The winds blew and the bridge shook as the roads twisted and turned and finally gave up. The bridge collapsed and fell into the icy waters below — along with a car and Tubby the cocker spaniel.
It was a sad day for driver Leonard Coatsworth, Tacoma News Tribune news editor.
He and Tubby were the last to drive across the newly built bridge that moments later would plunge into the sea — and later into the history and text books.
“Around me I could hear concrete cracking,” Coatsworth wrote. “I started back to the car to get the dog, but was thrown before I could reach it. The car itself began to slide from side to side on the roadway. I decided the bridge was breaking up and my only hope was to get back to shore.”
“On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers… My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb…Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time… Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.”
They never found the car or Tubby.
Professors and engineers are still talking about that day on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge — Nov. 7, 1940 — a day that will live in infamy in the annals of bridge building.
As early as 1889, locals in Washington Territory were agitating for a bridge linking Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula — an idea supported by the Northern Pacific Railway, which wanted a trestle.
The U.S. Army and Navy supported it too, having bases in the area. Unsurprisingly, the state Legislature also jumped on the bandwagon — early-on hearing the “ka-ching” of toll booth cash registers.
By the 1920s, the chamber of commerce pitched in by promoting the plan, funding studies and consulting engineers. In 1929 — a month before the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression — Washington’s Legislature approved the bridge.
It took another 10 years to plan the project and build the bridge.
The initial design was by engineer Clark Eldridge, who estimated that it would cost about $11 million. Then a noted “Eastern consulting engineer” named Leon Moisseiff — who designed the Golden Gate Bridge — jumped into the project and said the cost was too high. He managed to take over and changed Eldridge’s designs, lowering the cost to $6.4 million.
Low bidder was the Pacific Bridge Company in the amount of $5,594,730.40.
In September 1938, a workforce of 200 men and one woman began construction. The woman was Marie Guske, who just graduated from Washington State College. She answered the phone for Eldridge and handled the secretarial work.
While under construction, workers felt the roadbed (deck) moving up and down when it was windy, and nicknamed the bridge “Galloping Gertie.” Engineers tried several ways to fix the oscillations — or “bounce” — but nothing worked.
Nevertheless, work continued.
Three days before the bridge opened on July 1, 1940, construction carpenter Fred Wilde fell 12 feet to his death, and in September, Hugh Meiklejohn was killed by a falling bucket of paint during final paint work on the bridge. They were the only fatalities on the project.
Pete Kreller, a 26-year-old painter, fell 190 feet into the Narrows and miraculously survived with only minor injuries.
In the months following the opening, the troublesome oscillations continued. Worried officials hired University of Washington Professor F. B. “Burt” Farquharson to figure out the cause. He built an 8-foot scale model of the bridge for testing in a wind tunnel.
His studies blamed Moisseiff’s solid panel girders supporting the roadbed — forming a wall against the wind. Beam girders would have let the wind pass through, avoiding the powerful wind pressure.
The wind tunnel tests revealed that swirling wind could be disastrous.
Eldridge proposed correcting the problem by installing wind deflector plates. It never happened.
Fife High School (Tacoma) student Carol Peacock’s journalism class homework assignment was to write something imaginative, beginning with “Just suppose…” The story she chose was titled “Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses.”
It happened the next day.
On Nov. 7 that same year, a 40-mph wind hit the bridge with the twisting motion that Professor Farquharson feared.
A report by the Washington State Department of Transportation said: “10:03 a.m.: Suddenly, the roadway began a ‘lateral twisting motion.’ At first the movement was small. By 10:07 the movement became gigantic. The roadway tilted up to 28 feet on one side then the other at an angle up to 45 degrees. Every 5 seconds the bridge deck rose and fell violently with the twisting wave.
“On the other end of the bridge, near the West Tower, sat the Rapid Transfer Company van with passengers Ruby Jacox and Walter Hagen. They jumped from the van just seconds before the tilting roadway tipped it over. The two clung to the curb for dear life.”
