Travels with Susan Spano

People, Places, Stuff


September 17, 2012

Tags: Bridge, disaster, engineering, Tacoma, Puget Sound

Never mind the “The Titanic” in 3D. Check out this disaster footage: disaster footage.

Its star, if you failed to notice, isn’t a ship but a bridge. A female bridge, Galloping Gertie, named for the way she bucked and bolted in a high wind.

The long-awaited first bridge to cross Tacoma Narrows, separating the east and west side of Puget Sound, was a marvel in steel cables when she opened to traffic on July 1, 1940. Designed by Leon Moisseiff, a consulting engineer for the Golden Gate, she was the third longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. And boy, oh boy, did Tacoma celebrate her arrival with bands, speeches and rooster races staged by Charles E. Shaw who’d developed the curious sport in the fishing village of Gig Harbor.

Now two bridges cross the Narrows between the city of Tacoma and the Olympic Peninsula, one built in 1950 (known as Sturdy Gertie) and the other in 2007 (with a much-resented eastbound toll). It’s a blissful drive over the strait between forested Fox Island and historic Point Defiance, but I couldn’t go that way a few months ago without thinking of Gertie.

Soon after she opened people started to notice that the bridge wasn’t exactly stable; indeed, she twisted like scotch tape on windy days--the oscillation effect, produced by a then innovative design that didn’t use trusses, thereby making her lighter and more pliable than previous suspension bridges. Cables were added in an attempt to settle Gertie down, but no one thought she was dangerous. In fact, folks took to driving across just for the thrill.

But when 42 mph winds kicked up four months later on November 7, Gertie began oscillating and undulating so wildly that the bridge authority shut her down. From the banks people watched girders give way, suspender cables snap, the road bed heave and then collapse in pieces into the sound, followed by the two 420-foot towers that held her central span. The only fatality was a dog stranded in an abandoned vehicle. Miraculously, a local camera shop owner got the whole thing on 16 mm film, preserved by the Library of Congress and more recently YouTube.

There’s nothing left to see of Gertie when you cross the Narrows today; her rubble now rests at the bottom of Puget Sound. But the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor a few miles beyond the west side of the span displays pieces of her debris, not to mention photos of Clarence E. Shaw’s racing roosters.
From the first annual SPEAK UP! contest, June 23, 2018, Muhanga, Rwanda

Syracuse Archaeological Museum, Sicily

Proshyan School bathroom with water tank

Takar and Kataro are my favorite Armenia reds

School time in Armenia.

Garni Temple, Armenia

Big Sur from Soberanes Point


Artichoke Pickers by Henriette Shore

On the way to the beach

Jalama Beach, CA

Hello, little sea urchin!

Famous Jalama Beach Burger

Three by Peter Hessler

Spring time on the Big Sur Coast


Jalama Beach, CA

Motya Charioteer. Image from

Laboratory for Atmospheres, NASA

Homesick for Rome

Therme Vals in Switzerland

At Vogelsgang

National Socialist Party poster from Vogelsgang

Palm Springs

Image courtesy of Tylas at English Wikipedia

Vintage Naples Historic District

From Palm Cottage

Borobudur frieze; Buddha's life

Borobudur at sunrise

Shikellamy State Park in Pennsylvania

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Image courtesy of Politics and Prose

Image courtesy of John Wehrheim.

Lotusland in Montecito, CA

Ganna Walska of Lotusland

Image courtesy of Flickr user ViaMoi.

Conques Church. Image courtesy of Flickr user Seligr.

Weiming Lake, Peking University. Image courtesy of Flickr user ImGump.

The Coral Casino at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel near Santa Barbara

Agrodome, Rotorua, New Zealand. Image courtesy of Flickr user _gem_.

Vandalized images at Painted Rock

Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

Mesa Verde National Park. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons user BenFrantzDale.

A map of Chicago, Illinois, imprinted in 1913 from the United States Geographical Survey’s historical topographic map collection. Image courtesy of the USGS.

Image courtesy of Flickr user hattiesburgmemory.

Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of Flickr user alobos flickr.

Image courtesy of Flickr user joiseyshowaa.

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Selected Works

Nonfiction, Travel, Human Interest
A new collection of travel essays by Susan Spano
Tracking Colette in Paris and Burgundy
A draught sinks Lake Powell, revealing lost wonders of Glen Canyon
Rome's Most Roman Neighborhood
Studying Mandarin in Beijing
Around the world and back to New York
Nonfiction Book
Divorce. Why do we do it? And what does it do to us? fourteen prominent writers have pondered these questions and have set down heir thoughts and personal stories, in this gathering of sometimes irreverent and always intelligent essays. "A disarmingly candid, invaluable collection." --Publishers Weekly
"Anyone who doubts that men, too, suffer in divorce should be required to read this." --Glamour Magazine "A rare, unusually focused anthology of original essays that both entertains and instructs." --Publishers Weekly

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