Bridge To The Past
Few incidents can compare to the tragedies that occurred and the ensuing public drama that played out after the Colorado Street Bridge nearly feel apart
September 18, 2003
By CHIP JACOBS
Just past quitting time on Friday August 1, 1913, soot-caked construction workers pouring concrete into the highest arch of the future Colorado Street Bridge heard a bloodcurdling snap. Something that wasn’t supposed to had torn loose. Hovering 150 feet above the Arroyo Seco, a lush view all around, the men felt their boots tremble. Seconds later, the walkway below them dissolved and a colleague hollered, “Jump!”
By the ungodly rumble, it was as if the entire structure was collapsing.
Actually, only a minor section on the San Rafael side had, but it packed a devastating wallop. When the mold for the top of Span No. 9 buckled, it created a thunderous pancaking action that snatched three workers – and almost eight more — in a violent, plunging mass. Hundreds of tons of wet concrete, scaffolding, man, and machine came crashing onto the floor of the valley, kicking up dust and pandemonium where there had been nifty organization before.
The boom ricocheted through the gorge, into the undulating, green hills of Busch Gardens, off the Vista Del Arroyo Hotel and toward the storefronts along Colorado Boulevard. Burly carpenters and concrete men rushed toward the cloudy pile. Above them, scaffolding shaken loose by the jarring dangled precariously over them. A lookout was later stationed to monitor what might else plummet.
Within half an hour, hundreds of townsfolk drawn by the concussive sound had hurried into the Arroyo to rubberneck or volunteer assistance. On this dusky Friday, the parlors and clinking shops could wait, and police sweated to work crowd control. Businessmen asked what had gone wrong. Women sobbed. Those closest to the accident perimeter could see one of the gruesome results: John Visco, an Italian-born carpenter with an infant at home, had died instantly. If his broken neck hadn’t killed him, his crushed skull had.
James “C.J.” Johnson, a native Missourian who earned his pay-stubs raking concrete through the forms, was still breathing. The devout were convinced his survival transcended dumb luck. They believed it was a God-given miracle. The timbers that’d swept off the 28-year-old married man from his perch had cushioned his thump and then “crisscrossed” over him so he wasn’t struck by falling wreckage. It took twenty minutes to dig him out. Transported by ambulance to Marengo Avenue Hospital, he was one torn-up fellow, nonetheless. Doctors said his arm was mangled, he’d probably lose an eye and that he’d suffered head trauma and internal bleeding to boot.
UP TO HIS NECK
The sole Pasadenan among the casualties was a wire technician identified as Harry Collins of Delacey Street. He’d been buried alive underneath an estimated 12 feet of soupy concrete and muck. Groaning in pain, consumed in darkness, he begged for someone, anyone to help him.
Groveling wasn’t required. While one group attended Johnson, another focused on Collins. Led by the shift foreman, people grabbed crowbars, jacks, saws and axes to extricate him from what one observer called “the death pile.” Space was cramped, and the rescue party winnowed to eight men. After three or four hours, the last part digging by lantern, they’d made real progress. A Los Angeles Times reporter on scene said the men “burrowed into the heap like prairie dogs, sawing their way as they went.” When Collins whimpered he couldn’t last, a chum reassured him he could. “Never mind, old man,” he said. “We’ll have you out soon.”
Upon reaching him through a makeshift hole, the rescuers found their victim covered up to his neck in hardening concrete that he moaned was stinging his eyes. He was in unbearable pain. R.H. Newcomb, an area physician who’d come to assist, begged to do something to numb the man’s suffering. So, a rope was tied around Newcomb, and he was lowered into the hole by a jury-rigged hoist. The doctor gave Collins a sleep-inducing hypodermic shot right into the forehead because that was only part of him exposed. Eventually he was carried to Pasadena Hospital in critical condition.
The rescue in the gorge was as dramatic as the collapse was shocking. A buzz pierced the 30,000-plus-town of eccentrics and scions, housewives and haberdashers. In-the-know company men tried pedaling the bright side to the most shaken. Had the top of the arch fallen an hour earlier instead of at knock-off time, a dozen men might’ve perished. See, it could’ve been worse.
