Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Designers

If you haven't seen the footage of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing, what the hell is wrong with you.

One my fondest experiences in the Seattle area was going to see the foundations of the old bridge, which remain as concrete blocks just south of where the new bridge meets land on the western side of the Sound. Fond, because it was the Fourth of July, and the nice man who gave me directions to the ruins informed me that every Fourth a group of people traditionally gets badly baked sitting on said stone blocks and invited me to join them. Tempting though the offer was I had other plans in Seattle that night and had to decline (a mistake, in retrospect.) But standing there that day un-stoned and looking at the foundations and the white caps curling in the Sound beneath the pine-covered basalt bluffs, I suddenly wondered: who designed this doomed thing, and what happened to them?

The two responsible engineers were Washington State's Clark Eldridge, and New York's (Columbia's) Leon Moisseiff. Eldridge was apparently told by the Feds he needed a consultant to help him build the bridge more cheaply. Moisseiff's contribution was to make the bridge more elegant. The bridge opened in July 1940 and collapsed four months later. Moisseiff died just three years after that. Meanwhile, Eldridge was working for the Navy in Guam in 1941 when the war began and he was captured by the Japanese. He spent the rest of the war, almost four years, in a Japanese POW camp, but nonetheless survived the experience died in 1990 at the age of 93.

Interestingly, Moisseiff also designed the Manhattan Bridge across the Hudson, and the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philly across the Delaware, both of which are still "alive and well" today. If you have occasion to drive across either in the future, try jumping up and down on your seat to see if the bridge survives it. Hey, don't be too smug left coasters. Eldridge designed the Lake Washington Floating Bridge (i.e., I-90 in Seattle).

Some more interesting and oddly neglected West Coast engineering history here.

No comments: