The Dumbarton Bridge was the first to span San Francisco Bay

The Dumbarton Bridge was the first to span San Francisco Bay | Pro Club Bd

Dumbarton Bridge is not a blood pressure-raising landmark.

Its architecture is aggressively functional and the driveway is almost devoid of unforgettable views. It spans wetlands and connects the lower Bay Area communities: Newark and Menlo Park. even the name dumbartonShe sounds like the villain’s sidekick in a Disney movie.

But there was a time when Dumbarton was nothing short of a sensation. When it debuted on January 27, 1927, it was the first vehicular bridge to span San Francisco Bay and, at 1.63 miles, the longest highway bridge in the world. Conceived when San Franciscans still traveled to San Jose by dirt roads, the Dumbarton Bridge was a symbol of the future.

On the day the Dumbarton opened, The Chronicle published a 10-page special proclaiming it an engineering marvel that would transform the region.

“A ribbon of steel and concrete stretching more than a mile to connect the shores of the San Francisco Peninsula and Alameda Counties is today bringing about a reality that for decades was only a dream — a freeway bridge across the Bay of San Francisco.” Editorial given.

15 January 1927: Some of the first vehicles cross Dumbarton Bridge hours after it opens.

Charles M. Miller/ Special to the Chronicle

The bridge began as a victory over bureaucracy.

Originally intended as a public infrastructure project, Dumbarton was mired in delays caused by wrangling among heads of state over competing plans and a shortage of steel and construction workers during World War I. And its usefulness required some imagination. The span was completed before the Bayshore Freeway existed as a bridge link on the western edge of the bay. This portion of Highway 101 was not completed until 1937.

Eventually it became private. Local real estate agent FH Drake and banker Frank K. Towne formed the Dumbarton Bridge Company and sold stock in $100 denominations to cover the $2.5 million construction budget, hoping to pay it back in nickel royalties. (It took 16 years to cover the original investment.) The bridge got its name from Dumbarton Point on its east coast, itself named because the marshland reminded someone of Dumbarton in Scotland.

The first Dumbarton Bridge was more “Madison County Bridges” than the Golden Gate Bridge. It was 6,500 feet long with a drawbridge but only 23 feet wide, with enough room for a car in each direction and no hard shoulder.

December 26, 1922: A San Francisco Chronicle Art Department drawing of a possible future on the Peninsula featuring three vehicular bridges, including the Dumbarton (which was completed in 1927).

December 26, 1922: A San Francisco Chronicle Art Department drawing of a possible future on the Peninsula featuring three vehicular bridges, including the Dumbarton (which was completed in 1927).

Chronicle Archive

But for the South Bay, it was revolutionary. The bridge intersects 15.5 miles of the Berkeley-to-Palo Alto commute.

“Span Boon to Football Fans,” read a headline in the 1927 Chronicle. “Saved 16 miles by spanning the bay.”

Cal and Stanford’s boosters weren’t the only ones celebrating. Realtors were enthusiastic and announced new developments in Redwood City and Atherton with hundreds of new housing units. San Carlos appeared to have been designed in response to the bridge. (“San Carlos, Lusty Peninsula Infant, Benefits Hugely From Bridge Over Bay,” read a hyperbolic Chronicle headline.)

Warm congratulations were sent from across the bay. San Francisco Mayor Jim Rolph joined in the public praise from industry and union leaders, clearly inspired by the potential unleashed.

“More bridges are coming,” reads a full-page advertisement from the Port of San Francisco. “The day is now in sight when the San Francisco transport tethers can be completely blown up and jettisoned.”

As a symbol of progress, the Dumbarton was a winner. As a bridge, however, shortcomings quickly emerged, particularly after the construction of Highway 101 and Interstate 280, and cities like San Carlos grew from sprightly toddlers with homes set in orchards to overcrowded suburbs.

An aerial view of Dumbarton Bridge in 1976 with the drawbridge raised and traffic congested.

An aerial view of Dumbarton Bridge in 1976 with the drawbridge raised and traffic congested.

California Department of Transportation

The drawbridge was only 9 feet above sea level at high tide, forcing even the smallest sailboat passing through to stop for four minutes. When Silicon Valley was formed in the 1970s, the bridge still had two lanes. A breakdown of the Ford Pinto could ground thousands of potential Hewlett-Packard and Atari employees.

State and local leaders lobbied for a new bridge, but this time locals were the obstacle, not the driver, to progress. In 1975, in one of the largest Atherton moves in the city’s slow-growth obsessed history, residents formed Citizens Against the Dumbarton Bridge to sue the state, claiming “the new bridge would bring so much traffic into the city that it would become Atherton’s half-town.” would ruin. rural quality.”

A judge quickly dismissed the lawsuit for “nebulous legal reasoning.”

Atherton, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto managed to deter large numbers of Newark residents from the feared invasion, but failed to stop them. In 1982 a new bridge was completed with a total of six lanes and a clear height of 85 feet, eliminating the need for a drawbridge. The second Dumbarton cost $100 million, more than four times its original budget.

Traffic on State Route 84 flows west over the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park, California on February 28, 2019.

Traffic on State Route 84 flows west over the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park, California on February 28, 2019.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

There was no dedicated section in The Chronicle. But the newspaper sent a reporter for the final spectacle of the first Dumbarton. The original bridge stayed next to the new one for a few years. Then, on September 23, 1984, the bridge was rigged with precision explosives and blown away.

There was no sense of swelling pride; more like morbid curiosity. More than 1,000 locals gathered to watch the demolition. Men drank six-packs of beer, and a spectator watched the 49ers game on a battery-powered TV. After a long delay, they cheered as the Dumbarton disappeared in a cloud of fire and smoke and crashed into the bay.

The Dumbarton Bridge is no longer a symbol of the future. It is now the shortest and arguably least celebrated bay crossing. (The San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, just a few miles north, is seven miles long.) As far as we can tell, it has never appeared on a postcard.

But it deserves more recognition as a symbol of the past and the present. Parts of the old bridge have been recycled as fishing piers. Modern Dumbarton in 1982 preceded the Richmond Bridge as the first bay crossing to receive a full cycle lane.

February 1, 1927: One of the first photographs of Dumbarton Bridge, taken two weeks after it was completed.

February 1, 1927: One of the first photographs of Dumbarton Bridge, taken two weeks after it was completed.

Photo of the chronicle file

And it has two great movie moments: as a location for the 1971 film Harold and Maude and as a key plot in the 1992 Robert Redford film Sneakers.

(“Sneakers” is the next Total SF movie night, playing at the Balboa Theater on Thursday, August 25. See everyone cheer as the Dumbarton gets its name.)

So consider this a unironically and heartily salute to Dumbarton Bridge – a rather dull bay span that has been quietly doing its job for almost a century.

Peter Hartlaub (he/him) is a cultural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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