Thursday, December 26, 2013

Joe Gotchy and The Narrows Bridge

It’s always interesting to see what some of the favorite exhibits at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor are; and yes the favorite changes on a daily basis.

But Galloping Gertie remains a regular favorite.  Whether the guests are looking at  the remnants of the bridge, or watching the videos, there always seems to be a large crowd  of all ages gathered around them.  What is so intriguing about rusty old steel and iron pieces?  I think it is the puzzle about them.  What part of the bridge do they represent?  How could the wind tear heavy metal like these pieces apart?  

The videos are easier to understand.  It is the shock of knowing no one lost their life except for the small dog.  The twisting and turning of the steel, iron, cables - all caused by the wind.  Or, the pictures of the men building the bridge, especially the daring young men stringing the cables and constructing the towers.  

So much hard work that went into a bridge that lasted four months before collapsing.  Yet the Golden Gate Bridge built earlier which is 5 miles in length never experienced the problems which plagued Galloping Gertie and it is only 1 mile long.

During the summer a young physics teacher and his wife traveled from New Zealand to Gig Harbor to see our exhibit.  Not only is he fascinated by the first Narrows Bridge and its collapse, he uses it as an example of a flawed design in his classes.  My daughter told me that one of her friends in Pennsylvania also used Galloping Gertie in his physics classes.

But how many people are aware that Joe Gotchy, Gig Harbor resident worked on both the first bridge and its replacement?  Everyone who has read The Tale of Two Bridges, a Harbor History Museum online exhibit.  It is made up of eight parts which answers the most frequently asked questions.  If you haven’t had an opportunity to read, I suggest that you do when time allows.  You can also review “Bridging the Narrows” a book written by Joe Gotchy and published in 1990 by The Peninsula Historical Society now known as Harbor History Museum.  Unfortunately, we do not allow the books to be removed from the Resource Room.  But the Pierce County Library has the book available to check  out for reading.

Joe was born in 1903 in Bothell and raised on a small farm in Rochester.  His brother, Leonard was 5 years older, and so when Leonard was 24 and Joe 19 they decided to make their career building bridges rather than farming.  Unfortunately the experienced bridge workers viewed Joe and Leonard as threats and were not willing to share their knowledge. The older workers always tried, if they could, to make the young men look uneasy and inexperienced.  The advantage Leonard and Joe had was that they were young, active and not afraid of heights. Their work farming and logging was a tremendous help in learning how to rig booms used in bridge building.  Both brothers joined the ironworkers’ and pile drivers’ union.  Their first job was on Lake Washington, then in Snohomish and the Tolt River in Carnation.  They drove piles and while working on the Tolt River, learned to rivet.  Those were followed with another bridge at Sylvania and then the Olympic Hotel in Seattle which is a steel frame building, the last jobs they worked together.

Leonard worked on the Spokane Street Bridge and then went to California where he worked on almost all the major bridge projects including the Golden Gate Bridge.  Joe said that the Dearborn Street Bridge in Beacon Hill was a real learning experience for him where “rat trapping - the iron, wired together for columns and other parts of the structure look exactly like that - rat trapping”.

Joe continued to work all over the state building bridges and then on January 2, 1939 while working for Hart Construction Co. as a foreman, they built the dock at the foot of Sixth Avenue in Tacoma which would be used as a service dock during the construction of the first Narrows Bridge, Galloping Gertie.  Pacific Bridge Company, the general contractor on the Narrows Bridge project met Joe at that time, and when Walt Cathey learned Joe was Leonard’s brother he hired Joe on the spot as rigger foreman.
2nd Narrows Bridge;  #13: Ted Joslyn rides chord on material car signaling operator of the "railroad". The outer edge of the bridge vertical lines hold diagonal truss in place. #14: Deck stringer is lowered, the last piece of steel in deck section; view to east shore.
Midspan & west shore; west midspan; towers & cables in place crews laying deck

And the rest of the story, including Joe’s participation in building the second replacement Narrows Bridge after the collapse is described in great detail in Joe’s book “Bridging the Narrows” and the online exhibit “The Tale of Two Bridges”.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.
Butch Pollock & Joe Gotchy

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