Tacoma Narrows Bridge: The Ballad of Galloping Gertie

Photo via photolibrarian/Flickr
Photo via photolibrarian/Flickr

On this date in 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in a windstorm.

Here are some things you may not have known about the bridge known as Galloping Gertie.

The Tacoma Narrows, is, as its name would imply, a narrow strait in the southern Puget Sound between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. Efforts to bridge the Narrows started in 1889 with a railroad trestle proposal that was not built. The Tacoma Chamber of Commerce began pushing a highway bridge effort in 1923.

Because the bridge would link the Army’s Fort Lewis, located south of Tacoma with the Navy’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard on the Peninsula, the state of Washington sought funding from the federal government. Because of this, the bridge design was opened up to a nationwide pool of bidders. The winning engineer, Leon Moisseiff, proposed stiffening the bridge with eight-foot plate girders, rather than the 25-foot trusses proposed by the state of Washington.

Construction of the bridge took just 19 months and it was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. During construction, however, workers began to notice how the bridge would move even in relatively mild wind conditions. The workers gave the bridge the nickname “Galloping Gertie.”


Several attempts were made to reduce the vertical oscillations, including additional cables running to the ground, which snapped shortly after installation; and a system of hydraulic buffers, intended to dampen the motion of the bridge. Those were ruined by sandblasting before the bridge was painted.

Despite all these issues, the bridge opened on July 1, 1940.

A little more than four months later, the bridge would be destroyed.

In a 40 mile-per-hour wind that’s common for the area, the bridge began swaying, and then twisting, which hadn’t been seen before. The bridge was closed to traffic, but three cars remained on the bridge, including one driven by Leonard Coatsworth, an editor at the Tacoma News Tribune newspaper. Coatsworth was forced to crawl most of the way back because of the violent motion of the structure. Just as he made it safely to the toll plaza, the bridge began to fail.

The motion caused one suspension cable to snap, which led to the failure of the remaining cables and the loss of the entire center portion of the bridge between the towers.

The only loss of life in the collapse was Coatsworth’s cocker spaniel named Tubby. The dog was too scared to leave the car and bit a man attempting to rescue him.

Because of material and labor shortages associated with World War II, it took 10 years for a replacement bridge to be built. The replacement was built designed to withstand the conditions common at the site. A parallel bridge opened in 2007.

Our question: Which two suspension bridges were longer than the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940?

Today is unofficially Notary Public Day, National Bittersweet Chocolate with Almonds Day, and Hug a Bear Day, which seems like a bad idea.

It’s the birthday of physicist Marie Curie, who was born in 1867; evangelist Billy Graham, who turns 98; and musician Joni Mitchell, who turns 73.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1988, the top song in the U.S. was “Wild, Wild West” by Escape Club.

The No. 1 movie was “They Live,” while the novel “The Queen of the Damned” by Anne Rice topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

In which country is the current record holder for longest suspension bridge in the world located?


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