The Third Act

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

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