Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019

The Long Bridges of Marin County

By Robert L. Harrison · May 05, 2017

Redwood Bridge over Richardson Bay, c.1932 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Redwood Bridge over Richardson Bay, c.1932

Railroad bridge over Richardson Bay, c.1880s <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span> Dr. Lyford's Dairy on Strawberry Point <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Though they surely qualify as long, this article is about neither the legendary Golden Gate Bridge nor the hard working Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.  Those well-known bridges each have just one anchorage in Marin County.  Instead, I will be discussing bridges spanning – or proposed to span- large bodies of water within Marin County itself.

 The Sausalito – Strawberry Point Railroad Bridge, spanning 4,000 feet, was the earliest of these long bridges. It was constructed in 1873 by the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC) and served the railroad mainline until 1884.  The mainline ran from Sausalito, across Richardson Bay, along the east side of the Strawberry Peninsula, over Alto Hill to Corte Madera, and up the Ross Valley to west Marin.

 The south end of the Bridge was located at today’s Marina Plaza Harbor in Sausalito (formerly the Pine Point railroad stop) and extended from there across Richardson Bay to Strawberry Point.  About one thousand wooden piles were needed to support the structure.  

 It became apparent that the trestle, with supports spaced at just 16 feet, would block navigation on the Bay north of its crossing.  In response, landowner S. R. Throckmorton filed suit against the NPC Railroad to stop construction.  The suit asked that the design include a draw bridge to permit schooners and other freight vessels to pass.  Initially the railroad refused but ultimately a compromise was reached such that a draw bridge with a tender would be added to the structure.  The agreement meant the railroad would have to dispatch a locomotive to drop-off and pick-up the tender twice a day.

 The NPC Railroad abandoned the trestle in 1884 when it built Tunnel Number 1 under Alto Hill from Mill Valley to Corte Madera.  This positioned the railroad’s mainline to the west of Richardson Bay eliminating the need for a crossing.  Not everyone was happy with the abandonment of the trestle and the old mainline.  Dr. Benjamin Lyford had provided right-of-way for the Railroad through his ranch on the Strawberry Peninsula.  In return he was guaranteed rail service and free rides to San Francisco.  Lyford sued but the railroad prevailed in a case that ultimately landed at the California Supreme Court.  The rail line through Strawberry was abandoned.

 Years later, in 1927, the Golden Gate Ferry Company (GGF), offered to construct a highway bridge from Sausalito to Strawberry Point to connect with the planned State highway from Alto (Mill Valley) to San Rafael.  The physical details for such a structure are not available.  However, had it been built, the Ferry Company intended to collect a 10 cent toll.

 The Sausalito – Belvedere Auto Bridge, spanning 7,000 feet, was proposed by T. A. Tomasini in 1928. Tomasini was a San Francisco bridge promoter who proposed several spans across San Francisco Bay including one from Tiburon to Berkeley.  He apparently had some credibility as his Sausalito-Belvedere Bridge received a franchise from the Marin Board of Supervisors and a permit from the War Department. He also claimed he had gained the necessary financial backing from “eastern capitalists.”  

 The Tomasini proposal was for a two-lane auto bridge running from Sausalito’s Caledonia Street (about 100 feet south of Napa Street) to the northwest tip of Belvedere. The design included a bridge over the Northwest Pacific Railroad mainline.  The estimated cost of the bridge was approximately $600,000 in 1928 (about $8.4 million today). Construction would be paid for by collecting tolls of 25 or 30 cents (about $4 today) for automobiles and 5 cents (about 70 cents today) for pedestrians.  Tomasini projected that there was enough traffic between Sausalito and the Tiburon Peninsula to justify construction of such a bridge.

 Initially, local support for the Tomasini bridge was enthusiastic.  The Sausalito News opined “Sausalito, Belvedere and the Tiburon peninsula cannot help but benefit tremendously with the building of this bridge.”  The War Department issued a permit for the structure in late 1928 and Tomasini announced that he would start construction within 30 days.  However, construction did not begin in 30 days, nor at any point in 1929. 

 By mid-1930 Tomasini reinitiated his bridge project and drove in the first piles. Unfortunately, the Tiburon-Belvedere Chamber of Commerce and the Belvedere Town Council announced their opposition to Tomasini’s bridge.  They feared it would undermine their efforts to get a State highway built to the Tiburon ferry terminal.  

 Consequently, Tomasini decided to abandon his Sausalito to Belvedere bridge project. However, he continued to explore building a bridge from Tiburon to Berkeley.

  The Richardson Bay California Redwood Bridge, spanning 2,452 feet, was completed in 1931. This bridge was an important link in the new State Highway 101 going from San Rafael to Sausalito.  The bridge provided a four-lane roadway from Manzanita, just north of Sausalito, to De Silva Island in Strawberry.  It included a 56-foot lift section to allow the passage of marine traffic. 

 The bridge, known as the Redwood Bridge, was constructed of more than two million board feet of redwood timber including over 600 redwood piles making it the largest redwood structure in the world.  The bridge engineers reported that redwood was selected because it was “most suitable for a permanent structure of the character required, not being subject to dry rot or the destructive effects of close proximity to salt water.”

 The Richardson Bay Freeway Bridge, spanning 2,864 feet was completed in 1956, replacing the Redwood Bridge with a six-lane concrete and steel bridge.  It was 86 feet wide and had a 35-foot clearance above high water.  The replacement bridge was constructed parallel to and just east of the Redwood Bridge at a cost of $3.2 million (about $28 million today).   

 In later years the concrete bridge was seismically upgraded and widened to 138 feet to accommodate nine lanes of traffic.  It’s the bridge that carries traffic over the north arm of Richardson Bay today.  Though this new bridge lacks the character of the Redwood Bridge, it remains the only long bridge spanning a body of water entirely within the boundaries of Marin County.

 Environmental concerns, the diminished role of the railroad, and better roads were all factors which eliminated Marin’s need for long bridges to travel short distances.  Yet a glance at the history of these projects reminds one of the creativity and bold concepts of early transportation entrepreneurs.

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