National treasure

National treasure

The Colorado Street Bridge becomes more remarkable with each passing year

By Kevin Uhrich 06/20/2013

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Following are verbatim excerpts from a report written in 1988 by architect and historian Deborah Slaton of the Chicago-based firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. for the Western Regional Office of the National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.


The first bridge across the Arroyo at Colorado Boulevard was constructed in the late 1880s. This was a trestle bridge constructed near the bottom of the Arroyo by the (James W.) Scoville family. The Scoville Bridge stood beneath the present location of the Colorado Street Bridge, and was built from a segment of railway bridge trestle left over from construction of a Santa Fe Railway bridge nearby. The trestle was placed upside-down across the stream bed and set in a concrete foundation on either side.    

Other bridges along the Arroyo were constructed in the 1880s and 1890s, but none provided an efficient solution for travelers between Pasadena and Los Angeles. Late in the year 1886, a suspension bridge over the Arroyo was constructed by the West Pasadena Street Railway Co. This bridge, which was 18-feet wide and 80-feet above the riverbed, provided a route between Pasadena and Linda Vista. A horse-drawn rail car operated over the bridge, which was found to be unprofitable and was demolished in 1892. In 1898, a private bridge was constructed across the Arroyo at the site of La Loma Bridge. This bridge was later replaced by a public wood and steel bridge.

The Pasadena Board of Trade, under the guidance of Executive Director Edwin Sorver, led community efforts for a new bridge across the Arroyo. Sorver wanted to link Pasadena with Los Angeles and the idea of a bridge was formally considered by the city in 1909. The Pasadena City Council first proposed a new low bridge, since the old Scoville Bridge was inadequate.

In the spring of 1912, Pasadena voters overwhelmingly approved a 40-year, $100,000 bond issue to fund their city’s part of the construction. With its long-term payment scheme, the measure passed easily, but still did not provide enough money for construction and right of way costs. The city made a commitment to finance the extra funding, and the decision was finally made to construct a high bridge at the level of the city streets rather than a low bridge near the bottom of the Arroyo. 

Final competition to design the new bridge over the Arroyo Seco included three firms: the Young Construction Co. of Los Angeles; the engineering firm of Parker and Mayberry of Los Angeles; and the engineering firm of Waddell and Harrington of Kansas City, Mo. The commission to design the Colorado Street Bridge was awarded to the latter firm under the direction of Dr. John Alexander Low Waddell, an internationally-known bridge engineer. Waddell was born at Port Hope, Ontario, and educated at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, NY. After teaching engineering at the Imperial University in Tokyo, Japan, Waddell returned to the United States and launched a career as a bridge engineer in 1887. He achieved great success in this country and was also awarded many foreign decorations, being knighted by the Emperor of Japan in 1888; decorated by Grand Duchess Olga of Russia in 1907; and honored by Japan in 1921, China in 1922, and by the King of Italy in 1923 with rank of Cavaliere. In 1931, the American Association of Engineers awarded him the Clausen Gold Medal for having done the most to advance the interests of engineering in this country in the preceding 50 years.

Waddell and Harrington were responsible for the design of many bridges in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Examples of their work include the Columbia River Interstate Bridge between Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Oregon; a series of bridges in Tacoma, Wash., and many other bridges. Waddell and Harrington also published widely. Waddell in particular wrote numerous articles and books about bridge design, the engineering profession and engineering education.

In designing the Colorado Street Bridge, Waddell was faced with two major problems: the proposed direct east-west crossing was not over an area of continuous sound substrate, and the east bank of the Arroyo was 30 feet higher than the west. The bedrock under the bridge is irregularly distributed, changing from a wide to narrow shelf. Waddell’s bridge was to follow the most direct east-west route across the Arroyo. His design for the bridge had 11 principal arch supports, the highest of which was 223-feet wide at the base of the span and rose 149 feet above the riverbed. The piers were located to spread the load of the bridge evenly. The original design addressed the uneven height of the banks by proposing to dig out the east bank, a scheme which was strongly opposed by the local citizenry and which was not utilized in the final design. Waddell’s decision to design and build the bridge in reinforced concrete reflects the increasing popularity of the medium for large-scale construction projects. Reinforced concrete, which had been developed in France as early as the 1850s, was used for building construction in the United States by the 1860s but did not come into common use until after 1880. 

The cost of construction of Waddell’s design was estimated at $241,640, about $6,000 more than had been anticipated by the city. When Waddell insisted that costs could not safely be reduced, Sorver sought the assistance of John Drake Mercereau, a Los Angeles contractor who had built the pier structures at the Hermosa, Venice, and Huntington beaches in California. Mercereau had submitted the low bid for construction of Waddell’s design, and been awarded the contract with the stipulation that he attempt to reduce the cost of construction. Mercereau worked with Waddell and Harrington’s resident consulting engineer, C.K. Allen, to revise and modify Waddell’s design. The bridge was redesigned with a curve to take advantage of stronger substrate. The revised design created a bridge which was therefore longer but less complicated than Waddell’s original design, and could be built at a lower cost.

