Critical links

Critical links

Century-old Colorado Street Bridge spans the histories of Pasadena and neighboring communities

By Rebecca Kuzins 06/20/2013

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Over the past century, the Colorado Street Bridge, which turns 100 in December, has been the site of some of the city’s happiest parties, as well as some of the area’s darkest tragedies. It has weathered earthquakes, deterioration and several demolition proposals.  And today, the once state-of-the-art bridge is now so overshadowed by the state freeway system that most people no longer remember when the structure was the most modern and accessible route in and out of Pasadena.  
 
The Arroyo Seco, located in a steep-sided canyon on the city’s west side, physically isolated Pasadena during the 19th century. In a story published online in 2009, former Pasadena Public Information Officer Ann Erdman explains how “the only way to get from one side of the Arroyo to the other was riding a horse or walking along trails down the steep embankments, crossing the stream and climbing up the other side.” According to the Web site, after a land boom in 1886 and a subsequent economic downtown, James Scoville, a wealthy real estate developer and businessman before he moved to Pasadena, began building a wooden trestle bridge on land he owned in the Arroyo. The Scoville Bridge made traveling a little easier, according to news articles, but horse-drawn wagons — and later automobiles — had to make a steep descent into the Arroyo to get to this “low bridge,” and then climb up the other side after crossing the bridge. 
 
In 1909, according to numerous news articles in the Pasadena Star-News and other publications, the Board of Trade (now the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce), proposed construction of a “high bridge” located at the street level of Colorado Street (now Colorado Boulevard). Under the leadership of Edwin Sorver, the Board of Trade mounted an extensive campaign to encourage Pasadenans to approve a $100,000 bond issue, which would provide money to finance construction. Voters in 1912 overwhelmingly approved the bond sale by a vote of 5,270 to 813. Los Angeles County provided an additional $98, 640 and the city of Pasadena and the town of San Rafael Heights raised $13,000 in subscriptions, covering the $235,430 cost of construction. 
 
Construction would not be without its problems, as John Alexander Low Waddell, the Kansas City engineer who initially supervised the project, soon learned. Bedrock was irregularly distributed along the Arroyo floor, and the east bank was 30 feet higher than the west bank, which prevented Waddell from placing the bridge’s foundations along a straight path. Waddell devised a masterful plan to compensate for these problems, but it would have cost $6,000 more than the Board of Trade was willing to pay.
 
After Waddell refused to modify his plan, the board hired Los Angeles contractor John Drake Mercereau, who proposed a less expensive design. Under this plan, the bridge would be built at a curve of about 50 degrees. “This was the tallest concrete bridge of its day,” said Susan Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage. “It was also the first curvilinear concrete bridge.” Construction according to Mercereau’s plan began in July 1912, with a crew of 40 to 100 laborers performing the work during an 18-month period. 
 
On Aug. 1, 1913, the mold for the top of one of the bridge spans buckled, resulting in a loud rumbling. Workers pouring concrete into one of the arches heard the noise, as described by Chip Jacobs in “Scaffolding Man and Machine,” appearing in the Pasadena Weekly on Sept. 18, 2003.  Watching from their work station 149 feet above the Arroyo, the workers felt the bridge tremble and saw the walkway below them dissolve. The accident sent some of the workers, parts of the scaffolding and hundreds of tons of wet concrete crashing onto the Arroyo floor. Four workers were killed as a result of the accident, eight were injured. 
 
Despite the tragic mishap, construction continued and the bridge was completed in December 1913. The new bridge was a majestic structure, 1,468 feet long and 28-feet wide, featuring 11 concrete arches, two pedestrian walkways, seating alcoves and electric lighting. 
 
About 3,000 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 13, 1913; many drove their cars across the bridge, decorating the autos with red and white bunting. Some in the crowd gasped in wonder when the chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors announced there were 40,000 cars in the county, and nearly every one of them would cross the bridge.
 
That remark underestimated the county’s ever-growing number of automobiles. By the mid-1930s, the Colorado Street Bridge was already too small to accommodate all of the cars that desired to cross it. The structure was plagued by another problem. Within a few years after it opened, the bridge was the site of the first suicide, and after that other people jumped to their deaths from the structure many were now calling “Suicide Bridge.” The number of people who took their own lives dramatically increased during the Great Depression, with 50 people dying there between 1933 and 1937.
 
An especially tragic incident occurred on April 30, 1937, when Myrtle Ward, a Los Angeles woman who had recently lost her job, threw her 4-year-old daughter, Jean, from the bridge before jumping. Ward died, but Jean, who was wearing a heavy coat, hit a tree that broke her fall as she plummeted to the Arroyo. In 2011, Jean Pykkonen, then 77 years old and living in Salem, Ore., told former Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor Jake Armstrong in 2011 that “God sent his angels down there and saved me. … It was not my day to die.”
 
Ward’s suicide pushed city officials into action. That summer, the City Council approved plans to install a 7.5-foot-high wire fence above the pedestrian walkways, which decreased the number of people jumping. 
 
The Pasadena Freeway, opened in 1940, was the first high-speed highway in what would become an extensive state freeway system. With multiple lanes in each direction, the freeway enabled more cars to travel to and from Pasadena at a faster speed than the bridge could handle. 
 
In 1953, the state completed construction of a $3.4 million “sister bridge” less than a half-mile north of the Colorado Street structure. The new bridge, with its six center-divided lanes, eventually became part of the Ventura Freeway. 
By the late 1970s, the bridge was showing its age. Its concrete and cement had deteriorated, its supporting beams had corroded because of the high chloride content of its cement, and the columns connecting its arches with the road needed to be replaced. The bridge also needed to be seismically redesigned so it could withstand earthquakes.
Some people proposed the bridge be demolished. But Pasadena Heritage, an architectural preservation organization founded in 1977, citizen organizations in neighborhoods near the bridge, and many other Pasadenans worked to preserve the structure. In 1978, Pasadena Heritage held the first of its annual Colorado Street Bridge parties. 
“We wanted to raise awareness that the bridge needed investment to be repaired,” recalled Mossman.
 
In 1980, the city commissioned a study to examine the bridge’s condition and determine if it could be restored. The study concluded the bridge was structurally sound and not about to collapse, but was in need of a great many repairs. 
During the next few years, local residents wrote letters and lobbied federal, state, and county officials to obtain the funds needed to fix the bridge, and the city struggled to find its own funding for the project. In 1989, city officials closed the bridge after the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the Bay Area. The next year, the city embarked on the bridge restoration project. 
 
During the renovation, Mossman said city officials wanted to streamline some of the bridge’s details as a means of saving both time and money. However, she said Pasadena Heritage successfully fought to retain the original seating areas and other features that gave the bridge its distinctive look. By the time renovation was completed in December 1993, the project’s costs had swollen to $27.4 million, with all but about $6 million coming from federal funding, and the rest from the state, county and city. 
 
The newly renovated bridge reopened on its 80th birthday, Dec. 13, 1993. Former Mayor Rick Cole, riding a horse named Skeeter, was the first person to cross the bridge during a rededication ceremony. 
 
Today, almost 20 years later, the Colorado Street Bridge continues to stand proudly over the Arroyo.
“The bridge is a symbol of an extraordinary historic site,” says Mossman. In the early 1990s, she adds, when “important choices were looming” about how to renovate the structure, “without a preservation voice, it would not have been restored to look the way it does now,” she said. 

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