As it were, charges of the Mercereau Bridge and Construction Company, the job contractor, recounted white-knuckle escapes that made for vivid reading. The competing newspapers were going at it to play up the drama, but going at it without riling the status quo.
One worker told of the experience that almost splattered him in the dirt. He’d been preparing to climb down the superstructure to grab some chow at the mess-tent when the scaffolding snapped and the floor beneath him literally vanished. About to drop, he threw his arms around a “steel brace” jutting from one of the dried forms and hung mid-air until he could whip his torso over a beam. A co-worker and his relative who swung right next to him used the same escape: they grabbed strips of reinforcing metal rebar in the concrete and held on for dear life. Apparent Hispanics, their last name was the same as the street — Colorado. Once they pulled themselves up, they shimmied down the bridge and helped yank out Collins.
During the next several days, general disbelief and puzzlement about the collapse gelled to fuzzy anger about the cause. Muttering aloud, average folks asked how all hell had broken loose with no warning from safety inspectors and no inkling of prior trouble? The previous 14 months of construction had seen nothing much go wrong. Sure, the grunts earned crackerjack wages — $2 to $4.50 a day, in part because of the hazards – but they’d trusted the engineers to return them to their families intact.
For the brain trust of the Colorado Street Bridge, another question dominated. Would the $234,000-project be delayed past its expected October premiere date? Schedules and reputations were at stake. If completed, this would be the tallest concrete overpass of its kind anyplace in the world and certainly the finest in Southern California. It’d be a legend from birth.
A post-accident inspection squelched that uncertainty.
“From my observations this morning, I can say there is no injury to the arch of the bridge, although it had a very severe test,” proclaimed city council member and public works commissioner T.D. Allin. “The opening of the bridge probably will be delayed (just) thirty days. If there is traffic over it by Thanksgiving, I will be satisfied.”
Come December 13, it will be exactly ninety years since the Colorado Street Bridge’s ceremonial ribbons were cut and the praise gushed. Ninety years since the bridge was first lionized for its breathtaking arches, dreamy curve and goblet lampposts. Functionally, it’s opening gave Pasadena an automotive gateway to reach Los Angeles, the cow town-metropolis with all the banks. Equally important, it provided access to the region’s most stylish suburb.
Forget that redolent New Year’s Day parade. Pasadenans were bananas about their motorcars before Henry Ford was a name-brand icon. With an estimated 5,000 cars in 1913, many owned by East Coast magnates with vacation estates here, there were more tailpipes per capita in the Crown City than anyplace in America. At the Huntington Hotel, where luxury came standard, the garage had room for 150 cars. (To keep the hired-help rested – and segregated from their class-conscious masters — there was sleeping quarters for 40 chauffeurs.)
The car culture exploded in ensuing years. The bridge was nearly detonated. Government engineers classified it obsolete before it hit adolescence. What traffic wear-and-tear didn’t undermine, structural questions and eroding floodwaters from the Devil’s Gate area nearly accomplished. The state wanted it dismantled in 1935. And 1951. And 1977. Finally a decade ago, a $27.3-million overhaul spearheaded by a local preservation group wrapped up, ensuring the span won’t be tomorrow’s trivia stumper. It rests today protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
The bridge’s aesthetic shimmer certainly stirred the imagination. Creative types have worn out pens and paintbrushes trying to capture the soul of the 1,468-feet-long viaduct. Elegant and functional, a hardy endorsement of man’s capacity to tame nature with geometrical élan, there is a singular magnetism about it that still rivets the eye.
Less celebrated, though just as enduring among the masses, the bridge has also nurtured a macabre alter ego its prim designers never asked for. Well over 100 people have killed themselves by leaping from “Suicide Bridge,” roughly a third of them during the Great Depression. One of the first jumpers was the ill wife of a Los Angeles tie-maker. One of the last may have been a guilt-ridden freshman bible student from the now-closed Worldwide Church of God.
Not surprisingly, the urban mythology that’s flowered around bridge-related deaths has fostered ghost stories and cultish twaddle. A pervasive rumor was that an immigrant construction worker lost his balance and tumbled into a drying-concrete forms. According to legend, the foreman didn’t notice the man’s absence until it was too late, and his body was left there entombed. Betrayed in life, the worker’s spirit supposedly has haunted the bridge from the netherworld, beckoning the lost and dejected to join him. Researchers who have combed into this story have concluded it was just that – a campfire tail fanned in the dark alleys of the Internet.
