If Buster Keaton and Steven Spielberg ever worked together they might have created a few minutes of film that compares to the November 7, 1940 footage of Tacoma’s Galloping Gertie.

Regardless how visually spectacular the special effects and slapstick pratfalls might have been however it would still be only Hollywood magic. When their scenes ended and the lights came on there would still be solid ground under foot and massive inanimate objects would rest in stillness.

In Tacoma we have quite a different perspective on visualizing the unimaginable, thanks entirely to a comically inept feat of bridge engineering and a civic fascination with large things gone horribly wrong. One resists the temptation at this point to wander into contemporary examples but it is undeniably in the back of our minds as we consider the presence of the third Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

As we begin to take for granted the latest magnificent suspension bridge over the swift waters of the Tacoma narrows it’s impossible not to visualize the first bridge and its breathtaking career as both a film star and a thrill ride. Galloping Gertie, Tacoma Narrows Bridge the first, has become our most popular failure, a nice try we have all come to love like an ancestor who worked in Burlesque.

Observing the marvel of constructing the new Narrows Bridge today, Tacomans can take a quirky pride in our city’s unique status in the psyche of structural engineers, bridge builders and aerodynamic wonks. No text book, reference volume or popular non-fiction work on anything related even distantly to bridges or architectural spans fails to note the cataclysmic failure of Tacoma’s first Narrows Bridge. Tacoma is listed in every engineering book index and the film of Gertie’s dance of disaster is a standard media text, still visually spellbinding-a special effects scene that stops the show and drops the jaw every time.

The finish of Narrow III, like the completion of Narrows II in 1950, was tainted with anticlimax. Both the side by side bridges are after all children of an old Vaudeville star, a slightly scary clown who was really something in her day.

But Narrows III is nevertheless something to celebrate. Suspension bridges are becoming a thing of the past as lighter, stronger materials and new engineering methods, exhibited so clearly in the downtown I-509 bridge, are taking their place. The completion of Narrows III was a bit like watching the sails being rigged on the last clipper ship.

So we should note the culmination of this third grand endeavor. It is a big thing in our built environment and as big things go it’s not bad to look at. In the most elegant examples of what we build there is a blending of physical gesture in our time with the memory we hold from an important past. All of us know that Narrows III will become a Tacoma landmark fixed into our cityscape but a few of us will also hope that on windy winter days there’s just the slightest….nevermind.


Never gets old….

Featured image by the inimitable Terry Rishel

Written by tacomahistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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