Birth of the Bridge Street Bridge

Posted by David Middlecamp on February 20, 2014 

The Bridge Street Bridge was damaged by the 1914 floods along Arroyo Grande Creek in Arroyo Grande, Ca.

THE TRIBUNE

The bridge is likely older than any living person in San Luis Obispo county.

Built in 1908, the structure will turn 106 this year.

As Cynthia Lambert wrote this week, the Bridge Street Bridge in Arroyo Grande may be running out of time.

When it was newfangled, a 1908 Model T weighed between 1,200 and 1,700 lbs. Today’s Hummer H2 is approximately five times heavier.

Cars are wider and travel faster, but the bridge holds an affectionate place in the hearts of some who hope to save it.

It survived major floods before Lopez Dam tamed the roiling Arroyo Grande Creek.

In 1989 a supplemental truss was added to preserve the bridge, but it is again on the review list, and options are being studied: replica, refurbish, replace or do nothing.

Historian Mark Hall-Patton wrote about the bridge when it celebrated 80 years. His article mentions a flood in 1909, but the photos of damage I have found were from floods of 1914.

The Mark Hall-Patton history column was published in the June 23, 1988, South County Tribune, before he moved to Las Vegas and became a television expert on the show "Pawn Stars":

Arroyo span: 80 and holding

Bridge Street Bridge played an important role in early Arroyo Transportation

As those people who know me can attest, I take an inordinate delight in the history of bridges. In an earlier column I talked about the Bello Street Bridge in Pismo Beach and its importance in the early transportation history of the South County. This Week we will look at the Bridge Street Bridge in Arroyo Grande.

The Bridge Street Bridge was designed in 1907 and built in 1908. The designer of the bridge was Austin F. Parsons, the county surveyor who would later design the Bello Street span. Though not what we might call inspired designs, Parsons’ work was good and sturdy, holding well into the present.

The Bridge Street Bridge that Parsons designed was not the span from which the street took its name. That was a much earlier span. In an article in the Arroyo Grande Weekly Herald of Nov. 9, 1907, the early bridge was described as being a “rickety, unsafe wooden structure.” The new steel span replaced this dangerous crossing.

The bridge was fabricated by the American Bridge Company. It was actually erected at the site by the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Company. In the later 19th and early 20th centuries, companies would commonly specialize in one aspect or another of the bridge building process. In fact, during this time, many designs for bridges were patented and could be ordered through a catalogue.

The builder of the bridge, the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific, came in with the low bid of $10,589. Other bidders for the building of the bridge included F.C. Mitchell, Joseph Maino and Son, the Union Iron Works, Hyde Harges and Co., and the American Construction Co. In the article announcing the awarding of the contract, the bridge to be built was described as having “two concrete abutments, upon which rest four steel beams which support the concrete floor of the bridge. The driveway will be 24 feet in the clear, and a 6-foot walk will be provided on each side, ornamented and guarded by rails.”

The importance of what today seems like a small bridge was, in 1908, of major importance to the community. Obstacles like creeks and gullies made moving produce and products difficult. In the same article from the Weekly Herald, the writer states, in reference to the bridge:

“It is at present the greatest need of our town, though in the course of a few years similar bridges will be needed for other crossings, both above and below town. In fact, the bridge on the road to Newsome Springs and up the south side of the valley, is in a dilapidated condition and has been since last winter, and a new one is badly needed there now.”

The bridge is a Pratt pony truss type — a bridge with trusses on the side that are higher than the roadbed, but do not connect overhead. According to a Caltrans review of the state’s bridges, the bridge is “arguably the best example in California of the ‘classic’ pony truss.”

The value of the design was demonstrated early in its life. In the first three months of 1909, 35 inches of rain fell in the South County. This year of flooding changed the contours of the Arroyo Grande Creek and did thousands of dollars in damage to homes and businesses in the valley. The creek also washed out nearly every bridge on the creek. The Bridge Street Bridge was damaged but not destroyed.

Next time you are in the Village of Arroyo Grande and have a chance to travel over the Bridge Street Bridge, take a moment to look at it. This bridge, a mere 100 feet long, has a story to tell. It has carried loads from downtown Arroyo for 80 years through floods and droughts, and stands today as a physical reminder of our past.

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