One of Southern California's most storied bridges isn't much to look at. Built in 1941, it's a mess of rusty bolts and rotting wood that is marred with graffiti and scorched by fire. The surface of its beams is as soft as balsa, and when a commuter train zooms across, the deck flexes ever so slightly, releasing a light shower of dirt. But the hundreds of mighty timbers driven deep into the ground move not a muscle.
The old man still has sturdy legs.
Officially, its name is Bridge 207.6. But it's commonly known simply as Trestles -- the bridge that serves as a doorway to one of the world's most famous surf breaks, which shares its name.
Trestles and its white sand beach at the San Diego-Orange County line are a time machine to an uncrowded, less complicated California that has all but disappeared. A birthplace of Southern California's surf culture, Trestles has changed relatively little since 1963, when the Beach Boys immortalized it in "Surfin' U.S.A."
But change is coming this fall. That's when work is expected to begin on a $9.6-million project that will replace most of what's left of the 68-year-old wooden trestle with a concrete span.
Devotees of Trestles are fiercely protective of the place. The pioneers of modern surfing dodged Marine Corps patrols before President Nixon, whose West Coast home overlooked Trestles, ordered a slice of Camp Pendleton turned over to California for what became San Onofre State Beach.
More recently, the Save Trestles campaign spearheaded by the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation played a big role in scuttling plans for a toll road that would have skirted the area and threatened its tranquillity.
Go to Trestles, walk under the 558-foot long portion of the bridge that frames the beach like a plein-air painting, and it's easy to find people who see beauty in this worn-out piece of California history.
"I'd like to keep it. I don't like this place changing at all," said Eric Fredrickson, 39, hauling his surfboard up a long pathway for the 20-minute walk back to his car. (There is no parking at Trestles, one of its charms.)
"All that concrete will ruin the aesthetics, the beauty of the place," he said.
"This place is the same as it was 40 years ago," added beachgoer Ryan Ward, 37. "It's like walking into the same joint 40 years later. Who the hell wants to see concrete down here? Concrete?"
Transportation officials say they have no choice. Although it is structurally sound, Bridge 207.6 is expensive to maintain -- $250,000 in just the last few years.
Trains slow as they cross to ease the stress on its geriatric bones.
"We love that bridge too. It's a cool-looking bridge," said Jim Linthicum, director of engineering and construction for the San Diego Assn. of Governments, which is overseeing the project. "It's just wearing out."
The reconstruction, which won't be finished until early 2011, will still allow public access to the beach and will have minimal effect on train traffic on the busy route between Los Angeles and San Diego, Linthicum said. The new span -- with piers sunk more than 50 feet into the ground -- will essentially be built around the existing bridge.
Building a new wooden bridge would have been prohibitively expensive and would have required a change in the railroad's alignment.
"That would have an incredible environmental impact," Linthicum said.
A bridge has spanned the estuary of San Mateo Creek since the late 1800s, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway laid track along the coast. When a 200-foot section of the span was damaged during 1998's El Nino storms, it was replaced with concrete.
A 100-foot stretch of wood bridge will remain for a time on the south side of the creek, but that will eventually be replaced too.
Because the timbers are treated with creosote, they'll be handled as hazardous waste when they're hauled away.
"I'm sure there will be an opportunity for scavengers to grab a piece," said Steve Long, who worked as a lifeguard and administrator at San Clemente State Beach for 30 years and is still active in the San Onofre Foundation, a park support group. "But I guess you'd want to encase it in glass. . . . It is toxic."
One thing won't change at Trestles, however: Surfers will still get their first glimpse of its perfectly shaped waves and pristine beach from under a railroad bridge.
"I can understand some people's sense of loss," said Mark Rauscher, assistant environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation.
"But I don't think the material that's used is what's key. It's still technically a trestle whether it's made out of concrete or wood."