The Bridges of Terminal Island

Two Bridges: The Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge with the replaced Henry Ford Bridge behind, looking west
| Photo: Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

As a boy, I got to know the bridges of Terminal Island -- fascinating and somewhat frightening bridges for a boy.

My father had been a Navy commander in World War II and still carried a Naval Reserve card. Even in the those suspicious Cold War days, he could bring his two sons through the gates of the Long Beach Naval Station and drive out on the long, crooked mole where smaller ships in the Pacific Fleet were moored.

The station took up only a part of Terminal Island. Docks, warehouses, fueling piers, and a confusing maze of interior roads for the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach took up the rest.

On Sunday afternoons, we'd drive over to ports or the naval station, crossing to Terminal Island either on the ridiculously short Terminal Island Freeway or on Ocean Boulevard from downtown Long Beach.

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If by Ocean Boulevard, we'd cross to the island over the pontoon bridge. A pontoon bridge is hard to describe; photos do it better.

Pontoon Bridge Closed
| Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach
Pontoon Bridge Open: Traffic could back up for 15 minutes or more as ships passed.
| Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

(The Port of Long Beach, as part of its centennial celebrations in 2011, assembled a gallery of historical photographs here. Images in the collection are from the port's archives and from the Library of Congress. The history of Terminal Island's bridges is outlined in two parts, beginning here and continued here.)

The idea of bridge that goes down to the water rather than over it is odd enough. But a bridge that rose and fell with the tides is even more perplexing.

Crossing the pontoon bridge was something of a thrill ride: a plunge from the shore down what could be a steep drop to the bridge deck and then the climb up to the opposite shore.

Pontoon Bridge: A dip into the Cerritos Channel
| Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach
Pontoon Bridge and Derricks
| Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

Perhaps as many as seven drivers died failing to reach the shore over the years. Many more that went over the side in the dark or the fog were successfully fished from the channel by the bridge operator or the harbor patrol.

The pontoon bridge was a traffic bottleneck until it was replaced by the Gerald Desmond Bridge in late 1968. The Desmond Bridge, battered by truck traffic and the elements, is itself destined for replacement.

Gerald Desmond Bridge ca1969: The pontoon bridge is being demolished in the foreground.
| Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

On those Sunday afternoon drives we might leave the island by way of the Heim Bridge, named in honor of Commodore Schuyler F. Heim, who was put in charge of the Terminal Island naval base in 1942. The bridge, paid for by the Navy, opened in 1948.

The Heim Bridge for highway traffic is paired with a similar looking bridge for rail traffic -- the Henry Ford Bridge. It once overlooked the Ford assembly plant on Terminal Island. (The plant produced 1.5 million cars and trucks by the time it closed in 1959, although the building itself lingered until 1990.)

Crossing the Heim Bridge had a different terror than the tidal swings of the pontoon bridge. High and long, the central, movable portion of the bridge deck had been made as light as possible. You could look down through the gaps in the open grating to see the dark water below.

The sound of the car's tires over the steel grate had a peculiarly ominous hum. I could hardly wait for the sound to end.

Schuylter Heim and Ford Bridges Today
| Photo courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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