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Bridge is afloat on the pages of history

Long Beach's old pontoon bridge — where the Gerald Desmond Bridge now stands — was built as '6-month temporary' structure. It spanned 24 years and made a cameo in 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.'

October 03, 2010|Steve Harvey
  • One of the more unusual features of the pontoon bridge was its shape.
One of the more unusual features of the pontoon bridge was its shape.

It may not have embodied the majesty of New York's Brooklyn Bridge or the beauty of San Francisco's Golden Gate, but Long Beach's pontoon bridge did rise to great heights of quirkiness.

No wonder it played a role in a chase scene in the 1963 comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

The floating span, which connected downtown Long Beach with Terminal Island, was built by the Navy during World War II as a "6-month temporary emergency structure" to improve access to its big shipyard and base.

Temporary turned out to be 24 years.

It wasn't replaced until 1968 when the 1,053- foot-long Gerald Desmond Bridge was finished.

One of the more unusual features of the pontoon bridge was its shape.

"It went down instead of up," the Times' Charles Hillinger wrote in 1968, referring to its deck, which dropped 17 to 25 feet below street level, depending on tidal conditions.

Speeding drivers occasionally flew out of control, crashing through a side wall and landing in the 50-foot deep waters below. Bridge operator Toby Reed told the Times in 1966 that he had seen eight cars and a motorcycle go over the side.

"That's when we grab the life rings and hurl them into the channel," he said.

Sometimes life rings weren't enough. Seven would-be bridge crossers were believed to have drowned.

Luckier were four Wilson High School football players from Long Beach who crashed into a bridge wall in 1951.

Their car "seemed to teeter at the edge and then it went over," bridge tender Vernon Sem told the Times.

Sem was putting out a fire caused by the car's spilled gasoline when "the first boy bobbed to the surface. The others came up seconds later. They popped up like corks." All survived.

In 1958, a Long Beach State student had the good timing to drive into the sea just as a Coast Guard cutter passed nearby. He was fished out.

One less-than-heart-warming tale was that of two sailors who in 1964 crashed into the water in a car they had stolen from their base officers club. Then they landed in jail.

The low-slung floating bridge, which had a concrete roadway with a wood-and-metal bottom, could be opened in the middle like a draw bridge when a ship needed to pass through.

Traffic backups lasting 15 minutes were not uncommon. Drivers were frustrated, though The Times pointed out that children seemed to find it "quite a thrill to be nose-to-porthole with a big freighter or passenger liner."

Problem was, drivers sometimes didn't notice when traffic was held up.

On one website, Navy veteran Maurice Karst recalled a foggy morning in 1958 when he and shipmate Billy G. Carlson were returning from Long Beach and saw a car plow over the side while a ship was passing underneath.

The sailors spotted an older couple struggling to get out of their sinking vehicle.

"We looked at each other, stripped down to our Navy skivvies, and jumped into the water," Karst said. "We managed to get them out and ashore."

But the two seamen got back to their ship three hours late. When they explained what happened to their chief petty officer, he confined them to the vessel for two weeks. "Just in case you caught cold," he said.

Traffic also backed up when the bridge experienced a technical problem. This was no fun for the operators, who were bombarded with calls. The number of the phone in the bridge tower was listed.

Today, it's the pontoon bridge's replacement, the Gerald Desmond Bridge, that's in bad health. For years it has worn "diapers" to catch falling chips of concrete.

Port of Long Beach officials want to replace the Desmond with a taller bridge to ease the passage of today's larger ships.

The new, wider span would be able to carry the heavier vehicular traffic load — about 15% of all the nation's waterborne cargo travels across the Desmond on its way to or from the docks.

Environmental issues could delay the construction of a new bridge, though.

Maybe the pontoon structure should be brought back.

Just temporarily, you understand.

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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