Photo Of The Day

Photo: University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division.

Photo: University of Washington Libraries. Special Collections Division.

“Galloping Gertie”

Howard Clifford running off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge during the collapse.

On November 7, 1940, at about 11 a.m., the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses in a high wind. The bridge spanned the Tacoma Narrows, a deep, narrow section of Puget Sound that separates Tacoma from Gig Harbour and the Key Peninsula. The bridge collapses four months and seven days after it is dedicated. It had severely oscillated even as it was being built: workers on the bridge sucked lemons to combat seasickness and dubbed it “Galloping Gertie.” The structure’s wave-like motions made it a thrill to drive across – joy-riders increased traffic on the bridge from the beginning — but no one expected it to collapse. The bridge disaster was a tragedy for Tacoma, which lost the retail trade from Kitsap County and a connection to the Bremerton Navy Yard during the years of World War II. The engineering failure became a textbook case and revolutionized designs and procedures for building suspension bridges.

People enjoyed Galloping Gertie tremendously. They would wait until the wind was “right,” drive up to Tacoma Narrows, then wait in line to “ride the bridge”. Everyone was sure it was safe. A bank put up a billboard on the Tacoma side, proclaiming itself to be just as safe as the bridge. (The day the bridge collapsed, the bank rushed to remove the billboard.)

On the day of the collapse — known as the Pearl Harbour of Bridge Engineering — Gertie was galloping fast and hard.

Leonard Coatsworth, a Tacoma reporter, was driving across the bridge with his dog Tubby in the car. Here is his account of what happened:

“I saw the Narrows Bridge die today, and only by the grace of God, escaped dying with it. . . .

“I drove on the bridge and started across. In the car with me was my daughter’s cocker spaniel, Tubby. The car was loaded with equipment from my beach home at Arletta.
“Just as I drove past the towers, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car. . . . I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb.”

“Around me I could hear concrete cracking. I started back to the car to get the dog, but was thrown before I could reach it. The car itself began to slide from side to side on the roadway. I decided the bridge was breaking up and my only hope was to get back to shore.”

“On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers . . . . My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb . . . . Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time . . . . Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.”

“I saw Clark Eldridge (Toll Bridge Authority engineer), his face white as paper. If I feel badly, I thought, how must he feel?”

“With real tragedy, disaster and blasted dreams all around me, I believe that right at this minute what appalls me most is that within a few hours I must tell my daughter that her dog is dead, when I might have saved him.”

Professor Farquarson was there doing his measurements and ran out and tried to save Tubby, but the dog bit him and he gave up the effort. Tubby was the only fatality.

“I thought she would be able to fight it out”

“I was the only person on the Narrows Bridge when it collapsed. When I arrived at about a quarter to ten o’clock, the bridge was moving in the familiar rippling motion we were studying and seeking to correct.

“About a half hour later, it started a lateral twisting motion, in addition to the vertical wave. It had never done that before.

“At least six lamp posts were snapped off while I watched. A few minutes later, I saw a side girder bulge out. But, though the bridge was bucking up at an angle of 45 degrees, I thought she would be able to fight it out. But, that wasn’t to be.

“I saw the suspenders (vertical cables) snap off and a whole section caved in. The bridge dropped from under me. I fell and broke one of my cameras. The portion where I was had dropped 30 feet when the tension was released.

“I kneeled on the roadway and stayed to complete the picture.”

Howard Clifford

Photographer, Tacoma News Tribune

“I was on the Narrows Bridge when it broke in the middle and … I hope that I never again go through such a nerve racking experience.”

 “The regular photographer was out on assignment. I was the back up, and they told me to grab a camera and go out there. But, they said, don’t take any risks under any circumstances. I grabbed the only camera, an old Graflex, a large and cumbersome 4×5 reflex camera that you hold against your stomach and look down into the viewfinder.”

“When I arrived, the bridge had literally run amok, bouncing and twisting like a roller coaster. Working my way up to the tower with the greatest difficulty, I shot a few more films. Suddenly, the bridge seemed to sway and lurch more than ever, and I began shooting as fast as I could.”

Clifford decided to walk onto the center span to try to save the dog, Tubby, in Leonard Coatsworth’s car.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone out there, if it hadn’t been for the dog. I liked dogs and had seen the Coatsworth’s dog at a company picnic recently. Or, if I didn’t have the camera, I probably wouldn’t have gone out on the bridge. I got about 10 yards from the tower and stopped.”

“Taking another squint into the camera viewfinder, I saw the span buckle and start to break in the center. I pressed the camera trigger and started to run.”

“I tried to run up the yellow line in the center of the roadway, but found myself being bounced from one curb to the other and making no headway towards shore. I felt I could be tossed over the edge at any time. I was running in the air part of the time, because the bridge was moving faster than gravity. It dropped out from under me and then bounced back, knocking me down to my knees, banging the camera on the pavement.”

“Behind me I heard rumblings and explosive sounds which scared the daylights out of me. Having played football during my junior high and high school days, I tucked my camera under my arm and charging low got that added ounce of energy from somewhere which enabled me to make some headway toward the bridge entrance.”

“I was half-running, half-crawling. In a few minutes, which seemed like hours, I was up with my fellow photographer [Barney Elliott of the Camera Shop], who had got a considerable start, and we both made our way to the toll gate office, exhausted, but oh so thankful.”

“Returning to the Tribune office . . . within a very short time I was transmitting photos of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the entire world. It was only then that I noted that my trousers were torn and my knees resembled raw hamburger. The next morning I looked even worse. I was bruised, black and blue from my hips to my feet the next day and for two weeks.”

“I don’t think anything more exciting has ever happened to me.”

By June 1943, the bridge’s tear-down and salvage operation is complete. Steel is reused to help relieve shortages during World War II. The second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, incorporating all lessons learned, was built in 1950.

Rebuilt bridge plus expansion (foreground) today.

Watch the amazing “Gallopin’ Gertie” November 7, 1940 film clip.

Eyewitness Accounts

First Tacoma Narrows Bridge


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