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The man blamed for the fall of Tacoma’s Galloping Gertie

On the day the first bridge over Puget Sound collapsed 75 years ago this week, a mixed-breed cocker spaniel named Tubby was the only life lost with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in what now is known as one of history’s most spectacular engineering failures.

Photos and film of the last moments of Galloping Gertie are iconic to this day. The bridge’s fall on the windy morning of Nov. 7, 1940, is still taught in schools. It is regarded as the birthing event of the field of wind engineering in building design.

“Aerodynamics, all of a sudden, became important, very important,” bridge engineer Andy Herrmann, past president of the American Society for Civil Engineers, said recently of the collapse.

And the man most widely viewed as responsible for the disaster, bridge designer Leon Moisseiff, has something of a dual identity today.

 
Leon Moisseiff, right, a New York engineer and designer of the infamous Galloping Gertie stands alongside construction engineer Clark Eldridge on Nov. 14, 1940, to discuss the reconstruction of the approach to the main span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. (File, 1940.)

In the South Sound region, he is widely regarded as a hubristic outsider with a doomed idea whose machinations set progress back years.

The state Department of Transportation’s website remembering the collapse describes him by citing an allegation that never amounted to anything official: He “unethically approached the Public Works Administration” of the federal government to get hired to build the project his way.

“He wanted to build it on the cheap, but he wanted to build the most beautiful bridge in the world,” said Bill Baarsma, former Tacoma mayor and president of the Tacoma Historical Society.

Look elsewhere, and Moisseiff is a towering figure of his profession in an age of monumental achievements.

Streams of commuters across the nation glide across his handiwork today. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, New York’s George Washington and Manhattan bridges, and Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Bridge, among a host of others, were built on Moisseiff designs in the first half of the 20th century. And every year, civil engineers honor one of their field’s greatest advances with the Moisseiff Award.

It stands as an extraordinary afterlife, especially considering that Moisseiff lived for less than three years after Galloping Gertie’s collapse and designed no new bridges in that time.

His death at 70, of a heart attack in 1943 in his New Jersey summer home, came while the failure of his bridge and the outbreak of World War II meant it would be another seven years before a bridge sturdy enough to last would span the Tacoma Narrows.

“My father, who was very close to him (they shared office space) felt that it virtually killed him,” Joan Scobey, Moisseiff’s granddaughter, wrote in an email in October.

Moisseiff, a native of Latvia, was a Columbia University graduate and something of a polymath. Press accounts and family members say he lectured on foreign policy and translated literature into Yiddish, including works of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (of whom there is a bust in Tacoma’s Wright Park).

His family knew him as an inquisitive figure, a fan of Wagner operas and pinochle games, more inclined to intellectual pursuits than doting on children.

“Grandpa was the imperious patriarch,” Scobey wrote.

As an engineer, he earned an outsize reputation through work “on nearly every major suspension bridge in the country,” according to his 1943 obituary in the Engineering News Record.

He worked his way from New York City’s Department of Bridges into a busy private practice as a consulting engineer, the role that brought him to Tacoma. By then, he was widely known as a leading authority in his field, after years of research work on aspects of bridge-building from welding and wire design to a series of mathematical formulas called “deflection theory.”

The theory, invented by an Austrian mathematician, was brought to American bridges with Moisseiff’s design for the Manhattan Bridge, which still stands in New York.

Deflection theory said, in short, that the weight of longer suspension bridges meant they did not need trusses built beneath the road to hold steady through wind and traffic. This called for less steel, which meant cheaper construction. It worked back East, as in the lithe and symmetrical George Washington Bridge, built in 1931 with Moisseiff serving as a design consultant.

The principle was further employed on the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which opened in 1939 without a truss. (One was added in 1946, according to Henry Petroski’s 1995 book, “Engineers of Dreams,” which discusses Moisseiff in the context of his bridge-building peers).

