For worker, Tacoma Narrow Bridge forever suspended in history

As workers prepared to string the suspension cables of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge two years ago, state supervisors gave an 84-year-old man an eagle's eye view.

Earl White ascended 500 feet to the top of the green suspension cable of the nearby 1950 bridge.

The retired ironworker from Tacoma had walked this cable hundreds of times before. Racewalked it. About nine years ago, upon hearing the state would add another bridge, he hoped for one more trip to the top.

White was amazed by a half-century of new housing on both shores. The other surprise was that his hosts made him wear a safety harness. "It was the first time I ever 'snapped on,' " he said.

Only a few people get to climb the cable, but anyone can enjoy a more subtle adrenaline rush Sunday, when the public can walk the deck of the $849 million new Narrows bridge in a grand-opening celebration. Vehicle traffic begins Monday.

Like a space launch, a new suspension bridge no longer grabs the nation's attention.

Still, as many as 40,000 people might show up, said Doug MacDonald, state transportation secretary.

The Narrows Bridge, roughly one mile shore to shore, is the largest new U.S. suspension bridge to be built since 1964, when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in New York City. No more are planned in North America, though many are being erected overseas.

The new Narrows Bridge will mark Washington state's first venture into electronic toll collections. Frequent bridge drivers will put money into a pre-paid account, and tolls will be deducted using a windshield-mounted transponder.

There will be a new high-occupancy vehicle lane in each direction, giving the HOV network a foothold far beyond Seattle. The state also calls this a safety project, because west- and eastbound traffic will now be separated. The old bridge will carry cars west to Gig Harbor, while the new one serves traffic east to Tacoma.

Suspension bridges are distinguished by their enormous curved cables that wrap over the tall towers, and around anchors on shore. Smaller vertical wires hang the road deck from the curved main cables.

Construction follows the same recipe used on classic suspension bridges such as the Brooklyn and Golden Gate: Plant the foundations underwater, build the towers, then spin thousands of miles of thin wire until they form a thick cable.

"Any ironworker from 40 to 60 years ago could walk on the bridge and would be at home," said John Robinson, an ironworker turned photographer, who produced books about the new bridge and the Al Zampa Bridge at California's Carquinez Strait.

However, worker safety and materials have changed tremendously.

Bridge building used to be a "hotshot job," risky and well-paid, said Narrows historian and author Richard Hobbs, who arranged White's climb two years ago.

Safety rules existed in 1950 but weren't enforced, White said. Four of his co-workers died, though White believes only one would have been saved by a harness.

"He thought we were a bunch of pansies," said Sharan Linzy, a state bridge preservation specialist who climbed with White two years ago.

On a later visit, taking an elevator to the tops of the new bridge's towers, White told young ironworkers their construction catwalk, flanked by shoulder-high wire mesh, was so wide he could drive a car up it. In 1950, there were just a couple of strands on each side. White once got in a fistfight in which he or a co-worker would have fallen off the catwalk to their death, had others not pulled them apart, he recalls.

Workers on the 2007 bridge were protected by a new kind of enclosed scaffolding that wrapped around the towers. They did endure unusually strong wind and ice storms last winter, as White did in 1949-50.

But in more than four years of construction, there were no deaths and few injuries. Robinson said that by contrast, the original Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco, built by desperate men in the Depression, claimed 22 lives.

"They had a sort of macabre calculus, where they would anticipate they would lose one life per million dollars spent. Today a person can have a career, work 30 years, and be reasonably sure they can live, and not be severely injured."

Another big difference from the 1950 bridge was the choice of concrete towers instead of steel, saving millions of dollars in materials and labor. "We wouldn't know where to find the riveters," said MacDonald.

So the dual spans are mere cousins, unlike the Delaware Memorial Bridge crossing, where a second bridge has steel towers to match the first.

White has made at least four visits to the jobsite, but his excitement is tempered by his irritation that the DOT imported the steel-truss bridge deck from Korea, instead of insisting on American products.

This week, he crossed the Narrows again, in a car trip with relatives.

"I still say our [steel] towers are more graceful," he said over a cellphone while rolling across the old bridge. "The concrete tower looks wonderful, as far as that goes. Someday, I hope to see them in lights."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Longest suspension bridges (measuring center span)
U.S. bridges and their completion dates:
Bridge Location Length Year
Verrazano-Narrows New York Harbor 4,260 ft. 1964
Golden Gate San Francisco Bay 4,200 ft. 1937
Mackinac Straits of Mackinac, Mich. 3,800 ft. 1957
George Washington Hudson River, New York City 3,500 ft. 1931
Tacoma Narrows* Puget Sound 2,800 ft. 1950, 2007
Al Zampa San Francisco Bay area (I-80) 2,388 ft. 2003
San Francisco-Oakland Bay San Francisco Bay 2,310 ft. 1936
Bronx-Whitestone East River, New York City 2,300 ft. 1939
Delaware Memorial * Delaware River 2,150 ft. 1951, 1968
Source: state Department of Transportation

* Dual bridges

Earl White, 86, of Tacoma, in front of the green bridge he helped build and the new one, for which opening ceremonies will be held Sunday. (ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows." Earl White, right, nearing the end of a cable walk on the 1950 bridge, converses with maintenance supervisor Kip Wylie in 2005. White was 84 at the time. (RICHARD S. HOBBS)

Sunday's opening | Walk the bridge: 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Ribbon cutting: 1:30 p.m.