoma and was a test pilot for Lockheed.

Local businessmen spent $25,000 to buy a Lockheed plane for Bromley. They named it City of Tacoma. A bond funded $300,000 to build an airstrip.

Upon the aviator’s arrival, he would deliver a gold watch to the emperor of Japan.

“This was a huge event,” Baarsma said. “There were 10,000 people there. It was on national radio. All the press was there.”

Air technology was still new. Designers figured a plane might get a boost if it went downhill first. So, they built a ramp for the plane to descend.

“They figured 25 feet of ramp equaled 100 feet of runway,” Freedman said.

“He never made it to the end of the runway,” Baarsma said.

The plane had been loaded with extra fuel tanks. As it descended the 100-feet-long wooden ramp fuel began to slosh out of the tanks.

“So he sticks his head out of the cockpit and he gets airplane fuel in his goggles,” Freedman said.

Taking off his goggles, Bromley then got fuel in his eyes. Unable to see he steered his plane off the runway, destroying it.

“Seattle made great fun of it,” Baarsma said.

Bromley kept trying, including several attempts from Japan. But he could never complete the trip. In 1931, barnstormer Clyde Pangborn made the trip, flying from Japan to Wenatchee.

The $300,000 airstrip eventually became today’s McChord Field.

STREETCAR DISASTER

July 4, 1900

It was a new century and the city was celebrating.

“Tacoma was putting on the grandest July Fourth event of its history,” Baarsma said.

“There was a battleship in Commencement Bay, blasting its cannons,” he said. “The troops were back from the Philippines, marching down Pacific Avenue. They had an Indian pow wow and potlatch downtown.”

Citizens were coming into town from all quarters, and many were using the popular conveyance of the time: streetcars.

But July 4 was not a good day to be riding trolleys. Several were out of service that day. Plus a labor dispute meant inexperienced operators were at the controls.

And it was raining.

One trolley whose capacity was 50 people was packed with more than 100 people and had a child sitting on the cow catcher.

The streetcar headed down Delin Hill to a trestle that crossed the gully that South Tacoma Way runs through today. It gradually picked up speed as it approached a turn just before the bridge.

“(The operator) lost control, put on the brakes, and the wheels locked,” Baarsma said. “When he got to the trestle he couldn’t turn, so he went straight over.”

Several people jumped before the trolley dived into the gulch but 44 people died. Scores were hurt.

“It was so traumatic that in the following year, 1901, they didn’t even celebrate July Fourth,” Baarsma said. “It was a memorial service.”

THE ANDELANA

Jan. 13, 1899

Tacoma’s deep harbor holds sunken history. Part of that legacy is the cargo ship Andelana.

The 300-feet-long English ship sailed into Tacoma’s harbor in January 1899 from Shanghai. The crew unloaded 350 tons of logs used for ballast and tied the ship to some large logs.

Because the ship was to take on a load of wheat in the morning the crew left the hatches open.

The captain and most of the crew stayed onboard that night, during which a small storm blew in.

“The next morning the neighboring ship says, ‘Where’s the Andelana?’” Freedman said.

The ship was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it had slipped its anchor and drifted away.

“Then they find a porthole, then they find a life jacket, then they find a little boat,” Freedman said. “It had just quietly slipped over and went down.”

The storm had been strong enough to break the ship’s ties. Without ballast, it had flipped over, was swamped through its open hatches and sank.

The captain and 15 crew members died.

COLUMBUS DAY STORM

Oct. 12, 1962

For longtime Westerners, no storm equals the one that hit on Columbus Day in 1962. It’s the weather event by which all others are measured.

In late September, a typhoon came across the Pacific and hit cold coastal air, producing an extratropical cyclone by early October.

The storm first hit California, killing 17. Then it struck Oregon before heading for Washington.

“It came up so strong that it blew out the weather instruments, and they don’t even know how strong it was,” Freedman said of the hurricane force winds.

When the storm hit, Baarsma was at a hotel, celebrating homecoming at the University of Puget Sound and the school’s 75th anniversary.

“All the lights went out, and none of us knew what was going on,” he said. “Driving home I kept seeing all these big maple trees down.”

Olympia, Seattle and even British Columbia were harder hit.

“Tacoma got off easy,” Freedman said.

GALLOPING GERTIE

Nov. 7, 1940

Compared to the Columbus Day Storm, the storm that blew through the Tacoma Narrows on Nov. 7, 1940, was just a slight breeze.

But it was enough to bring down the region’s brand new bridge.

Even while the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge was under construction workers noticed the span would amplify wind.

They named it Galloping Gertie.

“When my grandparents drove across it they would see cars disappear and reappear as the bridge undulated,” Baarsma said.

The bridge was opened to traffic with great fanfare on July 1, 1940.

Gertie barely lasted four months before it shook itself apart and collapsed. The only fatality was a black cocker spaniel named Tubby, who wouldn’t leave his owner’s car before it and the bridge plunged into the Narrows.

Since then the physics of the bridge’s design and demise have been taught around the world as an example of how not to build a bridge.

“There weren’t any grates,” Baarsma said. “So, the wind got under the bridge. First it undulated and then moved back and forth. And then the towers started moving back and forth.”

Theories behind the bridge’s demise involve harmonics and algebraic equations that physics and engineering professors can appreciate.

Suffice it to say it was inadvertently designed to fail. Because of the disaster bridge designs are now tested in wind tunnels just as airplane designs are.

But, had the bridge survived it would have quickly become outdated — it had only two lanes. Today’s two bridges have a combined eight lanes of traffic.

“It was a function of cost and design,” Baarsma said. “It was far too narrow.”

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