Galloping Gertie: Years in the making, moments in the failing

The deck of Galloping Gertie rocks back and forth before collapsing in November 1940.
The deck of Galloping Gertie rocks back and forth before collapsing in November 1940. Staff file, 1940

1923: A campaign to bridge the Tacoma Narrows is launched by the civic group Federated Improvement Clubs of Tacoma.

1928: After endorsing a Narrows bridge and estimating the cost at $3 million to $10 million, the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce hires New York engineer David Steinman to do preliminary design work. After two years and $5,000 spent on work, he proposes a $9 million suspension bridge nearly a mile long. The idea is abandoned.

1932: Another engineer hired by the Chamber of Commerce proposes a $3 million bridge. The federal Reconstruction Finance Corp. declines to finance the project after a review by experts, including New York bridge designer Leon Moisseiff. Doubts are raised that the bridge will be used enough for toll revenues to pay off the bonds needed to build it.

1936: The U.S. War Department approves Pierce County commissioners’ application to build a $4 million bridge. Nearly half the money is to come from the Public Works Administration, a New Deal program.

1938: State engineer Clark Eldridge presents “a tried and true conventional bridge design” that would cost $11 million. The Reconstruction Finance Corp. and Public Works Administration approve a $6 million financing package. The agencies require the hiring of East Coast experts to design the bridge: Moisseiff for the bridge structure, and the firm of Moran and Proctor for its base. Ten days after signing a contract to work on the bridge, Moisseiff recommends design changes that cut its bulk and cost.

Nov. 23, 1938: Groundbreaking for the first Narrows bridge.

July 1, 1940: The Tacoma Narrows Bridge — nicknamed “Galloping Gertie” by workers who noticed its bounces during construction — opens with a festival that draws 7,000 spectators. The toll is 75 cents each way to cross the 5,939-foot bridge, which cost $6.4 million to build.

August 1940: University of Washington professor F. Burt Farquharson starts recording Gertie’s “potentially dangerous” movements and testing wind-tunnel models of ways to stabilize the bridge.

Nov. 2, 1940: Farquharson’s final report recommends construction to reduce the bridge’s gallops. He offers two options: cover Gertie’s solid plate girders with curved steel to deflect the wind, or cut holes in the girders to allow wind to pass through. State officials draft a contract to install the deflectors for $80,000.

Nov. 7, 1940: On a morning of steady 40 mph winds through the Narrows, “Galloping Gertie” collapses into the Puget Sound.

Sources: Catastrophe to Triumph: Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows by Richard S. Hobbs, Washington State University Press, 2006, and wsdot.wa.gov/TNBhistory/spanning_time.htm.

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