Work on the new bridge began in mid-July of 1912 on the eastern slopes, under a contract let to the Mercereau Bridge & Construction Co. for a lump-sum construction cost of $188,000. The project was supervised by F.W. Crocker of the Mercereau firm. Construction took 18 months, and reportedly employed up to 40 to 100 men at a time. Workers were paid $2 to $4.50 per day, excellent pay in 1912. 

One of the cost-saving factors introduced into construction of the bridge was the limitation of equipment at the site to only what was essential to construction. 

Approximately 11,000 cubic yards of concrete and 600 tons of reinforcement were used in construction of the bridge. 

Three men were killed during construction of the bridge, and a fourth later died of injuries received at the job. Work conditions were difficult, as the wet hillsides provided slippery footing. 

The Colorado Street Bridge was completed in December 1913. Construction had cost $235,430, of which Los Angeles County had paid about $98,640.  About $13,000 in subscriptions were paid by the towns of San Rafael Heights and Pasadena. 

The dedication ceremony at the opening of the bridge was held on Dec. 13, 1913. A crowd of 3,000 persons attended the ceremony. Conspicuous by their absence were Mercereau, who had died before construction was completed, and Waddell, who may have objected to the modification of his design. After the ceremony, a procession of decorated cars led by Chamber of Commerce President Edwin Sorver drove across the bridge to the music of high school bands. 

In 1915, the eastern access of the Colorado Street Bridge was widened for safety reasons. The $80,000 cost of the work was borne by subscription, with much of the funding provided by nearby residents, including the Scoville family.

A few years after the bridge was finished, the first suicide victim jumped to his death from the structure. In following years, 95 persons followed suit, including many during the Depression era: nine in 1933, 10 in 1934, and 12 in 1935. Rather than detract from the appearance of the structure by adding a fence, the city considered having a nine-man police team stationed on the bridge, or policemen disguised as ice cream vendors at either end of the structure. 

In 1934, the Colorado Street Bridge was declared part of the Colorado Street Bridge state highway system. One year later, it was declared obsolete and Works Progress Administration funding was appropriated to tear it down and build a new, wider bridge. However, this plan was dropped and the bridge survived this first major threat to its survival.

By the late 1940s, plans were under way to construct a new, six-lane highway and to use the existing bridge only for local cross-town traffic. Strong consideration was initially given to demolishing the old bridge, since it was too narrow for modern traffic and could be superceded by the proposed new structure. The City Council and a strong public letter writing campaign worked successfully to save the old bridge, although 20 feet of the western approach was removed to accommodate new work.

At this writing (December 1988), a rehabilitation program for the Colorado Street Bridge has been proposed and studies are under way. The rehabilitation will involve some alterations to the existing superstructure, as well as restoration of original bridge elements that were lost over the years. Alterations are necessary to meet current seismic and safety standards.

The Colorado Street Bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 12, 1981. It was designated an Historic Civic Engineering Landmark by the Los Angeles section of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1975, and a Cultural Heritage Landmark of the city of Pasadena in 1979. The bridge is located in the Lower Arroyo Seco, which was designated a Cultural Heritage Landmark by the city of Pasadena in 1979. The National Register Nomination cites the bridge as having historical significance in commerce, transportation, and engineering. Completed in 1913, the bridge was the first street-level crossing linking Pasadena and Los Angeles. It later became part of the state highway system, and a link in the transcontinental highway system called the National Old Trails Route. Pasadena therefore became part of a through-route for automobile traffic. Today, the Colorado Street Bridge is the primary alternate route for the Ventura Freeway (State Route 134).

Some interesting historical events related to the bridge are connected to the movie industry. In 1932, Eddie Cantor drove a chariot underneath the bridge for the movie “Roman Scandals.” Movie star William Holden, while in high school, walked across the outer edge of the bridge on a dare. And in an old Paramount newsreel, pilot Al Goebel flew a bi-plane under the bridge with a girl hanging from each wing to celebrate Flag Day in 1926.

The Colorado Street Bridge has long been lauded for its impressive scale and beauty. A contemporary source called it “one of the few bridges that can properly be classified as a work of art.” A contemporary newspaper reviewer noted that “Many consider the Colorado Street Bridge the most beautiful such structure in the world and it is no secret that people have traveled far just to see this noble span.”

Technically and visually impressive, the bridge was called “the highest concrete bridge in the world” at its completion in 1913. It was the longest and highest bridge of its day, although some other bridges were either longer or higher. 

In design and construction, the Colorado Street Bridge is a transitional structure. It combines modern scale and the advancing concrete technology of the early 20th-century with style and detailing which reflect the design aesthetic of the late 19th-century. Remarkable as a design triumph, engineering effort, and aesthetic success at construction, the Colorado Street Bridge is no less remarkable in all of these areas today.  

To read the full report, visit



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