To the relief of many commuters, Tacoma’s new suspension bridge over the Narrows opened in summer 2007, joining the long-serving 1950 span that connects Tacoma to the Kitsap Peninsula. Both Tacoma Narrows bridges, however, are heirs to the dark and twisting legacy of “Galloping Gertie,” the original Narrows bridge that tore itself apart in the wind. Catastrophe to Triumph tells Gertie’s story, and the stories of the ensuing successful bridges, using a wealth of archival photographs, exhaustive engineering details and engaging character studies.
In one of the most compelling sections of his book, historian Richard S. Hobbs captures the drama of the ill-fated 1940 bridge, a Modernist monument plagued with problems and brought down by a lack of understanding of aerodynamics. When the decision was made to span the Tacoma Narrows, Washington State Department of Transportation engineer Clark Eldridge (’20, engineering) had an original (and more stable) bridge plan that was rejected in favor of famed architect Leon Moisseiff’s slender Art Deco-inspired design. Despite warnings from Eldridge and others, the bridge opened on July 1, 1940. It “bounced” in winds as low as four miles per hour, earning the bridge the nickname “Galloping Gertie.” Efforts to stabilize the bridge were in vain.
Catastrophe to Triumph carefully details the rise of these public works wonders and their engineering. Biographies of intriguing characters complement the bridges’ story and give the book broader appeal. For example, Lacey V. Murrow (’23, civil engineering), younger brother of Edward R. Murrow, was director of the State Department of Transportation and an early advocate for the Narrows bridge. The stories of engineers, newspaper reporters, and bridge workers make the book about more than steel and rivets.