Little interest, conversely, has been devoted to the events of August 1, 1913. There been almost nothing written in depth about the incident that took the lives of three, possibly four men since the calamity itself. It is a throwaway line in coffee-table books, a historical afterthought in a city giddy about its nostalgia.
But thumb through the old newspaper accounts and one might conclude the forebears of the Colorado Street Bridge wanted people to forget. The span had been a hard sell even if had been a practical one.
ONE MAN’S DREAM
Before the bridge was up, crossing the Arroyo had been a sweaty, unreliable affair that bogged down horses, buggies and crank-started cars. After 1892, the roads descending toward the only east-west crossing over the streambed, the privately owned “Scoville Bridge,” were winding and prone to mudslides. People got hurt, an indeterminate number killed, on the zigzagging passage from Orange Grove Boulevard, site of “Millionaire Row,” to the rugged hills of Annandale and San Rafael.
Even so, it wasn’t the politicians or the growing car industry agitating for a street-level conduit. It was the chief of Pasadena’s Board of Trade, forerunner of the chamber of commerce. Edwin Sorver, a curly-haired, East-Coast transplant, was the young go-getter who ran the group. He craved big progress, and could stomach righteous battles. For a city trying to flourish beyond being an address for blue-blooders and health resorts, the basics were required. It needed its own water supply, its own electricity free of Edison’s grip and, naturally, freedom of movement.
Well, Sorver’s bridge vision was polarizing. One band of citizens was spitting-mad about the cost. Effected homeowners along the Arroyo were upset too about its “eyesore” potential. NIMBYism in a pocket-watch world wasn’t much different than NIMBYism in the digital one.
But Sorver and his minions stumped exhaustively. They ran pro-bridge ads, printed posters and guided naysayers on tours. “Modern roads, not horse trails!” was the campaign slogan. Case made for them, Pasadena voters overwhelming approved a $100,000 bond measure to pay for a fair chunk of it. The county and the three cities involved (Pasadena, L.A. and the now-defunct town of San Rafael) chipped in the balance.
Construction had gone well. The only serious commotion had predated it. For chief designer, Sorver had handpicked John Alexander Low Waddell, a decorated, globetrotting Kansas City engineer with a passing resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt. Waddell, known for “span-lift” bridges, devised the 11-arch superstructure that stands today. Its proposed budget just happened to be $6,000 over budget. When Sorver pressed him to shave expenses, the proud Waddell said he already had, and he knew his business better than some booster.
Feeling squeezed, Sorver went around Waddell. He consulted with the man who’d built three L.A.-area beach piers, a handsome contractor named John Drake Mercereau. He did some technical thinking and suggested the unorthodox. Mercereau concluded they could save the six-large by curving the eastern side of the bridge 50 degrees to take advantage of firmer substrate than where Waddell’s foundations would have been sunk. It’d make the roadway longer but less complicated. Sorver agreed happily. Waddell didn’t. He went ape, lampooning the idea as unsound engineering, yet still stayed on board.
This wasn’t just any roadbed; the Colorado Street Bridge was national news, and its state-of-the-art assemblage fascinated both the gentry and commoners.
Forty to 70 workers employed by Mercereau hammered, poured and sawed at any one shift. Horse-drawn wagons schlepped timbers for scaffolding and the forms down the Arroyo. Sand and gravel were brought in by truck and later mixed with cement by a gasoline-powered turbine. The resulting concrete slurry was then poured directly into receiving hoppers or steel “dump-cars” running on a specially designed tramway where the road would eventually be. It wasn’t efficient to blend ingredients on the ground and have to pulley it up 15 stories when you could mix it directly over the forms. This wasn’t the 1800s. Gravity and machines were allies.
BUT NOT ALWAYS
Visco and Johnson had been on the track near one of the hoppers when the rumbling began at 5 p.m. Collins, a “concrete finisher,” was in the center of scaffolding nearby. The men who escaped had been on the edge of it. One accident-theory floated was that somebody had goofed by forgetting to set the brake on one of the dump-cars. The rolling bin might have accidentally struck a post holding the arch’s wooden cast in place. When it gave way, it sent the dump-car, the scaffolding and all those tons of liquid concrete hurtling downward on a lethal avalanche.
