[You can see all these images, plus more, in high resolution: here]
It’s hard to remember how the east span of the Old Bay Bridge used to look when we drove west on it, towards Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands and then on to San Francisco. I do remember the wide toll plaza and having to navigate like crazy across many lanes to move from the right-most, Berkeley side over to the left-most exit for Treasure Island, if we wanted to get off there. I remember never being sure which lanes were Fast Track only and which would still take cash and pondering all those brave commuting souls who faced that morning toll plaza clog on the way to San Francisco day after day.
Locals used to love to recount the legend of the commuter who put a manikin in the passenger seat and drove free in the high-occupancy lane. My construction-worker dad left his tools locked up on San Francisco construction sites where he worked. He took the AC transit bus over the old Bay Bridge to work each day. Each morning, on his way to work, he read two newspapers. Every afternoon, on the way home, he took a nap.
The old bridge’s top deck had been used to travel west to San Francisco, the bottom deck for returning to the East Bay. It’s hard to remember.
Wikipedia broadened my knowledge about the Old Bay Bridge. Folks had been calling for such a bridge since the Gold Rush days. Pressure increased after the Transcontinental Railroad was built in 1869, as San Francisco was cut off from goods now arriving from across the country. A “Bay Bridge Committee” was created in 1872 to develop plans to build a railroad bridge. However, the Old Bay Bridge was not built until November 1936, six months before the Golden Gate Bridge. It is part of Interstate 80 and one of the longest spans in the U.S.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, both old and new, is in two sections. The east section runs between the east shore of the Bay (Oakland) to Yerba Buena Island, a natural island and former U.S. Navy base, situated next to man-made Treasure Island which was built for the 1936 Golden Gate International Exposition (the World’s Fair). There is a small residential community living on Treasure Island. The western section connects Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco. Both sections are about equal in length, about 3 miles. Cars drive through the concrete Yerba Buena Tunnel to get from the eastern to the western section of the bridge. The tunnel has the largest diameter of any transportation bore tunnel in the world. The soil excavated to bore the tunnel became a portion of the landfill which created Treasure Island.
The western section is a double suspension bridge with two decks. The old eastern span also had two decks. It was a double cantilever bridge with a double-tower span, five long-span through-trusses and a 14-section truss causeway. A truss is “a structure of connected elements, usually forming triangular units.” “When the truss members are both above and below the roadbed it is called a through-truss.” The deep mud along the eastern Bayshore made it impractical to reach bedrock for the bridge supports, so treated wood pilings of Douglas fir were driven into the firmer bottom layers of the Bay. However, the feet of the support pillars visible above water were concrete.
The original beams of the bridge were constructed of hot-riveted steel-laced ties which could not be subjected to heat treatment and were considered vulnerable to failure by shearing under extreme stress. A portion of the upper deck of the eastern section collapsed onto the lower deck during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It was a short section of the roadway, which looked as though it had swung down like a door opening onto the lower level, above one of the 4-leg supports and just before the first of the trusses began. The bridge reopened one month later and the replacement span opened in 2013, prompting this writing. The western section of the bridge has been retrofitted to address the structural concerns.
But I’ll never forget the day in September 2013, soon after the opening of the new east span of the Bay Bridge, how aching and tired I felt after toting plenty of camera gear, water and snacks on my first exploration of the new span’s pedestrian walkway/bikeway. Sore legs, sore feet, and sore upper arms from carrying heavy cameras with even heavier lenses, swinging one up to aim and shoot while easing down the other to hang from a strap – swapping cameras constantly, swapping lenses less frequently, and flipping open and closed a collapsible lightweight, plastic step stool. (On TV, I’d seen the bicycles zipping along the new trail. The sides of the walkway were high enough that I knew I’d need help to see over the top, hence the stepstool.) I parked on Burma Road in West Oakland – dirt parking all along the cyclone fence bordering the new East Span Bay Bridge Trail as it merged with the San Francisco Bay Trail – a couple of miles from the trailhead, as close as one could park at that time.
