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Local News

A brief history of the bridges of the coast

An arched bridge seen from below.
Frank Hartzell
Russian Gulch Bridge.

At the November 15 ceremony to celebrate the new Pudding Creek Bridge, speakers all praised Caltrans, the state’s transportation agency, for a job well done. But Caltrans still has to get past a lot of historical controversy. And there is a lot more work to be done on the coast’s bridges, which are the region’s most imposing infrastructure.

There are 10 tall and one short bridge on the Mendocino Coast past the Navarro River all the way to Westport. Caltrans wants to replace two, but activists are still resisting. Four don’t need anything right now. Caltrans just widened and replaced the crumbling rails on the Pudding Creek Bridge at the North entrance to Fort Bragg and there are four more bridges with the exact same problems that also need to be wider with new decks and new rails. After years of pushing bridge repairs in the face of strong activism in the first 15 years of the 20th century, Caltrans has moved back several local bridge projects and taken several off the schedule entirely

Many locals want the Sgt. Emil Evensen Hare Creek Bridge repaired and upgraded but Caltrans has changed its mind on doing that right away.

At the ribbon cutting for a redone Pudding Creek Bridge, Fort Bragg Police Chief Neil Cervenka said total bridge closures are a potential nightmare for a chief when part of the city is cut off from the rest. He praised the way Caltrans and the city and the hospital worked together to prepare for an isolation crisis that never came.

But the crumbling and cracking on the Hare Creek Bridge is worse than it was on Pudding Creek before the work started this spring.

As far back as 2010, Hare Creek Bridge had been prioritized for a major upgrade. Most recently, it was on the schedule for a rail upgrade project starting next summer or at the latest, the following year.

But then the Hare Creek Bridge disappeared from the schedule. Instead, a two year upgrade of the Jack Peters Creek Bridge at the northern entrance to the town of Mendocino began recently with the installation of towering 80 foot utility poles to carry all the wires up and away from the bridge. CalTrans spokesman Manny Machado said the poles are temporary, to be removed after the project completes in late 2025. The real work begins next summer.

Jaime Matteoli, Caltrans Corridor Manager said at one time engineers thought the bridge was in such bad shape it needed to be replaced completely. A full study found it was surprisingly sound but did need a deck replacement. Mateteoli said that while the matter is still being worked on, it might not rise high enough on the priority list to be completed in the next two years. Cervenka has told Matteoli that he believes Hare Creek Bridge presents a hazard to local residents who commute from the city to the south. Three wheel trikes have become popular in Fort Bragg among older people. But driving them across that bridge requires a death defying trek in the traffic lanes. Cervenka accepted Matteoli’s answer that Hare Creek and several other local bridges have moved off the priority list in favor of bridges in worse shape in other parts of the state.

Matteoli plans to give me answers about several questions I have posed about this. We were going to talk last week but that discussion has now been moved to late December.

Before the high bridges were built in two waves, driving California’s Coast was a nightmare of switchbacks down to low bridges. In the 1920s, the agency we know as Caltrans began to modernize Highway 1 from Central California to Westport. Thanks to federal stimulus funds, thousands of people were employed building the Jack Peters Creek, Russian Gulch and Jughandle Creek Bridges during the Great Depression. Russian Gulch is visited and photographed by engineers and photographers from around the world.

The tallest and most controversial bridge on the Mendocino Coast is the 1944 Albion River Bridge, perhaps the last great highway bridge made of wood. Locals have successfully rebuffed Caltrans efforts to replace it. Caltrans has reclassified it as either a replace or renovate project, despite inspection reports that say the bridge has a limited lifespan and a cost of maintenance way beyond the long term replacement costs. A crucial draft environmental plan for the Albion Bridge is due out in early 2024, Machado said.

Traffic tie ups will happen over the next two summers at the northern entrance to Mendocino. Jack Peters Creek is so narrow, a woman was once blown over the edge on her bicycle by the wind of a passing car but survived.

A bridge seen from a rocky riverbed below.
Frank Hartzell
Jack Peters Bridge.

The Hare Creek, Russian Gulch and tiny Little River bridge all are too narrow and need deck work, rails replaced or earthquake retrofits in the case of the last two. The bridges from the 1930s not only outlasted the Coast’s bridges built in the post war era, but the oldest bridges will last for about 70 years more each, inspection documents show. Not true of the newer ones. Bridges across the Noyo River and Ten Mile River had to be replaced already and the Big River Bridge required two rounds of major renovations.

Salmon Creek is the worst now and inspection reports about its condition are shrill.

A bridge with green strutwork, seen from one end of the span.
Frank Hartzell
Salmon Creek Bridge.

The Caspar Creek Bridge from 1966 and the Jughandle Creek Bridge from the 1930s also have no major need for repair, which is another new take by Caltrans. New technology in concrete repair has helped prolong bridges.

Matteoli reported the Pudding Creek bridge was on time and within budget and nobody had been injured on the project. The state agency presented artistic wrought iron rails, the same kind they once fought against, now decorated with 74 galvanized steel salmon on each side of the bridge and topped by art deco style designs. It's a new look for Caltrans and they hope their good fortune with Pudding Creek will carry forward.

Local News
Frank Hartzell’s first journalism job was in Texas in 1983. For 35 years, he worked for daily and weekly newspapers as prestigious as the Mendocino Beacon and as obscure as the Sacramento Bee. He owned his own newspapers at one time and was once managing editor of the Napa Valley Register for several years, but much prefers working security at Adventist Health Mendocino Coast Hospital. Frank is a regular contributor to the Mendocino Voice and loves ocean walks with dog Brutus and hanging out with wife Linda Little, her mom and their nephews Joel and Jack. He is a bookseller and chicken farmer and can be reached about any of this at frankhartzell@gmail.com