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People, Places, Stuff

RIDE ON FOREVER, GALLOPING GERTIE

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.  Read More 
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