Iron workers building Galloping Gertie's replacement, the current Tacoma Narrows Bridge perch precariously on the end of steel girder as a steel deck truss is lifted into place. (File, courtesy of Earl White.) 
Iron workers building Galloping Gertie's replacement, the current Tacoma Narrows Bridge perch precariously on the end of steel girder as a steel deck truss is lifted into place. (File, courtesy of Earl White.)

During the same era, Tacoma’s leaders lobbied for years for federal money to build a bridge from Tacoma to Gig Harbor and cut a 2½-hour drive down to 11 minutes. The New Deal’s nationwide public-works construction brought the prospect tantalizingly close, so the state prepared a plan in 1938 for a two-lane bridge with an $11 million budget.

The federal government offered less than half that. Moisseiff, an expert with a successful record at building elegant bridges that required fewer tons of material, was brought on board to overhaul the plans. They ended up with a budget under $7 million, using calculations that called for less reinforcing material, less weight, less width.

He is reputed to have called the finished bridge “the most beautiful in the world.”

Historic catastrophe followed.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened on July 1, 1940, as the third-longest suspension bridge in the world. From construction until after the bridge opened, people noted how much it swayed in the wind. The name “Galloping Gertie” stuck to it, though history is unclear on precisely where the name arose.

“My grandparents would tell me that when they crossed the bridge, it undulated so much the car in front of you would disappear,” Baarsma said.

Seventy-five years ago come Saturday, the bad ride got worse.

On a Thursday morning of steady winds, a clamp broke off, then over a few hours Galloping Gertie bucked itself to pieces. Its only casualty was the dog Tubby, who couldn’t be retrieved from the stranded car he was riding in. A crowd watched and filmed the disaster from the Tacoma shore.

“It seemed as though the world was falling apart,” News Tribune reporter Nelson Hong, who was among the spectators, wrote in the next morning’s paper.

Recriminations began instantly.

The day after the collapse, the state’s chief engineer, Clark Eldridge, blamed cheapskate federal authorities for requiring “the employment of Eastern engineers.” He would intimate that Moisseiff unethically steered the work to himself, though the accusation was not publicly corroborated.

Moissieff, back in New York, told reporters a “peculiar wind condition” had hit at an unfortunate angle. He said testing a model of the bridge at the University of Washington had convinced him the span would be permanent despite its early shakes.

“I’m completely at a loss to explain the collapse,” Moisseiff said, according to a Nov. 8, 1940, Associated Press report.

Over time, investigations and science sorted it out.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge crumbles into Puget Sound on Nov. 7, 1940. (James Bashford, staff file, 1940.) 
Tacoma Narrows Bridge crumbles into Puget Sound on Nov. 7, 1940. (James Bashford, staff file, 1940.)

For a long time, resonance was blamed, with Gertie’s well-known vibrations deepened by just the right wind through the Narrows. These days, engineers call what broke the bridge “aeroelastic flutter” — a condition a YouTube video by MinutePhysics likens to “the same thing that causes a strip of paper or blade of grass to vibrate if you hold it tight and blow straight at the edge.”

Moisseiff came to Tacoma days later to examine the collapse, which haunted the rest of his career. When he died, according to his obituary, he was chairman of a federal committee to re-evaluate the principles governing suspension bridge design.

“It was typical of Mr. Moisseiff that he was among the most active students of that failure,” Engineering News Record wrote, “sparing neither his energy nor his reputation in supporting attempts to squeeze the last ounce of useful knowledge out of this disaster.”

Civil engineers voted later that decade to create the Moisseiff Award, an annual prize for outstanding contributions to their field.

“He had done a lot of other things,” Andy Herrmann, the bridge engineer, said in October. “Unfortunately, we learn from mistakes, and that’s one of the things we have to take forward.”

Moisseiff helped on some projects in his late career, including reconstruction work on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Gertie investigation. But he lived less than three years after the failure Washingtonian most closely associate him with these decades later.

“It could really destroy a person,” Herrmann said. “You spend that much money, that much engineering, that much time and to have something fail, it’s gotta be devastating.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693

derrick.nunnally@thenewstribune.com

@dcnunnally

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