The Tower Bridge cost nearly $1 million to build in the mid-1930s. It was painted gold in 2002. (Shutterstock photo)

The Back Story: A Landmark’s Ups and Downs

Sacramento’s iconic Tower Bridge spans a river — and generations

Back Article May 27, 2021 By Ed Goldman

This story is part of our May 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Cynthia Larsen is a litigation attorney who’s been with the Orrick law firm since 1986. Its offices at 400 Capitol Mall overlook the Tower Bridge, whose 738-foot span across the Sacramento River connects Sacramento to West Sacramento. Larsen says when the bridge’s color changed from a tired ocher to its vibrant gold in 2002, “I loved it. It went from being something I took for granted to something I enjoyed looking at every day. So enchanting.”

Bruce Monighan, urban design manager for the City of Sacramento, remembers his first sight of the Tower Bridge when he’d visit here from the Bay Area in the summer as a kid (he’s now in his early 70s). “After hours of traveling and countless times of asking ‘Are we there yet?’ we’d spot the Tower Bridge sticking up … in the flat landscape. This was before we had a lot of tall buildings in the city, and the view of the then-silver bridge meant we were there finally. As we looped into the bridge entry, we could spy the Capitol across the river, and that was the moment we knew we were in the state capital,” he says. “It’s crazy, but almost 60 years later, I still get that throwback moment when I cross that bridge.”

Tower Bridge by the Numbers

160:
Height in feet of the two vertical towers

209:
Length in feet of lift

738:
Length in feet

186:
Distance between lift towers

500:
Weight in tons of lift span

16,500:
Daily trips (2019)

$994,000:
Construction cost

(Sources: California Department of Public Works, U.S. Department of the Interior, Online Archive of California and California Department of Transportation)

Tower Bridge by the Numbers

160:
Height in feet of the two vertical towers

209:
Length in feet of lift

738:
Length in feet

186:
Distance between lift towers

500:
Weight in tons of lift span

16,500:
Daily trips (2019)

$994,000:
Construction cost

(Sources: California Department of Public Works, U.S. Department of the Interior, Online Archive of California and California Department of Transportation)

Maintaining this local landmark, which opened in 1935, is the responsibility of the California Department of Transportation. Caltrans’ Erol Kaslan says the Tower Bridge (officially California State Highway 275) is “our shortest state highway, from one side of the river to the other, not even 740 feet.” That may be shorter than Kaslan’s official title: chief of structure investigations, north, for the Office of Structure Maintenance and Investigations in the Caltrans Division of Maintenance.

Given the public squawks when Caltrans painted the bridge its current color in 2002 — even though the color was selected in a survey of residents within a 35-mile radius — it may be a surprise to learn that in 86 years, it’s been painted only three times. This is in marked contrast to the maintenance schedule of another iconic California bridge, the Golden Gate, which is continuously being painted as part of its maintenance. “Our weather in Sacramento is a lot less harsh than in the Bay Area,” Kaslan says. Apparently, that refreshing ocean air also plays havoc with the paint, whereas what he calls the “iridescence” of the Tower Bridge’s finish withstands the valley’s rainy seasons and dry summers.

The Tower Bridge’s dedication ceremony on Dec. 15, 1935, attracted a large crowd who witnessed the first raising of its lift span. (Photo courtesy of the Sacramento History Museum)

It takes a village to care for a bridge. Maintenance of the Tower Bridge “is truly a team effort,” says Kaslan. “It involves many disciplines — including bridge operators, field maintenance crews, bridge structure engineers, and specialized mechanical and electrical engineers.” Kaslan’s office provides engineering-related inspection and support functions.

Monighan says the Tower Bridge was built to replace the M Street Bridge. “Both the I Street Bridge and the M Street Bridge were about (getting) trains over the river, with cars being a secondary thought. The transcontinental highway system was an important strategic transportation system … and the M Street Bridge was deemed insufficient to (accommodate cars), and the new Tower Bridge was proposed. It was a much grander bridge than the I Street Bridge and done in a deco design fashion, which was very much of the time.” 

Tower Bridge Through the Years

1934-35:
Years built

1962:
Last train crossed the bridge

1963:
Railroad tracks were removed

1976:
Repainted in an ocher color to match the Capitol’s copper dome

1982:
Added to the National Register of Historic Places

2002:
Repainted gold

(Sources: California Department of Public Works, U.S. Department of the Interior, Online Archive of California and California Department of Transportation)

Tower Bridge Through the Years

1934-35:
Years built

1962:
Last train crossed the bridge

1963:
Railroad tracks were removed

1976:
Repainted in an ocher color to match the Capitol’s copper dome

1982:
Added to the National Register of Historic Places

2002:
Repainted gold

(Sources: California Department of Public Works, U.S. Department of the Interior, Online Archive of California and California Department of Transportation)

Though Kaslan points out that all mobile bridges are considered “drawbridges for some reason” — we tend to think of that term in regard to only the type of bridges that open in the middle, with both sides of the road raising vertically — the Tower Bridge was one of the earlier lift bridges, where the center section lifts vertically to allow for boats to pass beneath. The nearby I Street Bridge uses a swing section that moves horizontally.

In case you’re planning to sail into Sacramento on your life-size replica of the Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas (the world’s largest cruise ship at 238 feet tall), you should know the vertical clearance of the Tower Bridge, when it’s fully open, is only 96 feet from the surface of the average high-water elevation of the Sacramento River. Kaslan says the width of a craft is equally critical: “Any vessel more than 170 feet wide can’t pass through the navigational opening at Tower Bridge.”

As an engineer, Kaslan cares about the nuts and bolts of the Tower Bridge, but he also appreciates its beauty.  

“Whenever I have out-of-town visitors, I take them out for lunch along the waterfront with the Tower Bridge in sight,” he says. “The iconic art deco architecture is beautiful, and the bridge defines Sacramento as the River City. As an engineer, I admire the bridge as being very well designed — and built like a Sherman tank.” 

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