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Dolan Creek Bridge: the lost bridge of Big Sur

The Dolan Creek Bridge on Highway 1 south of Big Sur was a wood bridge 150 feet above and 180 feet across the ravine floor circa 1935.
The Dolan Creek Bridge on Highway 1 south of Big Sur was a wood bridge 150 feet above and 180 feet across the ravine floor circa 1935. Caltrans Archives

What buildings would be on a list of most notable lost structures of the Central Coast?

My nominations would include: Cecil B. DeMille’s faux Egyptian movie set, Ramona Hotel, Three-Gabled Price Adobe, Paso Robles Inn, Mercantile/La Plaza building in Atascadero and a Chumash village.

One of the most unusual structures was not a building but a bridge.

The arch bridge at Dolan Creek on Highway 1 was a framed timber bridge, not concrete like the famed Bixby Creek Bridge.

The Big Sur road is one of the premier driving experiences in the world. It has a wild, untamed nature that has attracted artists for decades. In 1983, author Hunter S. Thompson, who spent time in Big Sur, said in a question-and-answer session at Cal Poly that the Highway 1 drive was world’s best cheap high.

“Acid and gasoline,” Thompson said. He combined an LSD trip on the itinerary; clearly he was wired differently than most.

Writer Henry Miller and photographer Edward Weston also were attracted to the wild country.

But Highway 1 has bedeviled engineers. The most difficult stretch south of Big Sur took 16 years and three camps of San Quentin inmates to build. The road officially opened on June 27, 1937.

Two years before, the San Luis Daily Telegram of April 6, 1935, picked up an article by assistant bridge engineer Stewart Mitchell that had previously been published in “California Highways and Public Works.” Mitchell wrote that the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, as it was called at the time, presented a number of challenges to highway engineers.

The bridge spans alone could define a career. Add to that the thousand-foot-tall slopes that long to slip and slide into the ocean, and other sections of volcanic rock hewn and blasted to carve a pathway. This was no easy road.

According to Mitchell, bridge builders had to span ravines, determine how far the project site was from good concrete aggregates and find solid footings to build on.

Google Maps places the bridge 131 miles north of the Tribune office, between Lucia and Big Sur, at the time a long way from concrete, so timber was chosen to build the bridge. Precedent had been made in Mendocino County, where a framed timber arch had “given excellent service for some 15 years.” New technology from Europe improved joint connections, the weakest part of any timber structure, according to the story.

The connectors included metal rings with teeth that transferred weight through bolts and connectors to the next beam while preventing the members from spreading apart. The connectors allowed smaller, lighter-weight beams to be used.

However, contractors were new to the process, and there was some added cost, “… but not excessive as compared with other types that might have been used …”

Arch timber was framed, grooved and fitted on the ground near the dock in Monterey, where they were delivered, then dismantled and hauled to the site for reassembly. The contract specified that hand labor be used as much as possible, so the bolt holes and small grooves were made without power tools. This may have been a labor spending measure to employ as many individuals as possible during the Great Depression.

To hang a bridge a dizzying 150 feet above and 180 feet across the ravine floor, falsework was constructed as temporary support. Timber beams were then lifted out via highline and bolted together.

H.L. McCready was resident engineer and T.K. May drew the plans.

The bridge lasted almost three decades, but dripping sea fog alternating with sunny afternoons took a toll on the wood structure. It was replaced in 1962 with a concrete span. The Dolan Creek bridge timbers were recycled into a Big Sur house.

According to a March 27, 2015, story in The New York Times’ style magazine, architect Will Shaw built the house for his second wife, Mary. It was completed in 1974. Resurrection Vintage website co-founder Mark Haddawy now owns the house. The article by Amanda Fortini notes that three other notable houses in the region were made from bridge timbers.

Thanks to Jim Shivers and Alexandra Bevk at Caltrans for their research assistance.

Nominate your favorite lost structures of the Central Coast in the comments.

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