Bixby Creek Bridge

by Renee Newland
This essay was written as a class assignment in SBSC 326: History of the Monterey Bay Area, 10,000 B.C. to Steinbeck, California State University Monterey Bay, Spring Semester 1996; Dr. Gary S. Breschini, instructor.

Eighteen miles south of Carmel stands one of the world's highest single-span concrete arch bridges. Its beauty is matched only by the ocean waves crashing on the rocky coastline below. Reaching over 260 feet high and over 700 feet long, it's a structural masterpiece, and probably the most photographed object along the coastal route.

Bixby Creek Cridge during construction. Courtesy of the Pat Hathaway Collection (which includes 120 construction photographs of the bridge; image 74-24-03).

After exhaustive engineering studies, two options remained to solve the Bixby Creek crossing on what was then called Route 56, or Carmel-San Simeon Highway, now known as Highway 1. The deep V-shaped canyon, about 100 feet wide at the bottom, with slopes consisting of altered and disintegrated granite, imposed special and difficult problems for the California Division of Highways. One option was an 890-foot tunnel and a 250-foot bridge upstream from the mouth of the creek. The other option was to build a high bridge right on the coast spanning the bluffs. Concerns of safety, and allowing more scenic views, brought the final decision to the latter plan.

The contract was awarded to the low bidder, Ward Engineering Co. of San Francisco, on August 13th, 1931, for $202,334. Concrete placing began November 27th. The bridge was completed on October 15, 1932, and ceremoniously dedicated on November 27th. Another five years would pass before the highway, extending 30 miles from the Carmel River to San Luis Obispo, was finished.

The amount of material used in the construction was enormous: 300,000 feet of timber were used in the falsework, 4,700 cubic yards of earth and rock had to be excavated, and 45,000 sacks of cement were used. The means of transporting the materials across the canyon came from platforms and slings suspended from a cable 300 feet above the creek. Cement was chosen instead of steel due to material and maintenance costs. The cement came from Davenport, near Santa Cruz, and from San Andreas. The creek below supplied the needed water for the mix.

The falsework, which was the wooden structure built to shape the arch and form the wet concrete, was one of the outstanding accomplishments of E.C. Panton, the general superintendent of Ward Engineering Co. Credit also went to C.H. Purcell, California state highway engineer, F.W. Panhorst, acting bridge engineer, and I.O. Jahlstrom, resident engineer. Two months were spent building the falsework alone. One of the main difficulties was raising and holding the arch frame, exposed as it was to the high winds. The foundation also had to resist the waves which at times reached its base. Work was halted for a time until the dangers of winter storms passed. Locals also wanted it known that M.J. Murphy, Inc. of Carmel was one of the sub-contractors involved in the construction. Large advertisements were placed in The Herald honoring Murphy's contribution. Its trucks were used to haul the Douglas fir from the railroad yards in Monterey to the bridge site and the company also supplied sand and gravel for the concrete from a plant in Big Sur. The road at the time was one-way with hairpin turns, making trips very dangerous for the drivers of large trucks.

The Bixby Bridge on Highway 1 south of Carmel.

Photograph by T. Haversat and G.S. Breschini, 1996. Copyright 1996 by T. Haversat and G.S. Breschini.

Today the exquisite structure is commonly called Bixby Bridge, although in the past it had been referred to as: Bixby Creek Bridge, Bixby's Bridge, Mill Creek Bridge, or Rainbow Bridge. "Bixby" stems from Mr. Charles Henry Bixby (a cousin of United States President James K. Polk), an early settler in the area. Originally from Livingston County, New York, he came to the Monterey Peninsula in 1868. His purchase, improvement, and development of large tracts of land gave him the legacy of being the most instrumental in the opening of the Sur area. Lumber, shakes, shingles, railroad ties, trench posts and tan bark, processed through a mill, were shipped north from a stretch of land known as Bixby Landing. Later it was a shipping point of lime for the Monterey Lime Company. The Mill name didn't come, as one might think, from a family named Mill. It originated from Mr. Bixby's sawmill, built along the creek. This name is sometimes used interchangeably with Bixby when describing such places as the creek, bridge, and landing.

The name Rainbow stems from a nearby resort, Rainbow Lodge, operated by an Army Captain, Howard Sharpe and his wife, Frida. The Sharpes bought the ranch in the Bixby Creek Canyon in 1919 with the prospect of profiting from tourist dollars. Using his engineering experience during his off-season time, he built and improved a dirt road from the lodge up the canyon to Bixby Landing and another road down to the beach at the mouth of Bixby Creek. In 1930 the Sharpes sold part of the Bixby Landing right-of-way to the State of California for its construction of Highway 1 and the bridge. The area of land stretched from Bixby Landing 700 feet south across the Bixby Creek Canyon.

Of the five bridges built along the 30-mile highway on the central coast Bixby remains the most admired.


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