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Tower Bridge turns 75

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One of Sacramento’s iconic landmarks, Tower Bridge, celebrates its 75th anniversary Wednesday.

At its inauguration on Dec. 15, 1935, the opening was heralded with the release of about 100 homing pigeons, who carried the news throughout the state.

Although it’s now a lot easier to spread news, Caltrans spokesman Mike Dinger said the bridge operates with the same basic equipment it has for the past three quarters of a century.

“We’ve made some upgrades for safety, but it’s almost all the original equipment,” he said.

Bridge construction began in July of 1934, using some of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal funds for the project, which was estimated to cost $700,000. The final price came in at $994,000.

That price, in today’s dollars, would be $50 million – $60 million, Dinger said, adding that today’s monthly maintenance costs come in at about $24,000.

The project was supposed to be done in November of 1935, but weather pushed the completion date to mid-December.

“They had a really heavy winter that year, and work got delayed,” said Rich Newell, a senior mechanical engineer for Caltrans.

Tower Bridge replaced a bridge on the same spot that had been constructed in 1910 by the Sacramento Northern Railroad, according to a 1936 issue of California Highways and Public Works.

That bridge had been a swinging steel drawbridge, and by the 1930s, it couldn’t handle the amount of traffic efficiently.

Newell said Tower Bridge was built to relieve traffic congestion, which was attributed to choking off commerce from Sacramento during the Great Depression.

According to the 1936 California Highways and Public Works article, in the 25 years that the old bridge had been in use, automobile traffic increased 700 percent in volume and 500 percent in speed, making the cantilevered roadways inadequate.

During construction of the current span, about 1,500 jobs were generated, and all the materials came from California, Dinger and Newell said.

The metal “skin” over the steel frame on the towers was designed to give it an art deco feel, Newell said.

When the bridge opened, it was painted a silver color to represent aluminum, and was later painted “an unfortunate shade of ochre” before being painted the current gold color in the early 2000s, said Bridge Operator Scott Bennett, who has been working on the bridge for about a decade.

The railroad stopped using the bridge in the 1960s, according to Dinger.

Dinger added that the bridge – about 730 feet long – is technically State Route 275, the shortest state highway in California.

Bennett said he raises the bridge about four times per day, but it varies based on river traffic.

When the bridge is raised and lowered – traveling about 1 foot per second – about 5,000,000 pounds are in motion, and it’s all accomplished by the two 100-horsepower electric motors in the control room between the towers.

If electric power goes out, there are backups in place.

Cameras – that Bennett uses to ensure traffic is clear of the bridge – are backed up by the original periscopes in the control room and mirrors on the outside edges of the span. An original 1930s gasoline engine can handle all the heavy lifting.

The bridge’s birthday will be celebrated by Caltrans officials, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon from 9 – 10 a.m. Wednesday on Promenade Circle behind the nearby Embassy Suites.

At about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, as part of the anniversary celebration, the bridge will be raised to allow the sailing ship “Hawaiian Chieftain” to pass. Bennett said the ship gives rides from Old Sacramento for about three months each year.

“It’s been 75 years, and it’s still doing fine,” Newman said. “It’s a testament to the original engineers.”

Exterior and historic photos courtesy Caltrans. Control room photos by Brandon Darnell, staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Historical reference documents provided by the Center for Sacramento History.

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