Via magazine
Via magazine - Your AAA Magazine

Western Bridges

Inspired by rugged landscapes and restless people, designers and engineers have built some astounding bridges.

Golden Gate Bridge from underneath
Photo caption
The Golden Gate Bridges spans 1.7 miles (8,981 feet).

San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge
Glen Canyon Bridge
Sundial Bridge London Bridge Golden Gate Bridge Yaquina Bay Bridge Cart Creek Bridge O'Connell Bridge Office Covered Bridge

Bridges are built for a mundane purpose—to allow you to go from here to there without a fuss—but in the West's remarkable landscape, the results are anything but dull. The whims of man and the varied demands of na-ture have spawned a spectacular array of bridges that capture the imagination at the same time they do their job.

Some nestle in forests and some leap across bays. Some are follies designed to attract attention, others are utilitarian wonders that allow a society geared to the automobile to function more smoothly. There are suspension bridges with their postcard-ready silhouettes and towerless viaducts that slice clean lines through the air. You'll discover cable-stayed spans, arch bridges, and, in Arizona, a granite antique from England.

The following is a sample of what the West offers. So if you should encounter one of these memorable creations on your next journey, pause for a moment—not just to admire the landscape, but also to admire the span that gets you where you're going.

1936 Interstate 80 between San Francisco and Oakland, California

The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge is such an integral part of the Bay Area's daily life, funneling an average of 280,000 cars each day on the 8.25-mile journey from one side of San Francisco Bay to the other, that it's easy to take the bridge for granted.

Yet the robust drama of four cable-draped towers—two at 525 feet high and two at 474 feet—marching into downtown San Francisco deserves attention, if only for the nonchalant majesty of a 70-year-old structure doing its job. Consider these facts: The 1933 order for cable and girders equaled more than 6 percent of the nation's steel production. Coating that steel took 200,000 gallons of silver paint. The anchorage between the second and third suspension towers begins 220 feet beneath the bay and then rises to a point 281 feet above the water.

For seismic reasons, the trussed eastern half of the bridge will be replaced by a new span with a single tower. Because of political fights over the design and budget, it won't open before 2013. That's 11 years of construction—eight more than it took to build the original bridge.

1959 Highway 89 near Page, Arizona

Few public works projects in the West have been more controversial than Glen Canyon Dam, the 710-foot-high concrete wall finished in 1964. It plugged the Colorado River near the Utah–Arizona border, created 186-mile-long Lake Powell, and drowned a craggy world that environmentalists have bemoaned the loss of ever since.

Completion of the massive dam was preceded by another feat—construction of the 1,271-foot-long steel-arch bridge that soars 700 feet above the Colorado River. It was built between 1957 and 1959 by extending steel trusses from either side of the canyon, one section at a time—each addition held tight by cables stretching from steel towers anchored in the plateau rock—until they met in the middle. The aim was good; the sides were less than an inch askew when they first touched.

Even by bridge-building standards this was hard work. But before the bridge, the drive from one side of Glen Canyon to the other was 192 miles. In other words, there might not have been a dam without the bridge—for better or worse.

2004 Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding, California

When can a structure that comes in al-most 70 percent over its budget be considered a bargain? When the result is Redding's exquisite footbridge—and when the designer's name is Santiago Calatrava. : The Spanish architect-engineer had never completed a public works project in the United States when the McConnell Foundation asked him in 1995 to design a footbridge for Redding's Turtle Bay Exploration Park on the Sacramento River. Intrigued by the natural setting, he proposed a translucent glass deck supported by cables stretching from a 217-foot-high bone-white pylon (a towerlike structure). : Granted, the bridge was to cost $14 million and open in 2001; instead, it debuted in 2004 with a $23.5 million price tag. But Calatrava is one of the world's hottest architects—acclaimed for designs such as the airy, futuristic Athens Olympic Sports Complex and the cathedral-like transit station at the site of the World Trade Center—and, to date, Redding has the only U.S. example of the bridges that brought him fame. It was worth the wait.

1971 Lake Havasu City, Arizona

At the ripe old age of 136, London Bridge was falling down—or at least settling into the muck of the River Thames at the rate of more than one inch each decade. Rather than demolish the arched remnant of times past, British officials put it up for sale in 1967.

