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Railroad bridges fought nature, and usually lost
Current span longest lived on Colorado
The railroad bridge, which spans the Colorado river from Indian Hill in California to Prison Hill in Arizona, was built to withstand the once mighty currents and seasonal flooding of the Colorado River.
Several other railroad bridges had previously been erected, beginning with the completion in 1877 of a massive wooden structure which was 667 feet long that utilized a 93 feet-long swing to allow steamboat traffic to pass back and forth.
That first bridge, and several that followed, did not survive the river's onslaught.
“Spanning the river promised to be no easy task,” wrote Mark Santiago, the former curator of the Arizona Historical Society in Yuma. “The Colorado was notorious for the power of its current and rapid rises during annual flood stage. Further it was crucial to Arizona that free passage for steamboat traffic remain unimpeded.”
Despite the obstacles, a railroad bridge was essential, said Carol Brooks, current Yuma curator for the Arizona Historical Society in Yuma.
“If you didn't have that bridge that train wasn't coming through Arizona. You couldn't float that thing across the river on a ferry. With that crossing, that is what made it easy for everybody to come and that is what truly opened up this territory.”
Bowing to the power of nature, the 1877 bridge, built by Southern Pacific Railroad, was washed out by a flood in 1884.
The flood destroyed four spans and two piers, leaving little more than the abutments on the California side and the swing span. A temporary bridge was finished in one week and a new permanent Howe Truss wooden bridge was completed by SPRR in November.
The swing span for the second bridge was built on the same pivot point as the previous bridge. It was heavily damaged by fire on the morning of Oct. 17, 1885. Once again, the only thing that remained was the swing span.
Historical documents indicate it was burned intentionally by Fransisco Palacio, who was tried for the crime in San Diego Superior Court in the summer of 1886, as he had apparently lit the fire on the California side. He was found guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison at San Quentin.
During the trial, many witnesses from Yuma were called to the stand to testify, including the prison warden of the time who had spotted Palacio on the bridge.
According to an article written during the court proceedings, Palacio committed the crime because he had, “sworn vengeance against Americans.”
A permanent timber replacement bridge was finished in early 1886, and in 1895 the SPRR replaced the swing span with a steel structure. The original square pivot point that was built into a cut in the river bank was now replaced with a tall freestanding concrete cylindrical pier just to the north. The rest of the bridge was also rebuilt in steel in 1898.
There was a foot walk on this bridge that was used by pedestrians to cross the river.
In 1916 the most devastating flood in recorded Yuma history struck, which dangerously weakened the bridge, and although it had been strengthened in 1911, the draw span was “pretty shaky” when trains passed over it in later years.
SPRR then began planning for a through pin truss bridge to replace it that would be 400 feet long. Years later, a permit was secured from the War Department to begin construction on a 400 foot steel bridge 1,300 feet upstream from the current bridge.
Initially, a foreman and 10 men with pickaxes began excavation for the pier on the California side on April 26,1923. The last of the concrete for the California pier was poured on Oct. 10.
On the Arizona side, excavation was accomplished with large dump buckets handled by a derrick, and the concrete work was finished within two weeks after the completion of the California piers.
The erection of the falsework to support the bridge during its construction began on Oct. 5. Two pontoons, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, were lashed together. They supported a pile-driver while a 3,700 pound hammer drove the 75 feet long piles into the riverbed.
As there was initially no railroad tracks to the construction site at the time, the structural steel for the bridge had to be hauled in using other means.
The first steel was set in place on Oct. 22. Eight days later the structural steel was in place from pier to pier. The last pin was driven into the bridge at 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, 1923.
It then took three weeks to apply three coats of paint to the 2,144,224 pound superstructure.
The installation of the decking was completed on Feb. 28, 1924, and the bridge was ready for a single track that led to a double track at each end of the bridge.
The old bridge downstream continued to be used until railroad tracks could be rerouted to the new bridge, and new infrastructure could be built.
Beginning in California, a half mile from the river, a new railroad grade approached the new bridge. Across the bridge the grade continued over Prison Hill and east for 5.6 miles where the line change ended.
A new passenger station was built, and the Pacific Fruit Express ice deck for icing refrigerator cars was relocated to a new freight yard. The new line formally opened on April 1, 1926.
The old railroad bridge downstream was dismantled and transported to California where it was erected across the Los Angeles River between Los Angeles and Santa Ana.
“Soon the old bridge will be but a memory,” an article written at the time stated. “One span is already out and the others (are) going as the big cranes day after day lift out the members of the structure. It is a good bridge, however, and for many years yet will serve the railroad at the crossing of the Los Angeles River.”
The old steel bridge and piers were removed, except for the tall concrete wing span pier that still remains to this day. The last of the tracks along Madison Avenue that led to the old bridge site were removed in about 1967.
The railroad bridge at Prison Hill is still heavily used by Union Pacific trains, and stands as a testament to the men who built it 85 years ago.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6849.