Thursday, January 2, 2014

Frances Borgen Carlson

Last week we learned quite a bit about Joe Gotchy and refreshed our memory of the first Narrows Bridge known throughout the country and beyond as Galloping Gertie.  So I thought it might be interesting to have a first hand account of the collapse by the last person to cross the bridge and pay the toll on that fateful day, November 7, 1940.

What amazes me about Frances Borgen Carlson’s recollection of that day is her total lack of fear.  Her statement in an oral interview was “And when I came down that morning, it was galloping the way it had always done just up and down.  It looked exciting.  I thought it was a lot like the opening night.  We walked over that time.”
Photogragher James Bashford, 1940 Narrows Bridge Opening

Now, be honest, would you have been afraid or a little bit nervous?  Would you have wanted to try to cross over to the other side?  I know, it is hard to anticipate a person’s reaction to a catastrophic incident but I seriously doubt that the majority were as calm as Frances.  Many people to this day are afraid to cross the bridge when there are severe winds; perhaps not as many as when we only had one span, but the fear still exists for some.

But as hinted at above, Frances’ claim to fame on that day (November 7, 1940) was according to her,  that she was the last person to cross over to Tacoma and pay the toll for using the bridge.  No one else crossed.  However according to WSDOT Weird Facts others challenge Frances:  Elbert Swinney driver for Golden Rule Bakery, Dr. Jess W. Reed & UW Engineering Professor F. Bert Farquharson.  The Gig Harbor Stage was 5 minutes behind Frances and on schedule but he didn’t try crossing.  About that time all traffic stopped. A delivery truck loaded with furniture that would have been behind her too  hesitated and the truck tipped over.  As Frances said “It didn’t get off but that wasn’t publicized too much because they said a lady was with a man she shouldn’t have been with.”  The Tacoma News Tribune interviewed WSDOT at the time of the collapse and they indicated that it was a truck from Rapid Transfer Co. and its passengers were Ruby Jacox and Walter Hagen.

Frances was the mail carrier from Gig Harbor; it was her job was to take the mail from Gig Harbor into Tacoma’s main post office and pick up all the mail for delivery in Gig Harbor.  She always crossed the bridge at 9:30 AM.  And, of course, she was on schedule this morning as usual.  Frances recalled that the deck started twisting when she reached the middle of the bridge.  That’s when she began to become concerned.  She thought the vibrations were more severe and stronger than ever before.  It was becoming very difficult for her to steer … her wheels kept hitting the curb although she was able to stay in her lane, not crossing over into the oncoming lane.

There was another car on the bridge that morning traveling the opposite direction towards Gig Harbor.  Frances didn’t notice it until she was at the toll booth.  It was still moving and was approximately a fourth of the way to the first pier headed west.  She did not recall whose car it was.

Frances never saw the bridge fall.  She was, as mentioned previously, Gig Harbor’s mail carrier and she wanted to stay on schedule.  But imagine, the bridge is vibrating so much that any other cars would disappear from sight - it was like you were riding a roller coaster.  Surprisingly, the wind wasn’t that strong, at 7:30 AM it measured 38 MPH and 2 hours later when Frances crossed is was clocked at 42 MPH.  But near the west end the fishermen insisted it was much stronger.  By 11:10 AM, it was all over!  (South-wind events, due to funneling effects, can reach up to 100 mph in confined areas such as the Tacoma Narrows.)
Part of the bridge left after collapse From David Brenenan

Leonard Coatsworth, an editor with the Tacoma News Tribune was on his way to the family’s summer cottage on the Peninsula.  He had just passed the EastTower when the roadway tilted sideways and threw his car against the curb.  He climbed through an open window leaving the car on the bridge. But his daughter’s black spaniel “Tubby” was in the back seat and he could not get Tubby out of the car no matter what he tried. Frances saw Leonard crawling on all fours to get off the bridge because of its swaying;  he could’t maintain his balance walking. Tubby was the only loss of life in the collapse, no human life was lost.  According to one of the many weird facts on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Mr. Coatsworth had trouble getting reimbursed for the loss of his car.  He was paid $364.40 for the loss of the car’s contents but nothing for the car itself until over 6 months had passed and he wrote directly to the State Toll Bridge Authority.  Finally the WSTBA sent him a check in the amount of $450 for his car.  

As a dedicated employee of the US Postal Service, Frances continued on her way to drop off the mail at the main post office, and then met her mother.  She needed to wait for a ferry before returning home to delivery Gig Harbor’s mail.  She drove to Taylor Bay Ferry on the Nisqually Flats which took her to Longbranch and then drove home finally arriving around 5:30/6:00 PM.

Washington State DOT’s weir facts regarding the Tacoma Narrows Bridge includes this fact #5:  The name “Galloping Gertie” was first used for the Wheeling Bridge.  Charles Ellet built this 900-ft long suspension bridge in 1849 over the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia.  Back then, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.  It collapsed in a windstorm in May 1854.  On the Tacoma Narrows Bridge many of the most experienced workmen had followed bridge construction all over the country.  Called “boomers”, they formed the nucleus of the crew.  Many of them came from families where building bridges was almost a tradition.  Possibly one of their grandfathers had worked on the Wheeling Bridge.  Many had come to the Narrows project from the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  Interestly, the Golden Gate Bridge is abbreviated “G.G.” and it had a tendency to “bounce” in the wind when it was first finished.  In early May 1940, when workers were building forms and laying concrete for the roadway, the Narrows Bridge began its soon-famous ripple.  It was probably one of the “boomers” who dubbed the bouncing span “Galloping Gertie”.  Local residents picked up the nickname and it stuck.”

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