San Pedro has more than one big birthday this year. Not only does 2013 mark the 125th anniversary of its founding, and the centennial of the Angel’s Gate Lighthouse, but this November, the Vincent Thomas Bridge is turning 50.
Dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere,” “San Pedro’s Golden Gate,” and mistakenly thought by some to be named after a non-existent saint, the bridge that would become an icon of not only San Pedro, but the Harbor Area opened for business on Nov. 15, 1963, after a years-long push by the State Assemblyman it was named after.
The Road to “The Bridge to Nowhere”
For decades, San Pedrans used ferry service to cross the main channel to work in the canneries and naval shipyard on Terminal Island. As the Port grew, the concept of building a bridge was discussed as early as the 1920s, but when talks about building a connection got serious over the next few decades, the idea was to create an underground tube or tunnel like they have in New York City.
San Pedro’s hometown State Assemblyman Vincent Thomas, the son of Croatian immigrants, was met with skepticism and doubt that a bridge was necessary for his district, and would spend much of his career pushing through legislation to win the project’s approval. In 1958, a bill calling for the bridge’s construction was finally passed and won the support of the Board of Harbor Commissioners, which agreed to furnish rights of way. So began the $21 million San Pedro-Terminal Island Bridge project.
The official groundbreaking took place in May of 1960, but a slow bidding process meant construction wouldn’t begin until a year later, starting with the substructure. Next came the towers, pilings, 1,270 tons of tediously spun suspension cables, a concrete deck that was built from the towers in and paved, and finally the bridge’s signature green paint job that entails never-ending re-painting (no, really).
A resolution was passed to name the bridge after Assemblyman Thomas, who was still in office (he would serve 19 terms totaling 38 years). Designed by the Bridge Department of the California Division of Highways (or what we know today as CalTrans), the Vincent Thomas Bridge was the first and remains the only suspension bridge in the world to be supported entirely on pilings. It was the first suspension bridge in the United States to be welded instead of riveted, and is the third longest suspension bridge in California, after the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Late on the evening of Nov. 14, 1963, the Islander ferry made its final trip across the main channel, and at the stroke of midnight following a ribbon cutting ceremony, the bridge was officially opened to motorists. Assemblyman Thomas paid the first 25-cent toll.
The bridge exceeded traffic and revenue expectations, seeing 3.3 million motorists in its first year – almost one million more than projected. Within a few years, it became clear that a freeway connection would be needed, and in 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan was the keynote speaker at the official groundbreaking ceremony for the freeway link.
The bridge underwent several changes in the 1970s. Vertical safety screens were added in 1976 after longshoremen were so frustrated with dodging bottles thrown from cars above that they refused to work beneath the bridge. Two years later, a concrete center divider was added between the four lanes.
In 1983, the bridge toll was doubled to 50 cents, but lifted for eastbound traffic. It would be eliminated all together in 2000 and the tollbooths demolished.
In 1988, the bridge was closed for a 25th anniversary celebration that drew thousands and kicked off a fundraising effort to permanently light the bridge. At dusk, the bridge was lined with people carrying lights in a symbolic lighting ceremony.
In 1996, the bridge was named the official welcoming monument of the City of Los Angeles. A year later it underwent earthquake retrofitting.
After a 17-year-long effort and fundraising campaign, permanent blue lights were finally installed across the bridge in 2005. The 160 solar-powered blue lamps made of 360 LEDs each are switched on every night from dusk to midnight.
“Sure, it took us 17 years to light the bridge, but it was such a struggle for Vincent Thomas just to get it built, and what a visionary – both the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach wouldn’t be what they are today without it,” says Louis Dominguez, who headed the bridge lighting committee.
Even though the path to making the lights a reality wasn’t without its hurdles, he says they turned out better than he first envisioned them. “It was sort of cutting edge, especially for the environment, not having to use coal-powered electricity. It’s the first LED-lit bridge to use solar panels in the country.”
Today, the bridge is temporarily closed on Labor Day for the annual Conquer the Bridge five-mile run.
On Camera and in Headlines
Over the years, the Vincent Thomas Bridge has been a backdrop in a number of films, TV shows and even a Jessica Simpson music video. Action scenes from To Live and Die in L.A., Charlie’s Angels and Gone in Sixty Seconds were all shot on the bridge.
Last year, it made headlines when Top Gun director Tony Scott shocked onlookers and the world when he parked his Prius atop the bridge, climbed the fence and leapt to his death. Scott had filmed scenes near the bridge in the past and had talked about wanting to shoot on the bridge for a future project.
The bridge has seen a number of bizarre and headline-making incidents over the years.
In 1976, tightrope walker Steve McPeak and his assistant successfully walked the cables of the bridge and were arrested by California Highway Patrol officers waiting for them below. In the 1980s, someone shot out one of the bridge’s navigational red lights, which required a tedious and dangerous replacement job. In 1989, the bridge made headlines again when a series of collisions resulted in a 30-car pileup, although no one was seriously injured. In 1990, diver Lawrence Andreassen, a bronze medalist in the 1964 Olympics, died diving from the bridge’s west tower in an attempt to set a new world record for the highest dive from a bridge. He had completed a dangerous dive from the Gerald Desmond Bridge two years earlier.
From Idea to Icon
Like many architectural landmarks, the Vincent Thomas Bridge has become an icon for San Pedro that has been featured in countless logos and images over the decades.
Anne Hansford, archivist at the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, says the bridge had a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of San Pedrans. “If you worked at the naval shipyard, which many people here in San Pedro did, it made your day so much faster, it just made life so much easier if you were heading east,” she says.
Fellow Historical Society member Chuck Short agrees. “It did replace one of our icons that we all miss, the Islander ferry, but the bridge is much more convenient and has become one of few San Pedro icons that are so recognizable.”
The one thing most people don’t know about the bridge, Hansford says, is just how hard Assemblyman Thomas had to fight to make it a reality. “There was just no credible belief in Sacramento that it could be worth the money; they really had the attitude that it was a bridge to nowhere. It was a very hard struggle for him,” she says. “Now it’s become a very recognizable symbol and it photographs so beautifully from so many angles.” spt
Bridge by the Numbers
* The bridge is 6,060 feet long and its towers are 365 feet tall, 35 stories above water.
* The road is 52 feet wide.
* The bridge has 19 cables made up of 212 wires each.
* It was built to withstand 90 mph winds.
* The bridge is supported on 990 steel piles each supporting 145 tons.
* 32,000 vehicles cross the bridge on a given weekday.
* The bridge cost $21 million to build.
* It is the third largest span bridge in California, the first and only suspension bridge in the world to be supported entirely on pilings, and the first suspension bridge in the United States to be welded, not riveted.
* The original toll to cross the bridge in either direction was 25 cents.
* The first car accident on the bridge occurred on October 6, 1964 and the one-millionth car crossed the bridge on March 9, 1964.
* High wire artist Steve McPeak was fined $126 for walking the bridge’s cables with his assistant in 1976.
* The bridge is lit by 160 lamps, each composed of 360 LEDs.
Sources: Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro Bay Historical Society, San Pedro News-Pilot, Associated Press