During the bright, warm Spring and Summer of 1940 two different, crowded celebrations attracted thousands of people to Tacoma’s waterfront. Both times people were there to witness the launch of a new invention, one a sort of ram shackled boat and the other a marvelous, graceful suspension bridge.
The first and biggest assembly was at Point Defiance on Sunday April 22nd , a send off by 20,000 people of the Satko family , Paul and Mollie and their eight kids, in a lopsided homemade sea craft they called the Ark of Juneau. The 40 foot long boat was originally welded together in Richmond Virginia with truck wheels and a Buick gasoline engine that carried it and the family across the country. The design and engineering for the skeletal vehicle was best described as optimistic but by the time it had traveled 3000 miles by road and then undergone a transformation into an ocean going boat, people simply called it improbable.
The second more formal and dignified gathering was on the western shore of the Tacoma Narrows where the assembled 7000 witnesses listen to speeches from the Governor and Mayor before opening the third longest suspension bridge in the world. The crowd followed the ribbon cutting out onto the deck, gazing 200 feet down at the calm, currentless water of the narrows. It was the first of July, sunny and still, a perfect time to admire and appreciate a timeless feat of monumental engineering.
Back in April, Satko’s Ark barely made it four miles and out of sight from the crowd before headwinds and worrying engine noises drove it to shore on Maury Island. The next day the concrete filled hull of the vessel ran aground with all hands near Seattle. There the children were removed from the ark by the authority of the Superior Court and Paul was arrested for interfering with the police in serving the warrant. The Masters, Mates and Pilots Association declared the vessel unseaworthy and their list of needed repairs to the boat ran several pages. On May 5th, Paul limped the ark up to Everett and then on to Anacortes where he was continually working on repairs and untraceable vibrations. Now wards of the court, the children were forbidden to set foot on the tottery, listing craft.
On days when the breeze came up a bit, the workers on the Narrows Bridge had noticed a playful rise and fall on the roadway. It was fairly gentle and since there were no other suspension bridges around for comparison, probably normal. After the July opening, drivers on the bridge noted the same thing but very wise engineers confidently referred to the vertical oscillations as “within design parameters”. Seeing the headlights of an approaching vehicle disappear into a deck roll was soon accepted as normal, like the dependable southwesterly winds of summer.
Those dependable favoring winds were coming up at 3.a.m in the morning on May 25 when the ark left Anacortes with the entire Satko family united and back on board. They were headed due north toward the Canadian border and Alaska beyond. Not only were they breaking the law by having the children aboard, the vessel was still struggling with the mechanical problems of driving a propeller with a three speed automobile transmission and cooling a Buick engine without a radiator. Nevertheless, on June 27th, the Ark of Juneau reached its Alaskan namesake destination, 1080 miles and 66 days after leaving Tacoma. The Satko’s continued to live on the ark as they cleared 122 acres of land for a homestead near Eagle Glacier south of Juneau. As autumn set in a little girl was born on the ark. They named her North Sea Meridian Satko.
The changing winds of autumn down at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge brought a different kind of fortune and when they shifted to the North on November 7th a very unexpected drama unfolded. First Leonard Coatsworth lost control of his car while crossing the bridge as the roadway careened out from underneath him. He crawled back to firm ground just in time to witness the unimaginable, something bridge engineers call dynamic aeroelastic phenomena. In a matter of minutes one of the most elegant and ambitious suspension bridges in the world became an animated disaster film. In a hypnotic wind dance, the monumental deck structure began twisting and then tearing at its towers and support cables like King Kong on the theater stage. The ending was explosive with most of the girder steel bridge and tangled cables ending up at the bottom of the Narrows channel. It still is Tacoma’s most spectacular failure.
Resting on the beach 1000 miles north of Tacoma is the 1926 Buick engine and transmission that pulsed within the steel and plank hull of the Ark of Juneau. It’s all that’s left of an improbable success.
PORTFOLIO FROM SATKOSARK.ORG