Nobody knew for sure. At the dawn of the Progressive Era in California politics, there were no industrial-workplace investigators or worker’s compensation funds. Personal injury lawyers didn’t skulk around, at least just yet. And, muckracking journalism was only emerging. (The progenitor of it, writer Upton Sinclair, relocated to the Pasadena good life in 1915.)
Neither there were any leadership declarations about getting to the bottom of the incident. Sorver, Mercereau and Waddell said zero publicly. The same went for Mayor Richard Lee Metcalf and the rest of the Pasadena City Council. At the two council meetings following the accident, the top city business was a citizen protest about flat-wheel trolley cars and denial of a Maple Street sidewalk extension. The members of the county Board of Supervisors who traveled to the accident site on August 2 to inspect it stayed mum, too.
Officially, the compelling news was the cost to repair the lost arch and scaffolding: $1,500. The safety worry was about the rickety scaffolding that hadn’t dropped. What already had fallen seemed incidental.
Completing the bridge was the benchmark. Construction also was a dirty, dangerous profession that claimed thousands of lives every year in post-Industrial Age America. You can’t judge any of it by today’s rulebook-thick standards, but you can wonder.
“There was a more haphazard approach to these issues then,” explained state historian Kevin Starr. “The temptation is to imply a conspiracy (by the politicians), which can be true, but it can also be that it just didn’t register on the radar screen.”
Did the cities and the companies at least send back-door condolences to the victim’s families? Was there a moment a silence? A check cut? A memorial plaque? All these years later, it’s the mystery stitched through the bloodstains.
“To the extent city fathers saw this as a potential (hurdle) to their great dream, they wanted it to keep it moving like George Ellery trying to get the telescope up to Mount Wilson,” said Sue Mossman, executive directive of Pasadena Heritage, the preservation outfit that has championed the bridge. “When you look at the magnitude of the project and the way it was built basically by hand, the probability there’d be an accident was pretty high … And, this bridge was fairly controversial.”
WHIMSY AND DESPAIR
If there was a face to the tragedy, it was Visco’s. A Pasadena Daily News article published August 4 characterized the family’s loss as one of “clean-minded aspiration cut short by ‘fate.’”
Visco had emigrated to the U.S. as a child. He wasn’t much for mingling or chitchat about Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations or pennant races. He wanted to assimilate, enrolling himself in a night course to learn English. Carpentry was his trade but he poured concrete for Mr. Mercereau.
In 1912 he’d married a pretty, olive-skinned woman who’d come to the states from Mazatlan, Mexico. Visco was Juana Rojas’s third husband. Her first had died, her second had run off and she’d had to work in a San Diego laundry to support her two kids. When she married Visco, they set up house on Wilde Street southwest of downtown L.A. In summer of 1913, three weeks before she’d be widowed again, Juana delivered Visco’s son, John Jr.
Nobody from the city or the company came in person to inform her about the accident at first. A neighbor of hers, a carpenter who happened to have read a story about it, took on that duty around sunrise on August 2. He rapped on the door and looked so pale that Juana asked if he was sick. No, the neighbor told her. It was John who’d been hurt.
“Oh,” she said, “I know he is dead.”
Later that afternoon a Mercereau representative dropped by, offering to help. Juana was said to be frantic. Then she refused to believe her husband was gone.
Two generations later, the vestiges of Juana’s grief remain in her granddaughter’s creaky memories. Pasadena Police Commander Marilyn Diaz, whose paternal grandfather was Juana’s second husband, has tried reconstructing what happened in the aftermath of Visco’s gory fall. His son, John Jr., turned out like the dad he never really knew – self-taught, determined, Diaz said. He was a Culver City fireman before he went into the trunk-footlocker business with Diaz’s father.
Twice widowed, Juana died before World War II.
“It leaves me a little bit wistful,” said Diaz, a 30-year department veteran who runs the field operations division. “I think about when this occurred, the police never went out and notified my grandmother. Almost a 100 years later, the Pasadena Police Department has changed. We have tremendous support for victim’s families, whether it involves a gang member or anybody else. We want to show dignity. It’s a different time.”