Accompanied by photographer friends, I walked over two miles to Yerba Buena Island and back. The trail hours were sunrise to sunset, and I parked at 6:45 a.m. At 5 p.m., one of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) bike patrol officers rode up and said to me, “You were here at 7 A.M. !!!” Good to know they really observe (and remember) who’s there.
How fortunate for us photographers that they were calling for rain that evening. All day the blue, blue sky was filled with wondrous cloud formations. It took me till after 1 pm to reach the end of the trail – not quite to Yerba Buena Island yet because the old span was still in the way. By then the sun was overhead and the light flat and harsh. I couldn’t wait until we could park on the Treasure Island side and enter the path from there. I wanted to photograph that end of the trail in morning light, without having to trudge across the entire east span with all my gear. [Note: By 2021, there was still no access by foot or bike from Treasure Island to the new Bay Bridge walkway.]
The new east span of the Bay Bridge has lovely elegant white lines. Looking east towards the East Bay hills from the Yerba Buena end, I could see the bridge support cables and the walk/bike trail converge in the distance, making one think of the sails of a ship. So planned by the designers?
But the Old Bay Bridge – looking like a working man’s bridge, as one news reporter observed – had interesting patterns and designs of its cantilevers and trusses to remember, to record, to compare and contrast with the new.
When the time of the Old Bay Bridge span was coming to an end, the east end was chopped off to make room for construction to build the replacement span beside it. As I walked the trail, I held in view the remaining gray bridge, rusted in spots, running in parallel next to the sleek white, new span. For much of the eastern span, the Old Bay Bridge rose higher above the water than the new one. Its lower deck was higher than the lanes of the new bridge.
The new Bay Bridge has many more support beams underneath. Just TRY shaking this bridge with a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that the Old Bay Bridge could not survive. The CHP bike patrol guy said he had been told that, even if every bolt of the new Bay Bridge were cut, it would still be more stable than the Old Bay Bridge. I hope that’s an exaggeration, since gazillions of people had been driving across that Old Bay Bridge as recently as – when? – a month before the new span opened? Or did we all get off of it just in the nick of time? Some nick, since building the new bridge took from 1989 to 2013. Did it take them 24 years to build the Old Bay Bridge? No, only a little over three years, completed in 1936.
Cormorants, seagulls and other shorebirds – even pigeons – had set up housekeeping underneath the Old Bay Bridge. No doubt it took their forefeathers (I mean, forefathers) several generations to get used to having a big iron thing in the middle of their Bay back in the 1930’s. Now they were being told it was time to move on – over to the new Bay Bridge. Rumor had it that new nests and fake birds were being placed on the new bridge structure to convince them to relocate. Even bird sounds. None of the cormorants would verify this; however, the answer seemed to be that they preferred the Old Bridge better. I knew how they felt.
While perched below the lower deck of the old span, they opened their wings to dry them in the sun and posed among the Old Bridge girders for nice photography compositions. So refreshing, since the birds often fly away right as I click the shutter. Until this walk, I had never seen them up close.
It seemed funny to peer into the lower deck of the Old Bay Bridge and see “50” (as in miles per hour) painted on the lanes. That meant there had been plenty of road still ahead, now cut off, before those cars had to slow down to exit.
I could see through the sides of the lower deck across the water to the loading cranes in the Port of Oakland, which is near the Oakland Estuary and next to the Island of Alameda. I wondered why the walk/bike trail was put on this side of the new Bay Bridge – wouldn’t it be nicer scenery to look out across the Bay towards the Golden Gate Bridge? Oh, well.
I wanted to photograph the new Bay Bridge with all its lights on, but I learned I’d have to wait. 24-hour access was planned, but not yet. And I learned that NEVER will there be trash cans or portable toilets on the bridge. I didn’t know there are none on the Golden Gate Bridge, either. Because of terrorists. No closed containers allowed on any bridge. Yet everything was remarkably clean. Not a single scrap of litter anywhere. Everyone carried out what they carried in.
