Though Los Angeles lacks a city-defining span like San Francisco's Golden Gate, bridges nevertheless tame the Southern California landscape for freight trains, light rail vehicles, and millions of private automobiles. Today, drivers on freeways and arterial boulevards may not even notice as they glide above topographical features, but in early Los Angeles bridges loomed large in the public mind -- even if their structural scale tended toward the modest.
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A San Francisco-based firm named the Pacific Bridge Company built Los Angeles' first permanent bridge in 1873. Its construction was considered a major civic achievement; people came from as far away as San Diego to witness the bridge's opening.
A covered bridge reminiscent of those in New England, the wooden span carried Old Aliso Road, a segment of El Camino Real later known as Macy Street and now named Cesar Chavez Avenue, across the Los Angeles River. Where wagons once forded the tame summer river -- or simply turned around when winter storms transformed the stream into a torrent -- a bridge now connected the growing city of Los Angeles to the agricultural land on the river's east bank.
This vital link, often referred to simply as "the covered bridge," made possible the establishment of the city's first two suburbs: East Los Angeles, founded in 1873 and now known as Lincoln Heights, and Boyle Heights, founded in 1876. And as these communities grew, other bridges -- wooden or steel trusses with exposed superstructures -- soon joined the covered bridge in enabling Los Angeles' budding sprawl.
Nearly every year, nature did its best to bring down these artificial improvements of the landscape. Before engineers reduced it to a flood-control channel, the Los Angeles River was notoriously unpredictable, and many bridges fell to the capricious watercourse. Winter rains often translated into jobs for the city's construction workers.
L.A.'s first bridge was resilient, however, withstanding several severe floods in the 1880s while others failed. But eventually, time wore away at the wooden structure, and by 1895 it was in poor condition. The city engineer recommended replacing it with one of a more modern design, and in July 1904 the bridge finally came down. "One of the old landmarks of the city," the August 1, 1904 Los Angeles Times reported, "has disappeared during the past week, and the Macy-street bridge...is a thing of the past. It has been pulled down to make way for a splendid modern structure which will accommodate traffic for years."
While the city built local ties between downtown and the outlying communities, railroads added their own bridges to strengthen the region's bonds with the national economy. The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads erected several spans across the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco, including the county's oldest extant bridge: a 750 foot-long, 100 foot-tall steel structure, built in 1896 for the Santa Fe Railway's transcontinental freight and passenger trains, renovated in the 1990s, and today part of the Metro Gold Line.
Street railways also added to L.A.'s roster of bridges. In 1889, the Los Angeles Cable Railroad opened a viaduct that soared over the Los Angeles River and the tracks of the Southern Pacific to connect East Los Angeles to the city center. Upstream on the Arroyo Seco, the Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway, which later became part of the Pacific Electric's vast interurban rail network, built a roughly 900-foot-long bridge parallel with the Union Pacific's own wooden trestle.
Designed with an emerging mode of transportation -- the automobile -- in mind, L.A.'s next generation of bridges continued to encourage the city's expansion. A group of property owners in present-day Lincoln Heights organized as the East Side Improvement Association called for a bridge over the river at Buena Vista Street (now North Broadway). The association secured half the funding for the bridge from private sources, and, when the city refused to supply the other half, elected their own president to the city council. The Los Angeles Times threw its support behind the plan in 1908, urging the city to become the "Pontifex Maximus of the day" (a reference to the officer of the Roman Republic responsible for bridge building). The city soon agreed, and the concrete-arch bridge -- complete with miniature Roman temples and other neoclassical flourishes -- opened to traffic in 1911.
Backed by this powerful axis of a booster newspaper and property interests, bridge building flourished in the succeeding decades. With the river limited routes out of downtown, bridges were seen as a solution to traffic congestion. Railroads, too, supported new bridge construction, as the bridges simplified their operations by eliminating at-grade crossings on their riverside tracks.
Beginning in 1923, Los Angeles voters approved a series of bond issues that financed the ten new bridges across the Los Angeles River, their construction overseen by engineer Merrill Butler. Standing amid the gritty industrial landscape of the modern-day Los Angeles River, these bridges are today considered an architectural treasure and an example of City Beautiful planning. Although none rivals the iconic stature of a Golden Gate Bridge or Brooklyn Bridge in terms of cultural reach, many claim a hold on the public consciousness. Disney, for example, recently erected a replica of the 1929 Glendale-Hyperion Bridge in its California Adventure theme park, and most moviegoers would recognize the Streamline Moderne Sixth Street Viaduct, now slated for demolition, from its appearances in countless action films.
Other stately bridges arose across Southern California during this golden age of bridge-building. The graceful Beaux Arts arches of Pasadena's Colorado Street Bridge first crossed the Arroyo Seco in 1913. Rising 144 feet above the mostly dry ravine below, the bridge earned an unfortunate nickname -- Suicide Bridge -- after dozens of people leaped from the structure to their deaths during the Great Depression. Locals have given a more charming nickname -- Shakespeare Bridge -- to the 1926 Franklin Avenue viaduct in Los Feliz, which crosses the former path of a seasonal creek through Franklin Hills.
The construction of impressive bridges shifted away from the Los Angeles River after World War II, as Southern California's frenzy of freeway building added countless nondescript highway viaducts across the region. The Los Angeles Harbor, in particular, received several notable structures as a boom in commercial freight traffic demanded improved transportation for the trucks carrying the nation's imported goods and commodities.
Los Angeles County's only drawbridge, the Commodore Schuyler F. Heim Bridge, opened in 1948 in Long Beach. The Warren truss bridge, the star of a pivotal scene in Christopher Nolan's 2010 film "Inception," carries the Terminal Island Freeway (California State Route 47) over the Cerritos Channel.
Nearby, the county's only suspension bridge soars above the harbor. Known by some as San Pedro's Golden Gate, the 6,050-foot-long Vincent Thomas Bridge connected Terminal Island to San Pedro in 1963, replacing a slow and costly ferry service. LED lights were added in 2005 to illuminate the bridge's green towers at night.
The city's bridges span both place and time. Though some historic structures are now lost, and others like the Sixth Street Viaduct soon will be, many have been reinforced and carefully restored. Downtown's river bridges -- once best appreciated from the window of a passenger train nearing Union Station -- may some day become visual anchors for new recreational space along the Los Angeles River. The county's oldest standing bridge has been repurposed, too. Built in 1895 by the Santa Fe Railway, the span across the Arroyo Seco once offered passengers on the Super Chief transcontinental line sweeping views of northeast Los Angeles. Today, the Metro Gold Line glides across the bridge on its way from South Pasadena to Highland Park. The views from the window may have changed, but commuters today roll over the same steel girders that once transported generations of travelers to Southern California.
Sept. 22, 2014: This post was updated to reflect new information about the covered bridge along Old Aliso Road. Special thanks to Paul R. Spitzzeri of the Boyle Heights History Blog.
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