Scant personal information was revealed about the other two fatalities. Collins, who’d come to Pasadena just four months earlier from Camden, New Jersey, was wounded head-to-toe and at one point had nine nurses treating him, plus Dr. Newcomb. They had to scrape dried concrete off him, and it was almost impossible without hurting him more. Collins died of infections from his wounds on August 10, wounds easily treatable today with antibiotics. He left behind a five-year-old son. Johnson, the concrete raker, expired from his wounds, as well.
On August 4, 1913 the tough questions started being flung. A “coroner’s jury,” a citizen’s panel summoned to investigate and deliberate on certain fatalities like a specialized grand jury, gathered at the Turner-and-Stevens funeral parlor on North Raymond Avenue.
A Mercereau vice president named F.W. Proctor testified early on. He admitted he still was puzzled. The only scenario he could think of was that the mold for the top of the arch, otherwise known as “false work,” had probably broken because it had been improperly over-weighted. When it snapped, the concrete burst through the rows of scaffolding, taking out Collins, Johnson and Visco with it.
“Something gave way,” Proctor said. “Nobody knows what … It’s one of those things that makes a man wonder how much he knows after all.”
“Was there any inspection of the work as it proceeded?” he was asked.
“The city of Pasadena has an engineer on the job,” Proctor piped up.
Before more could be learned, City Coroner Calvin Hartwell abruptly ended this line of inquiry. He told the jury that the section of the arch destroyed, a 30-foot-by-60-foot frame, was outside Pasadena boundaries, in the minutely inhabited city of San Rafael. Thus, Pasadena’s responsibility was nullified. Officials from the city across the gorge were never trotted before the jury. (San Rafael, which includes what is now the Linda Vista area and land west of the bridge, was mainly farmland run by two families. Interestingly, it was annexed by Pasadena in 1914.)
Coroner jury member F.F. Berry was dissatisfied with what he heard. Based on newspaper accounts from the time, he bore down on the foreman of the carpenters, one John Galloway. Had the false work been inspected? Berry asked. Yes, Galloway said. They always checked for signs of weight-bearing strain. Okay, Berry continued, were there any safety precautions (this the age before safety harnesses)? Galloway replied there was ropes workers could grab, but he didn’t seem to understand the gist of the question.
In the end, the jury’s verdict was a stale one absent of personal blame, but the message was potent. Visco’s death,” the jury wrote, “was the result of a fracture of the skull caused by faulty construction of the false work of the Colorado Street Bridge which fell August 1.”
Judgment made, the impaneled group was dismissed. No charges were ever brought.
Hollywood, though, understood a dramatic story when it saw one. This one was ripped from the headlines. A week after the boom in the Arroyo, a script had already been written to depict it as a silent movie. The Lubin Co. shot the “moving picture play” using the bridge and the city’s Union National Bank as backdrops. Spectators watched the filming. The storyline involved a promising young architect who falls in love with the bank president’s daughter. Through wiles or connections, the architect lands a “very important” bridge contract. Then the bridge collapses.
A Pasadena Star writer who refused to give away the entire plot said it would be “sufficiently interesting” to locals if the picture ever made the movie palaces in town. It’s unclear if this The Bridge of Sighs ever did.
Four months later, bands and bunting infused the Colorado Street Bridge dedication with an electric, carnival atmosphere. Among other pols, the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors spoke and drew “gasps of amazement” from the large crowd. There were already 40,000 cars in the county, he said, and every one of them eventually would be traversing the bridge.
Mercereau didn’t make the celebration: he’d been killed in a car accident inspecting a damn he’d built in Ventura County. Waddell didn’t attend either, and there was ripe speculation he was still upset about the revision to his design. Whether another pall hung over him or the others no one can say today.
To read how dozens of people 90 years ago risked their own lives to try and rescue two men in the shadow of a wobbled colossus with tons of scaffolding teetering above them is a remarkable ode to heart. One eyewitness said there was, “probably no greater act of heroism every performed in the city.” To read how the responsible were let off the hook is a darker trip backwards.
This version is nearly identical to the one that appeared in the Pasadena Weekly. It was largely drawn from newspaper accounts and regional history books. Special thanks to the staff of the Pasadena Public Library, the Pasadena Museum of History, Pasadena Heritage and Ray Dashner. Copyright Chip Jacobs