Professor Farquharson was there recording the event with his movie camera.
(See his dramatic film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-zczJXSxnw)
The Tacoma News Tribune immediately rushed photographer Howard Clifford (friend of this writer), reporter Bert Brintnall and freelance photographer James Bashford to the bridge.
Clifford saw a Pacific National Bank billboard that crowed, “As secure as the Narrows Bridge.” He planned to take a photo of it on his way back to town, but by the time he returned, the sign was covered with white paper.
By 11:08 a.m., the final section of the roadway fell into the Narrows.
Galloping Gertie was no more.
Only the towers and cables remained. They were dismantled and sold for scrap, and World War II stopped further efforts toward replacing the bridge.
It would be 10 years before there was a new one.
As Galloping Gertie was swaying in the wind and breaking apart, Lt. W.C. Hogan was sailing his Coast Guard cutter Atlanta northward below. Just before Gertie fell into the water, chunks of concrete crashed onto the ship’s deck. “It looked as though it would surely break up,” he said, but he made it through.
When Gertie finally fell, Hogan radioed his Seattle headquarters, and was the first to tell the world what happened.
The last car across the bridge before it collapsed was a Golden Rule Bakery wagon driven by Elbert Swinney. He was making his regular run from Tacoma to Gig Harbor, but on that day his wife, Hazel, and their 5-year-old son, Richard, were with him. Years later, Richard remembered, “My mother was screaming a lot.”
Some good things came from the disaster: Scientists and engineers increased their interest in studying bridge aerodynamics and aeroelastics, benefiting future long-span bridge designs.
The destroyed parts of Gertie became an artificial reef and a favorite scuba diving venue.
Nearly nine years after Galloping Gertie, the new bridge was built and in service, but it too had its troubles. On April 13, 1949, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale shook Puget Sound, causing the bridge’s towers to sway as much as 6 feet on each side from perpendicular.
On the north side of the East Tower, the 28-ton cable saddle (top part of the tower where the cables transfer the bridge weight to the tower) broke away and fell some 500 feet, right through a passing barge and sinking it.
It took 10 days to repair the bridge.
There’s a sad footnote about Leon Moisseiff, the once proud and honored Latvian-born engineer who designed the failed bridge. After Galloping Gertie plunged to a watery grave in Puget Sound, he became dismayed and disheartened. Even though he continued to work, his brilliant career had ended.
Just three years after Galloping Gertie was lost, his heart gave out.
He was only 70.
Though Clark Eldridge’s design was rejected, he remained on the construction team, and wrote in his memoir, “I go over the Tacoma bridge frequently and always with an ache in my heart. It was my bridge.”
Leonard Coatsworth, who lost his car and pet dog, submitted a claim for the loss to the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority. After endless prodding, they eventually gave him $450 for the car and another $364.40 for the car’s contents — his beloved Tubby.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •
Mother Goose would have said…
Rock-a-bye Gertie o’er the sea top,
When the wind blows Gertie would rock,
When the cables did break, the bridge then did fall,
And down tumbled Gertie, roadway and all.
After the Galloping Gertie catastrophe, Clark Eldridge who made the first design of the bridge, later worked for the U.S. Navy on Guam and was captured by the Japanese in World War II. He spent three years and nine months in a POW camp in Japan.
One day, a Japanese officer walked up to him and said, “Tacoma Bridge!” He had been one of his students in the U.S.
Learn a new word…
“Gephyrophobia” is the fear of crossing bridges. Those who have that problem are called “gephyrophobics.”
The Galloping Gertie catastrophe is mentioned often in undergraduate physics text books, leading to new thinking about oscillation, harmonics and stress in bridge design.
Fife High School student Carol Peacock’s journalism class homework assignment was to write something imaginative, beginning with “Just suppose…” The story she chose was titled “Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses.”
It happened the next day.