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Published in The Seattle Times online on Jan. 12, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Jan. 15, 2023
For his family, a Burien father reveals ‘Sturdy Gertie’
and ‘how big the world is’
By Clay Eals
In this tranquil tableau that his wife captured with a camera, a father and the couple’s daughters gaze upon the newly completed Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1951.
For the girls, it was a surprise visit, like others their dad initiated on Sundays. However, little could they comprehend the notorious catastrophe that had unfolded there before any of them was born.
Relative newcomers accustomed to today’s pair of Narrows bridges may be forgiven for not knowing the riveting context of the solitary span that opened there on Oct. 14, 1950. It replaced a narrower Narrows Bridge that had opened on July 1, 1940, but had met a calamitous fate.
After four months and 265,000 car crossings, the earlier bridge twisted for two hours (like a ribbon, corkscrew or hammock, onlookers said) in 42-mph winds, broke apart and plunged 190 feet into Puget Sound just before noon on Nov. 7, 1940. The only lost life was that of a dog mistakenly abandoned in a sedan mid-span.
The bridge’s failure pulled out the rhetorical stops. A reporter later termed it “the Pearl Harbor of American civil engineering,” but its enduring and endearing epithet was “Galloping Gertie.”
Newspapers, accordingly, termed the stronger, wider Narrows Bridge “Sturdy Gertie,” and it has stood for 72-plus years. (To accommodate more traffic, a fraternal twin to the south opened July 15, 2007.)
Eye-popping film of Gertie’s 1940 undulation and collapse became familiar to those in the 1950s who watched its repeated airings on the weekly ABC-TV series “You Asked for It.”
The electrifying footage also figured in an episode of the movie serial “Atom Man vs. Superman,” in which evil Lex Luthor destroys the bridge as a warning signal to Metropolis but not before the Man of Steel briefly grasps and stabilizes the span so that a woman on it can be rescued.
In 1951, the real-life girls in our “Then” photo possessed their own Sunday-drive context, imparted by their dad, railroad dispatcher William Fogelstedt of Burien.
“He would choose places that we had never seen before,” says daughter Helen Hackett of Bothell, who has no memory of the Narrows trip beyond its photos. “He would keep it a secret until we got there. It was always a buildup: ‘Now, just a few more miles down the road, and we’ll be there.’
“He would show us all the wonders of the world here in Washington. It always was followed up by an ice-cream cone on the way home. It was his way of expressing life and how big the world is.”
A simple snapshot. A lesson for a lifetime.
Special thanks to Washington Department of Transportation staffers Robert Webster, Stan Zal, April Leigh and Stefanie Randolph, as well as Lauren Koslowsky Bakken, for their help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
Below are (1) links to a contemporary video interview, a Feliks Banel story (with vintage audio) and three historical accounts of the 1940 bridge collapse, (2) an additional photo, (3) a 1994 Paul Dorpat “Now & Then” column on Tacoma’s “other bridge,” (4) a link to a 2007 Seattle Times article by Mike Lindblom on 1950 Narrows Bridge steelworker Earl White, plus, (5) in chronological order, 22 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.