Enter Robert McCulloch, a rich U.S. industrialist who wanted to turn 26 square miles of arid land along remote Lake Havasu, Ariz., into a resort community. His $2.46 million bid won him 10,276 pieces of numbered granite that were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean—customs officials dubbed the purchase a "large antique"—given a bath, and then attached to a concrete frame.

The restored bridge is shorter and narrower than the original, and the "island" it connects to was a peninsula until workers dredged a mile-long water-way. But Lake Havasu City's population now tops 50,000—and London Bridge still draws a smile.

1937 Highway 101 between San Francisco and Marin County, California

The next time you assume it was easier to get things done in the "good old days," ponder this: Between 1921, when engineer Joseph B. Strauss first submitted sketches for a span from San Francisco to Marin County, and the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 28, 1937, there were years of lawsuits instigated by rival ferry companies. Opponents claimed there wouldn't be enough traffic to pay off the bonds needed to fund construction. The trestle for the southern tower was rammed by a ship in a dense fog in 1933, and 10 men were killed in 1937 when the scaffold they were on plunged through a safety net into the waves below.

But here's the result: an art deco–tinged masterpiece with two 746-foot-high towers that gracefully support the cables holding aloft a 4,200-foot-long suspension span between them. The bridge is so revered that even the recent installation of safety railings between the roadway and the sidewalks required a three-year design process to make them as discreet as possible.

1936 Highway 101, Newport, Oregon

When Conde B. McCullough was lobbying to replace ferry service on the Oregon coast with five new bridges, he told one luncheon group that convenient travel on Highway 101 would create an "unsurpassed advertising medium for the entire state as well as an important transportation link."

He didn't mention that his stylish bridges would make the scenery even more intriguing—and there's no better evidence than this 3,223-foot-long structure. For the driver it's a smooth delight, streamlined pylons and sculptured railings framing a narrow roadway that soars across the broad mouth of Yaquina Bay. Tucked out of sight is drama of a different sort: a complex structure that begins with simple girders and shifts to a series of progressively wider concrete arches, then a steel arch that's wider still, and finally—above the deepest channel—another tall steel arch leaping over the roadway.

All five of the coast bridges began construction in 1934 and opened for traffic in 1936. Drivers in Oregon have been hooked ever since.

1962 Highway 191 near Dutch John, Utah

Elegant isn't a word often associated with Flaming Gorge, the cavernous path of the Green River in Utah and Wyoming so named by explorer John Wesley Powell in 1869 "because the brilliant red gorge, from a distance, looked as if it were on fire."

But elegant is a good description for the 550-foot-long steel arch with a 28-foot-wide roadway hanging from narrow cables.

That easy grace belies the fact that during construction, workers discovered the canyon's walls to be fractured and unstable. Holes were drilled into the cliffs and steel bars were concealed within the rocks to anchor each end. But that's the secret of good engineering: You don't see the strain.

1972 Harbor Drive, Sitka, Alaska

There's no site in Alaska more historic than Sitka's Castle Hill, where Russia transferred ownership of the territory to the United States in 1867. Some 200 feet away, there's history of another sort: the nation's first vehicular cable-stayed bridge.

What sets the O'Connell Bridge apart from suspension bridges is that it has four 100-foot-high slender steel pylons from which stretch a set of tight cables, each holding a section of the deck in place. At the dedication of the 1,255-foot-long span in 1972, Governor William Egan stood on Castle Hill and praised the "magnificent bridge" for being "unobtrusive to the view from this historic monument."

Cable-stayed bridges are now common on the East Coast. But in the West they're still unusual—and the nation's first remains one of its best.

Near State Highway 58, Westfir, Oregon

Anyone who dismisses covered bridges as quaint East Coast curios has never peered inside this 180-foot-long box tucked away in the forest some 35 miles southeast of Eugene. Square beams about a foot thick are bundled together in sets of three along each side, and vertical steel rods provide added strength beneath a tall pitched roof.

The reason for such heft? The bridge—which includes a unique covered sidewalk on one side—was built in 1944 by the Westfir Lumber Company so that logging trucks could cross this branch of the Willamette River. As for the cozy-looking red frame, the best way to keep a wooden roadbed from rotting in Oregon's damp climate is to protect it with walls and a roof.

Westfir Lumber's office is now a bed-and-breakfast; there's a rest area where the mill once stood. But judging by the look of things, Office Covered Bridge should be around for decades to come.

Photography by Ambush Commander/English Wikipedia


This article was first published in March 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.