Landmarks: Memorial Bridge spans a century
Harmon Heald’s 157-year-old plaza has been the focal point of Healdsburg since the town was incorporated in 1867, but the Russian River has long been an important part of work life and recreation for the area – and so has the Memorial Bridge that crosses a section of it, just south of town.
Local residents and visitors are about to discover just how important, as later this year a planned rehabilitation of the structure will force the closing of the bridge for up to a year or longer.
After a long fight to keep the nearly 100-year-old span intact and preserved on the National Register of Historic Places, engineers will be upgrading, refitting and strengthening the bridge.
“It’s a complete rehabilitation,” says City of Healdsburg Public Works Director Mike Kirn, who said the work will include seismic strengthening, complete repainting and new center pier or foundation, pedestrian walkways, barriers, fencing, sidewalks and vehicle surface. The timing of the renovations is still being determined as local residents and city officials work to determine routes around the bridge while it’s closed. “We hope to begin the water work this summer and the actual structural upgrade starting late this fall.”
Krin said there will be discussion on this issue at the upcoming City Council meeting on March 4.
The long battle over the future of the bridge and now how people will face not having it for several months is evidence the bridge is as important to the community today as it was when it was first built in 1921.
“Healdsburg and Northern Sonoma County residents feel a strong attachment to this bridge,” says Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society Curator Holly Hoods, who has written about the bridge. “It is a beloved local landmark. For people who grew up coming to Healdsburg it is one of their major memories. Mel Amato and Friends of Healdsburg Memorial Bridge led the efforts to recognize the historical importance of the bridge and the efforts to preserve it. I am grateful to them and to Healdsburg City Council for promoting the rehabilitation of the bridge.”
Before the railroads reached Healdsburg in the early 1870s, the city had no bridge of any type over the Russian River, says Hoods. During floods, the city would be cut off for days at time. A few landowners operated a ferry service near where the current bridge now stands.
The first wagon bridge – a Howe truss – was built in 1870 and a second bridge, a modified Pratt truss replaced it in 1893. That pier had three cement piers and was reinforced by iron needle beams. It was during this time, says Hoods, that the sandy Russian River beach developed into a “popular hub of recreational activity.”
Finally, in 1921 the current bridge was constructed. A Pennsylvania Petit truss bridge, it was replacing what would normally be wooden supports with heavier metal materials. Work on the new bridge began in June 1921 and finished late that fall. According to historical accounts at the time, nine carloads of steel were delivered for the construction and the builders – the American Bridge Company – needed an additional 30 days to overcome problems sinking the cofferdam, which is the water tight , dry enclosure used for projects built under bodies of water. Once that was completed, however, the crew faced a serious deadline – finishing the bridge before the winter rains and other inclement weather arrived. They made it in the nick of time and the bridge was accepted by county officials in December 1921.
An account describing the bridge published in the Healdsburg Tribune on November 17, 1921, could be used today:
“It is a beautiful bridge with a raised walk at either side, outside the truss work, for pedestrians and a wide floor inside for vehicle traffic. At either end, set at both sides, are massive concrete walls, in each which is set two decorative light posts. Other lights are set at regular intervals on both sides of the bridge.”
Local resident Julius Myron Alexander, who was head of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and he helped inaugurate the span by reading a poem he wrote for the occasion. It was Alexander who led the campaign to dedicate the bridge as a memorial to fallen soldiers and veterans of World War I which is how it came to be dubbed Memorial Bridge.
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