Redding, Calif. — SEEN through the semi-translucent green glass deck of the Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay, the Sacramento River is a sun-dappled abstract watercolor. It is a beautiful thing, this bridge, a sculpture in steel, glass and granite.
One can walk it again and again and each time make a new discovery, finding a different angle from which to view its soaring white pylon. At night, when the bridge is illuminated from underneath, it glows.
Perhaps the bridge, designed by famed Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava, hasn't completely transformed Redding -- a town of 90,000 about 150 miles north of Sacramento that once was little more than a pit stop on Interstate 5 -- but it surely has given it a new image.
The $23.5-million pedestrian bridge is now Redding's No. 1 tourist attraction. "It has made Redding a destination," Mayor Dick Dickerson says.
Maybe not yet quite an A-list destination, but Redding has become much more than a base camp for exploring nearby Mt. Shasta and Shasta Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park and Shasta Dam.
"We had turned our back to the river," says John A. Mancasola, a lawyer who grew up in Redding and who played a major role in luring Calatrava to design the bridge. Now the landmark has opened a window on the waterway.
"It's just wonderful to watch how people of all ages visit the bridge -- families with kids in strollers, a grandmother in a wheelchair," says Pam Gluck, executive director of Redding-based American Trails, a national trails organization. And, she says, having the bridge as a new gateway to the Sacramento River National Recreation Trail has attracted more joggers, cyclists and hikers.
There are other bridges across the Sacramento -- albeit not bridges that look like this one, which has been described as resembling an egret in flight -- but a bridge at this site was essential to link the two campuses of 300-acre Turtle Bay Exploration Park. On the north bank is the vast McConnell Arboretum with its Mediterranean gardens and, on the south bank, a complex with an interactive museum-aquarium focusing on regional history and ecology, a kid-friendly forest camp and a river-view cafe.
In the three years since it opened, the bridge has become, in essence, the town square. And the naysayers, those who would have preferred a nice wooden bridge recalling Redding's history as a lumber city, and the grumblers who thought Redding had contracted a bad case of "big city-itis," are largely silent.
So why would such a celebrated architect design his first free-standing U.S. bridge for little Redding?
Because someone asked him to -- specifically Mancasola, vice president and in-house counsel of the McConnell Foundation, which had underwritten many community projects.
The foundation, which has a $400-million endowment, had agreed to help fund a new bridge. After a search for a designer, the city and community selected a modest $2.8-million single tower suspension span, but there was an impasse over choosing a builder. Because no one just loved the design anyhow, Mancasola suggested trying to get Calatrava.
In April 1995, Calatrava made the first of six visits to Redding, walking the riverbanks and flying over in a helicopter. The mountains reminded him of Valencia, Spain, which is near his hometown. And this bridge presented an interesting challenge: It was not to touch the river, which is a protected spawning bed for chinook salmon.
Calatrava told several people that he also liked the idea of making his mark in a place where there was nothing to compete with his bridge.
Groundbreaking was in 1999. As work progressed, costs rose. Calatrava abhorred bare concrete and insisted that surfaces be covered in broken white Spanish tiles, 1.3 million pieces. The bridge's intricate engineering required pipes from Spain, cables from England, glass decking from Canada, and stone for the bridge plaza from Italy and Mexico. The towering pylon was brought in segments (by barge and truck) from Vancouver, Wash.
In the end, the McConnell Foundation contributed $13 million, the city ponied up $2 million, and $8 million came from state and federal grants.
The initial bounce in tourism -- 121,000 additional hotel nights with $1.7 million in added tourist dollars in the first four months after the bridge opened -- was not a onetime blip.
"People are coming from all over -- Japan, the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Spain," says Bob Warren, tourism bureau manager. "Calatrava has a pretty strong following."
Warren and I covered most of the eight-mile loop of the Sacramento River Trail on both sides of the river. It's a paved path partly shaded by a canopy of cottonwoods and oaks. The river, a clear blue green, is framed by dramatic rock formations. As we rounded a curve, snow-frosted Mt. Lassen came into view. When construction is completed, the trail will extend to Shasta Dam.