I walked slowly, photographing every change in the view of the two companion and contrasting bridges. I thought of Old Bridge things: driving with my Dad on the lower level while we discussed why it’s always best to stay in the center lane: more options to move left or right if something happened in the traffic. Nothing ever did, but we were always ready. I hadn’t yet driven on the new Bay Bridge yet, so I couldn’t compare the two. But the one big difference I already saw was that the lanes going east and west on the new span were on the same level, so that drivers going in opposite directions could see each other. That was different and would feel strange to get used to. The two lanes side by side make it the widest bridge in the world, according to the Guinness World Records.
The East Span Bay Bridge Trail is 15 feet wide. Everyone said the trail would be crowded with people and that the traffic of the new Bay Bridge would be very loud. But neither turned out to be true. There was a steady stream of people later in the morning through the rest of the day, but not tons. Not crowded or overwhelming or frustratingly clogged. And the traffic was a steady, low rump-rump-rump. The most startling thing was the occasional unusual horn or extra-loud radio music from some passing car. But not frequent enough to get on one’s nerves.
I knew I’d miss the Old Bay Bridge when the structure was no longer standing alongside the new one. There was something comforting about seeing it still there – putting off the inevitable. The new one was so clean and white with a design so sweeping, elegant and modern. I searched for adjectives to describe the Old Bay Bridge: grey, metallic, boxy, square, latticed, diagonal, sturdy. I felt sure that letting the Old Bay Bridge go would have a harder impact on many of us than we might realize. I had barely paid attention when the new span was going up. Yes, they were building; yes, you could see it from Treasure Island. But for me it never registered. Now, seeing the old one gone would.
As I began the walk on the trail, I couldn’t see the arc of the new bridge for quite a while: the walkway seemed just a long straightaway, paralleling the Old Bridge. Both seemed to reach ahead into infinity, about to merge until they both turned towards the left. I’ll always wonder why both bridges had been designed to turn before reaching Yerba Buena Island. Whatever happened to a straight line? Maybe it accommodated ship lanes or something.
The Old Bay Bridge had three kinds of supports. It looked as though the solid concrete pillars near the shore might be resting in only a few feet of water. Suddenly it seemed easy to have built a bridge across the Bay. I wonder how deep it really is. Therein lies the challenge.
The second type of support had two cement feet at the bottom, visible above the water, upon which rested two steel pillars with steel X’s crossing between them. Occasionally, a third kind of support had four steel pillars resting on four cement feet, all standing on a concrete slab.
From the trail, I got to see a perspective of the Old Bay Bridge in a way I couldn’t when I used to drive on the upper and lower decks. Near Yerba Buena Island, the grid portion that arched above the upper deck formed the tip of the steel truss cantilever arms. Where it descended down towards Yerba Buena Island, it made up the “anchor arm.” Where one cantilever reached towards the other, it was the “cantilever arm.” One can see an example of this bridge design when driving over the San Rafael Bridge or on the westbound Alfred Zampa Bridge – called the Carquinez Bridge by locals — which crosses the Carquinez Straight near where the Napa River empties into the north end of the Bay. The Old Bay Bridge’s steel arch bridge was built with the cantilever arm and anchor arms close to Yerba Buena, but none were in the design close to the east Bay shore.
The shadow of the Old Bay Bridge thrown across the green Bay water, adding lines alongside the new Bay Bridge, was striking.
The CHP bike guy said they had begun the planning phase to take down the Old Bay Bridge, but the engineers weren’t sure how to take it down. Something about not knowing all the details about how it was built.
As noted in my S.F. Bay Trail blog post Ride #10, I visited this pedestrian/bikeway a second time in 2021, the old span having been successfully dismantled in 2017 and now only a memory. Parking was now available in a paved area with restrooms nearby, much closer to the trailhead. Some of the old bridge’s supporting concrete pillars were preserved to support an Observation Pier built next to the new Bridge, along what is now the Judge John Sutter Regional Shoreline. There are information signs with photos detailing the history of both bridges.
Farewell, Old Bay Bridge. I’ll never forget you.
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Note: Information sources: S.F. Bay Trail interpretive exhibits (information boards); Wikipedia.