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Bridges

If you have traveled even a short distance either north or south from Fort Bragg you will know that there are a huge number of bridges in this part of the world to cross the streams and rivers and to “straighten out” the road over the canyons and gulches. To give you one statistic to emphasize how those men of yore “tamed” nature for their wheels - once there were 115 bridges on the 34 mile-long California Western's Skunk Line from Fort Bragg to Willits.

Our historian, Louis Hough, wrote the following very interesting article on the bridges along the coast that was published in November 14, 2002 edition of the Mendocino Beacon.

All about the coast’s bridges by Louis Hough:

Fifty five years ago , on October 13, 1947, a public hearing was held at the [Mendocino] high school to consider building a new bridge over Big River [in Mendocino]. The mill had been dismantled, and the estuary and river were beginning to recover some pristine beauty. The existing truss bridge, more than 20 years old, was inadequate and failing. A modern structure had to be erected. That was not surprising; building and replacing bridges on the coast had been an ongoing concern since the earliest times.

In olden times, flatboat ferries crossed the wider creeks and rivers. They were replaced by timber bridges and even drawbridges.. Crossings were private operations – not funded by the state or county – so the builders charged tolls. Floods, earthquakes, storms and slides also took their toll; delays were numerous. Mail delivery could be cut off for up to a week.

In 1933, when the State Highway System took over maintenance of the coast road, there were 80 timber bridges on the 82 mile stretch from Gualala to Westport. Twenty-two were between Navarro and Fort Bragg and were posted for five to eleven tons burden.

By 1957, 24 years later, 10 wooden bridges remained, Today, just one remains; the Albion bridge, built in 1944 to replace the old bridge which was closed to trucks because severe sagging had developed.

Originally, all bridges were cross-planked with wood. Then improvements began to smooth the way. As reported in the [Mendocino] Beacon on August 24, 1918, “Roadmaster John Chambers is re-planking Jack Peters gulch bridge this week. The planks will be laid parallel to the line of travel, which cuts down vibration to a minimum….. and makes traveling a pleasure over structures thus planked.”

Today we swish over stretches of Highway 1 unaware [of] what lies beneath the road surface. Few recall when Gordon’s Brewery Gulch, Buckhorn, Barton and Dark Gulch would give motorists fits. By the mid-twentieth century, innumerable curves were removed, gone were steep grades down ravines, across creeks and up again. At Salmon Creek, a vivid reminder of that hair-raising trek remains. Today, if it weren’t for the concrete railings, a motorist might miss the bridge at Little River.

Over time $6 million was spent to replace 70 old structures, and high bridges became commonplace. In our neck of the woods are the Salmon Creek, Albion River, Big River, Jack Peters, Caspar Creek, Hare Creek and Noyo River high bridges.

Salmon Creek Bridge

This high Salmon Creek bridge replaced a road that ran down the sides of the canyon and over the creek

In mid-October 1947, the Big River bridge issue was whether to build a high bridge, 60 feet above mean high water, or a low one at 35 feet. The old bridge was 16 feet high. The War Department (Army and Navy) was considering harboring war vessels in the bay and upriver. The project meant a higher bridge, and included dredging the river bed some distance upstream. Considered too, was dredging Mendocino Bay to provide safe mooring for warships.

Commercial fishing became a “red-herring,” to muddy the waters (and muddle my metaphor). Fort Bragg interests opposed the project, concerned that federal money would be siphoned away from Noyo: funds for dredging and maintenance of their harbor, fishing and riverine economy. So, Fort Bragg sent vocal locals to scuttle construction of the bridge. By advocating building the higher bridge, to provide clearance for salmon fishing boats with tall masts, they helped carry the day. Why?

The State lacked sufficient funds to build a high bridge, so it withdrew its application, and no bridge was built over Big River until November 1961, 14 years later. While high enough above the river, nary a commercial fishing boat ever passed under it.