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Putting Christmas lights on a bridge got him in trouble with the law and Caltrans

Santa’s “helper” Jim Broadfoot waves to passers-by in December 1992 at the bridge he decked out for Christmas on Highway 58 east of Santa Margarita.
Santa’s “helper” Jim Broadfoot waves to passers-by in December 1992 at the bridge he decked out for Christmas on Highway 58 east of Santa Margarita. Telegram-Tribune

After Thanksgiving, folks traditionally get out the Christmas lights and decorate their bridge.

Wait, you didn’t know that was a thing?

It goes with the tradition of Santa Claus arguing with sheriff’s deputies and Caltrans.

In this quirky Christmas story by Carolyn Nielsen on Dec. 25, 1992, a spirited rural SLO County resident managed to do both.

The old truss bridge that stars in this story was bypassed in 1996 and the road straightened, but the original can still be seen upstream from the current bridge.

Forget the halls — he decked a bridge

East of Santa Margarita on rural Highway 58 is a sign that says “No Services Next 53 Miles.”

For the past couple of weeks that hasn’t been the case.

On a one-lane bridge tucked between two small hills, Jim Broadfoot “got the Christmas spirit for once.” His service is to dress up in a Santa suit and pass the spirit on to his neighbors.

At sunset on an afternoon so crisp you could see his breath in the air, 42-year-old Broadfoot and his cousin Chris Thompson sipped beer while checking their creation to make sure everything worked. Saturday before last, the salt-and-pepper-haired Broadfoot had been driving over the bridge when he noticed someone had wrapped sparkling silver garlands around the railings. That’s when the idea hit him.

“We saw the garlands there already and we thought we ought to light it. So we came and we just went crazy,” he said.

You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t you have any Christmas spirit?

Jim Broadfoot

He and Thompson spent the next day draping $150 worth of multi-colored Christmas lights over each girder. They hooked the lights up to a generator and put them on a timer so they would go on each afternoon at 4:30 and shut off at midnight. But it didn’t stop there.

“Just when we finished, the Sheriff’s Department showed up,” he said. “They were new guys, you know, they had their hair all greased back. Hey, they were going to get us for something.”

Broadfoot — making liberal use of expletives to describe what transpired — said the officers tried to cite them with trespassing and make them take their decorations down.

He refused because there weren’t any “No Trespassing” signs posted.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he told the officers. “Don’t you have any Christmas spirit?”

Broadfoot said the officers called Caltrans to find out whether decorating the bridge was legal.

“They said it was one of the few bridges in the state that didn’t have any regulations on it and it was OK,” he said.

1992 12-17 xmas bridge ligh
Bridge over Highway 58 at the Salinas River was decorated with Christmas lights by Santa’s helper. Robert Dyer Telegram-Tribune

Broadfoot then got the idea to dress up as Santa Claus. His girlfriend bought him the suit he dons to wave at passers-by.

“Everyone that lives out here really digs on it,” said the Parkhill man as he picked up litter from around the bridge.

Without fail, people in every car that goes by wave and honk. Some turn off their headlights as they pass under the twinkling beams.

Broadfoot, who sometimes holds out a bag of candy for the kids, said a few children have told him what they want for Christmas.

“One little boy told me he wanted a bow and arrow set. But I told him he was too young,” he said with a simile.

“It’s been well worth it,” he said. “This is the first year our family’s been apart. My mom just died, but she’d love this.”

Broadfoot is a single parent, the father of Brandon, 8, and Kendra, 5. He said his kids come out almost every night to sit in the sagging motor home he parks on a muddy lot next to the west end of the bridge. Nearby, a rusty barbecue provides warmth on nights in which the temperature often drops to 20 degrees. He said friends sometimes bring by a little brandy to help ward off the chill.

For the first time in more than two decades, Atascadero City Hall will be decked out for the holidays. To start, the historic building got a 10-foot mountain pine wreath, which Atascadero Fire and Emergency Services staff installed Monday, Nov. 27

Broadfoot said his kids love to watch their dad’s Santa act from the motor home while they play videos on the VCR inside.

“My kids go to school and say, ‘Did you see the lights on the bridge? My dad did that.’ It’s the talk of the school.”

Milton Pennington sees the lights every night from his home on the hill above the bridge. Unfortunately, he could also hear the generator.

So after a few nights, Pennington approached Broadfoot and offered to run a cable from his home down to the bridge to power the lights.

Then he put on his own Santa suit and joined Broadfoot at the bridge.

“It’s just the spirit of it all,” Pennington said. “It really boosts my spirits.”

I’ll go out and freeze my buns off for a good cause, and the kids love it.

Milton Pennington

Broadfoot and Pennington didn’t know each other before but have become fast friends. When they stand together on the bridge, Broadfoot said, he looks like the “NutriSystem Santa. Milt fills out the suit better.”

Pennington said he isn’t concerned about his electricity bill. “I don’t care. It only happens once a year,” he said.

“I’ll go out and freeze my buns off for a good cause, and the kids love it.”

Pennington contributed to the decor by making a wire star strung with clear twinkle lights to shine over the west end, and a wire sleigh covered in tiny colored lights to go on one side.

He planned to have some stick reindeer up by Christmas Eve.

Another neighbor added a green pine wreath tied with a red plaid bow to the west end of the 125-foot span.

Broadfoot said the best thing that happened to him while he was at the bridge was when a truckload of 20 Christmas carolers from Parkhill Community Church showed up. They brought him some banana nut bread and cookies.

Others have stopped by bearing baked goods and cards.

“This one lady brought us some of the best lemon tarts you ever had,” he said. “People have come by with video cameras and stuff. One lady even brought her mom up from L.A. to see it.”

“One night we were asleep and some drunk guys started pounding on the door asking where Santa was,” Broadfoot said laughing.

“I’ve been known to do crazy things before but not decorate a bridge,” he said. “I’ll do it again next year.”

That may be difficult. Caltrans officials showed up Wednesday night and said he and Pennington had 48 hours to take the decorations down, or it would be done for them.

Pennington said, “They told us it was a hazard because it slows the traffic when people stop to look at it. Normally, people go through here about 90 miles an hour, so we thought that was a good thing.”

He said Caltrans also told them there was a liability problem because one of them could have been injured while climbing on the bridge, which rests some 30 feet above the Salinas River.

“I’m a pretty hefty character,” Pennington said. “If I would have fallen when I was putting up that star on top, I would have taken the bridge with me.”

Pennington said it was a “real bummer” they have to take the decorations down, but his spirit isn’t dampened.

I guess Christmas is just about loving all your neighbors.

Jim Broadfoot

“Next year we might try to get an encroachment permit to wave liability. If we can’t, we’ll build a bridge on my land and decorate it. They aren’t going to stop us too much. I can do whatever I want on my property,” he said.

“I’m kind of amazed it lasted as long as it did.”

Broadfoot said he was glad he caught the Christmas spirit.

“I guess Christmas is just about loving all your neighbors.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

Here's a quick tour of holiday decorations from Nipomo's Apricot Street to Shell Beach's "Gingerbread Beach House."

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