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Tacoma lost more than just a bridge the day Galloping Gertie fell

More than a decade before engineers began planning a bridge across the Tacoma Narrows, Tacoma was building the longest transmission line span in the world over the same channel. The Cushman Dam electrical project required spanning 1.3 miles between two sets of 300-foot-high towers in the city.
More than a decade before engineers began planning a bridge across the Tacoma Narrows, Tacoma was building the longest transmission line span in the world over the same channel. The Cushman Dam electrical project required spanning 1.3 miles between two sets of 300-foot-high towers in the city. Courtesy

Galloping Gertie is like Tacoma’s beloved but slightly scandalous old great aunt who had a short career in burlesque, went through several husbands and made one movie.

The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge — an elegant but short-lived suspension span that collapsed so spectacularly Nov. 7, 1940 — is a celebrity of Tacoma history and has guaranteed the city a place in every book on bridges written since that breezy day just before the beginning of World War II.

And Gertie’s one film, with its eye-popping action, gigantic twisting road deck and narrow escape, was a really good one. It never gets old and never fails to fascinate the audience, probably because the whole breathtaking visual drama is completely real.

The bridge’s short life and sudden death have become a cultural benchmark for Tacoma, a landmark of time and place that divides old Tacoma with its busy downtown, crowded street cars and distinct ethnic neighborhoods from the modern post-war city of automobiles, freeways, shopping malls and suburban neighborhoods.

What is sometimes lost, however, is an appreciation of how the construction and destruction of the bridge affected Tacoma in physical and social terms at the time, as the Great Depression was easing and the Second World War loomed.

So much optimism and promise were loaded on the new span across the Narrows, so many big ideas and long reaches were lost in such a dramatic way.

If we were to remember Galloping Gertie by flipping through the Tacoma family album, here are some images and episodes that might best capture the era.

The opening of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 prompted festive parades, concerts and speeches in the city's Japantown. (Washington Historical Society, courtesy.) 
The opening of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 prompted festive parades, concerts and speeches in the city's Japantown. (Washington Historical Society, courtesy.)

JAPANTOWN

It’s July 1940 in the heart of Tacoma’s Japantown, and it seems like everyone is involved in the celebration of the opening of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

There are festive parades, concerts and speeches and a shared community pride and sense of marvel at the elegant new suspension bridge.

So much would change so soon.

Nearly all the people in this photo would journey to the Narrows on a windy day to witness the bizarre galloping of the bridge before it fell.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor the next year, they would board a train at Union Station and be interned at a government relocation camp for most of the war.

Strictly enforced immigration laws championed in the 1920s by Tacoma’s Republican congressman, U.S. Rep. Albert Johnson, had hindered property ownership for most of the Japanese-American families living downtown.

Tacoma’s newly elected civic leader, Harry P. Cain, would be the only West Coast mayor to oppose Japanese-American relocation after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

After the war, few families returned, and Japantown disappeared. But on this fine sunny July day, none of that mattered yet. I like the saddle shoes and high school hair styles. So fashionably American.

NARROWS CROSSING

More than a decade before engineers began planning a bridge across the Narrows, the city of Tacoma was building the longest transmission line span in the world over the same channel.

The Cushman Dam project was a marvel in its own right, but carrying power from the Mason County hydroelectric plant to Tacoma required an unsupported aerial span of 1.3 miles between two sets of 300-foot-high towers — a 25 percent reach beyond the longest distance ever attempted at the time.

Beyond the monumental towers on either side of the channel, the new power came into the city along a picket line of girder towers and cables running down North 21st Street and plugging into the transfer station at Washington Street.

When the whole project was “electrified,” Tacoma’s residential edge received a jolt as homes and neighborhoods blossomed around Puget Sound College and pushed out to the west.

All those Tudor cottages and all-electric homes between North Proctor Street and Sixth Avenue are part of the Cushman Dam growth.

The engineering marvel of the aerial span across the Narrows planted the idea of following with a road bridge and probably fixed the design notion that it should be a cable suspension bridge.

It took 14 years to realize the idea and just a little over four months to prove it flawed. Seriously flawed.

LAST WALTZ

Last January, when the scrappers torched into the rusted carcass of the Kalakala on a Tacoma dry dock, they were dealing with more than just a storied ending to a once glamorous and later troubled ferry boat.

Tacoma’s most memorable connection with the vessel dates back to a summer day in 1940, when the new Narrows bridge was opening and ferry service to Gig Harbor was ending.

The Kalakala was chartered to make the last run the evening of July 2, carrying some 1,400 partiers on a looping voyage from Municipal Dock to Titlow Beach, then to Gig Harbor, Bremerton and back again to Tacoma.

True to its reputation as less than dependable, the art deco ferry turned floating ballroom had mechanical trouble and arrived more than an hour late.

By the time the costumed celebrants, dancers, band, and food and drink were loaded onto the car deck, the party was in full gear, and the captain was racing to pass twice under the spectacular new suspension bridge before dark.

The band music and jive dancers competed with the engine noise and hull vibrations on a voyage that must have been like off-key chaos inside a giant Dobro guitar.

In any event, the trip ended well, and the revelers got back to Tacoma safely.

Early on the morning of July 3, after hosing down the decks and picking up the empties, the Kalakala sailed back to Seattle after its ironic nod to the obsolescence of ferry travel and its passing perspective on the marvels of bridge engineering.

Four months later, the people of Tacoma were scrambling to find a ferry to cross the Narrows once again. Another icon of Northwest transportation, Galloping Gertie, had held a rocking party of her own, and unlike the Kalakala’s event, it didn’t survive.

A diver and his crew test the intercom system before he plunges into the Tacoma Narrows to rig stabilizing cables from the bridge towers to anchors under water. (Washington Historical Society, courtesy.) 
A diver and his crew test the intercom system before he plunges into the Tacoma Narrows to rig stabilizing cables from the bridge towers to anchors under water. (Washington Historical Society, courtesy.)

DIVER

Sometimes history seems completely character-driven. The time, place and story all fade, and the past is displayed in a face or a biography.

In working on a piece for the anniversary of Gertie’s collapse, I came across this photograph from the construction of the bridge. It staggered me with its calm intensity.

Consider the mind of this unnamed diver and his crew as he readies for a blind drop to the floor of the Narrows to rig the heavy stabilizing cables from the bridge towers to massive concrete anchors.

A few minutes after this photograph is taken, he will be surrounded by an airless world of treacherous currents, relying on lead weights to direct him to a destination far from the safety of the surface.

His contact will be through the intercom system being tested here before the steel helmet is locked over his head and onto the pressure suit. His return from the underworld will be by the hemp rope tied to his weight belt.

The whole enterprise seems impossibly terrifying, and yet in the diver’s steady expression is something completely different than fear.

In 1939, they were building a bridge in Tacoma that was made of steel and cables and concrete — and moments like this.

About the author

Michael Sullivan has been teaching and writing about the history of Tacoma and the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington Tacoma for more than 20 years.

As a preservationist and public historian, he’s worked to save and reuse the city’s historic buildings and places.

He also is a writer and producer of digital content for the websites Recaptured City and Satko’s Ark. The images and story capsules in this article are a sampling of hundreds of entries on Tacoma and Northwest history on his social media site.

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