History of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Gertie collapses - color

The First Bridge - "Galloping Gertie"

I am fortunate to live near an engineering marvel recently completed: the new Tacoma Narrows bridge. Most folks have heard of the Tacoma Narrows bridge —at least the first one, “Galloping Gertie”, which catastrophically failed during a windstorm in November 1940.

Built at the cost of $6.6 million dollars, designed by world-famous bridge architect Leon S. Moisseiff (who also designed the Golden Gate bridge), it embraced the light, elegant design principles in vogue at the time – and was designed with complete ignorance of the aerodynamic effects of high winds on bridges. Moisseiff had inadvertently created a mile-wide airplane wing, with its light-weight narrow deck and plate-girder sides. It survived only 4 months after completion. In a strong-but-typical November windstorm, the wave-like undulations were severe enough to unseat a cable from its saddle on the West tower, creating a corkscrew torsional motion which ripped the bridge to shreds.

The only casualty, surprisingly, was Tubby the three-legged dog.

May he rest in peace.
Gertie after collapse with woman
The fallen span of the bridge remains at the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows, and has been designated a National Register of Historic Places to prevent salvage. It is one of the world’s largest artificial reefs, and home to a plethora of marine life, as well as the world’s largest octopus, the Giant Pacific Octopus
Gertie afterwards
Gertie wreckage under water
The remainder was disassembled and sold for scrap during WWII. The caissons and anchors (for the cables, on either bank) were used, largely unmodified, to support the towers and cables of the second Narrows Bridge.

The Second Bridge

The second Narrows bridge was begun in 1948, construction delayed by WWII, and completed October 14, 1950, 29 months after construction began, at a cost of $14 million. It was one of the most highly researched bridge engineering projects in history, and greatly advanced the understanding of aerodynamics in suspension bridge construction. A 1/72 replica of both the original and the new bridge were built in a wind tunnel and thoroughly tested for several years prior to design completion.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge - 2nd

Designed to carry 60,000 cars per day, the second bridge ferries over 90,000, and had become a major choke point for traffic in the rapidly growing South Puget Sound area. These transportation pressures have given rise to the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge project.

The New Narrows Bridge Project

The Tacoma Narrows is a formidable natural barrier. Carved out by ancient glaciers, over a mile wide and 260 feet deep, with steep, unstable banks on either side, it is a hostile environment for a suspension bridge. Wild tidal currents rip through the Narrows twice daily, through the sole portal between the Pacific Ocean and the entire South Puget Sound. High winds and fog are common. The Puget Sound area is also prone to major earthquakes.

The new Narrows Bridge project was the largest engineering endeavor in the U.S. in the last 30 years. Construction began in late 2002, after approval of an $800 million public-private financing package.

Now it’s time to look at the foundations: the bridge cassions.