Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bridges to Terminal Island, Part 1

The bascule or "jackknife" bridge, probably in the 1910s.

Since its earliest days in the 1910s, the Port of Long Beach has needed reliable access to Terminal Island. The first bridge from Long Beach to the island was a single railroad track built on a wooden trestle by the Salt Lake Railway. By 1908, though, it was clear something better (and something that didn't block access to Craig Shipyard) was needed. So in that year the trestle was replaced with a 187-foot bascule drawbridge, commonly referred to as the "jackknife" bridge, because it opened and closed just like a pocket knife.

The jackknife bridge was in place for years, but at some point during the mid-1930s it was removed when the Union Pacific stopped using it. Incredibly, there was no bridge there for several years, leaving the Badger Avenue Bridge (now known as the Henry Ford Bridge) over the Cerritos Channel as the only rail link to Terminal Island. (We'll have more on this bridge in Part 2 of this post.)

Driving over the pontoon bridge had its ups and downs.
When World War II came along, the Navy needed better access to and from its station and shipyard on Terminal Island. So a pontoon bridge was constructed that could be opened and closed to allow ship traffic to pass into and out of the harbor. The pontoon bridge was intended to be a temporary structure in place for six months, but it was used for decades. Many longtime Long Beach residents can tell stories about crossing the peculiar span, which literally floated on the mouth of the L.A. River. Drivers, especially when alcohol was involved, would occasionally go over the side into the water, and traffic would often back up along Ocean Boulevard when ships passed through. In 1946, the Spruce Goose was transported over the pontoon bridge -- you can read more and see pictures here.

In the 1960s, the pontoon bridge was replaced by the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which eliminated the need for a movable bridge and could handle much larger traffic volumes. These days, time and traffic have taken their toll on the Desmond (nets called "diapers" are placed underneath it to catch chunks of concrete), and the bridge is slated for replacement beginning next year. The new bridge will allow the largest post-Panamax ships to enter the Port, as well as accommodate more traffic. For more information on the replacement project, go to

Read a Steve Harvey L.A. Times column about the pontoon bridge.

See a photo gallery of the Terminal Island bridges.

Traffic congestion could be a problem sometimes.

1 comment:

btamper said...

The "Jack Knife Bridge" was the scene of a silent movie stunt filmed in 1915. In the series Hazards of Helen "The Wild Engine" episode (you can watch it on YouTube) at about 7:20 in the show the stunt occurs with Helen taking a crazy leap off the bridge on an old Indian Motorcycle! Quite a stunt for anyone, but especially a woman in those days. One has to wonder if the Indian was left in the deep....??