The city of Pasadena will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the gorgeous Colorado Street Bridge on Saturday, June 22, 2013, one of the outstanding historic cultural monuments of the city. Built to serve a basic utilitarian purpose, the bridge also came to function as a striking icon representing the beauty and grace of Pasadena.
From the 1880s to the mid-teens, a simple, wooden bridge constructed by the Scoville family over the Arroyo Seco served as the connection between Pasadena, Crown of the Valley, and the community of Eagle Rock. This plain bridge required steep ascents and descents up and down the banks of the Arroyo. With the coming of automobiles, the city of Pasadena realized a more substantial bridge was required to serve growing traffic.
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Pasadena Mayor Thum and others began discussions with architects about a proposed new bridge in July 1911, per The Los Angeles Times. By August, the city chose Alexander Low Waddell of Waddell and Harrington engineering firm from Kansas City to design the bridge, signing a contract on Aug, 29, 1911. By Nov. 26, 1911, Pasadena received building plans.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to support construction on Feb. 20, 1912, agreeing to pay half of the costs. After receiving bids in March, Pasadena chose Mercereau Bridge and Construction Co. of Los Angeles to build the structure.
J. C. Wright, chief engineer for the contractors, noted that the bridge design was the most up to date for its time, particularly in that the bridge curved as it crossed the arroyo. “The curve in the line of the bridge is a point of interest in the design as well as in the architectural appearance of the bridge, and was used to make the most economical crossing of the arroyo possible under the existing conditions,” per his interview with the November 1914 Water and Sewage Works journal.
Construction started in July 1912 on the arroyo bridge with 40 men working to erect the largest concrete, reinforced bridge built on a curve. Starting on the west side of the channel, the company constructed frames and forms as they proceeded eastward. The company fell behind and missed the estimated opening date of May 3, 1913. By June 1913, the crew expanded to 100 men to speed construction. Once again, they missed the Aug. 3, 1913 opening date. Finally in November, work was completed, after injuries to company engineer Norman Clark, and deaths of two construction workers.
The 1914, Western Machinery and Steel World reported that the company employed 11,000 cubic yards of concrete and 600 tons of reinforced steel, requiring 23,100 days of man labor to construct the 1,468-foot-long bridge at a uniform grade of 2.655% at a height of 165 feet above the arroyo. The bridge contained 28 feet clear asphalt-paved roadway with 15 feet clear cement sidewalk the full length of each side. The bridge spanned a width of 45 feet from the artificial stone balustrades. Forty-eight ornamental light posts decorated the bridge, with 15 parabolic arches supporting the structure. Final construction costs totaled over $191,000; adding in right of way costs, the final tally reached $250,000.
On Dec. 13, 1913, the city of Pasadena and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors held a grand opening celebration for what they called the Colorado Street Bridge. Meeting at Carmelita school grounds, automobiles decorated with banners and pennants proceeded to Colorado Street and then headed west across the structure. Speeches from city and county official followed. Speakers pointed out that the artistic look of the bridge complemented the beautiful, panoramic views it offered.
In the fall of 1914, officials lowered the speed limit for the bridge to 10 mph and also flushed the pavement, after light rain led to three wrecks in 15 minutes because of skidding on the rain-slicked curve.
City officials quickly began employing images of the bridge in advertising promoting tourism and visits to the Rose Parade and football game. Photographs filled magazines, guidebooks and brochures, along with suggestions to either walk or drive across its length.
Unfortunately, the bridge also attracted the attention of those suffering from mental, physical or financial troubles. Per the June 7, 1915, Los Angeles Times, Joseph M. Roma gave the bridge its first “blood-christening” on May 28, 1915, followed in quick succession by the suicide of a tuberculosis-suffering Canadian, Alfred T. McDonald, on June 6, 1915. McDonald remarked to friends after hearing of Roma’s death, that “he would go that way some time.” The third victim, J.J. Neal of Guelph, Ontario, lived 15 minutes after he jumped over the side. In the 1920s, two people survived jumps when they grabbed branches of eucalyptus trees just a few feet from the railings.
Charles H. Kelley suggesting placing narrow wire nets beneath the railings to prevent suicides in December 1930. Others suggested a grille above the railing in 1933, but for a short time that year, three Pasadena policemen acted as a suicide guard patrolling the length of the bridge. The city considered this too costly and canceled it a month later. Finally on June 8, 1937, the city voted to construct a 7½-foot fence topped by barbed wire along the sidewalks for $7,000. Desperate people still climbed over the wire to jump.
The state Division of Highways suggested tearing down the Colorado Street Bridge in December 1934, and building a suicide-proof structure, one designed to carry even heavier traffic. This idea was quickly shot down.
In 1950, the California Highway Commission submitted plans to the city for a new bridge to replace the aging Colorado Street Bridge, a stronger bridge with more lanes of traffic. Construction started in May 1951, and after three years of work, the new highway opened in June 1954.
Over the years, a few stunts added a measure of fun. Daredevil pilot Arthur Goebel flew under the bridge with a woman standing on the upper wing of the airplane in 1926. Inventors Jack Fry and Floyd Bowman tried out their quick-opening parachute on Aug. 6, 1927, throwing a 300-pound bag of sand attached to the chute over the side, which opened before it fell 15 feet. They quickly hightailed it away before authorities could arrive.
By the 1970s, chunks of concrete occasionally fell from the structure, caused by water damage over the years. In 1979, the California Department of Transportation suggested demolishing it, but Pasadena Heritage and others rallied support to prevent destruction. The group’s work gained the bridge National Register status in 1981. After the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake, the Colorado Street Bridge closed, and the city realized it needed to raise money for restoration and retrofitting work.
Seismic retrofitting and renovation began in January 1991, which required replacing supporting columns with reinforced replicas, and rebuilding with stronger reinforced arches and piers. This 33-month renovation cost more than $24 million. Reopening and rededication occurred on the Colorado Street Bridge’s 80th birthday on Dec. 13, 1993.
The Colorado Street Bridge still serves as an elegant focal point along Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, a gentle reminder of simpler days.
What’s the death count now?
I don’t think the city of Pasadena releases those figures, just as San Francisco doesn’t publicize figures on the Golden Gate Bridge.