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Tacoma Narrows Project Disturbs Wash. Historical Site

Sun April 01, 2007 - West Edition
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TACOMA, Wash. (AP) _ A crumbling chunk of concrete here, a rusted piece of rebar there — what’s to know, who’s to care?

Plenty, it seems, when the detritus is from Galloping Gertie, the ill-designed Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge that lasted barely four months before twisting itself apart in gusty winds on Nov. 7, 1940, leaving an underwater pile of rubble and girders that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

History buffs and officials are at odds over how much the heritage site has been disturbed by ongoing construction of a parallel bridge on State Route 16 over the narrows.

Broken slabs half-buried in sand and gravel and a rusted section of girder halfway up the hillside toward Gig Harbor on the west side are likely the remains of the old bridge, a state archaeologist and a transportation historian told The News Tribune after checking the site.

“They don’t use this kind of square rebar anymore,” said Matthew Sterner, a transportation specialist of the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. “Environmental conditions here suggest this has been here the appropriate amount of time.”

Gazing up at the current bridge towers, Sterner said it was likely that whatever parts of Gertie remained standing were demolished to make way for construction of the existing span.

“They did deconstruction so they could upgrade,” he said.

Craig Holstine, historian and cultural resources specialist of the Transportation Department and author of a book on Tacoma Narrows bridge history, generally agreed.

Both doubt that the aging pieces of concrete and steel on the western shore are from the underwater ruin, despite concern by some that workers on the new bridge might have dislodged parts of Gertie beneath the water and dumped them on land.

One of those raising such concern is Robert Mester, who has recorded the underwater ruins in photographs and video images and helped lead the effort for national historic protection.

“There’s nobody that has more knowledge of the ruin in its original location than I,” Mester said. “I have 20 years of videotapes, underwater photographs, drawings.”

He concedes that what lies on the shore may be previously overlooked rubble, but he believes state officials have downplayed the extent to which recent construction has damaged the underwater site.

In 2003 he said Gertie’s remains were “devastated” by new rock and anchor chains, and he now says photos taken in 2005 showed additional damage by Tacoma Narrows Constructors, the state’s private partner.

“They’ll do irreparable damage, totally destroying it, like cracking an egg,” Mester said. “If you were to recover the Holy Grail from underwater, you would be responsible for curating it.”

The degree of underwater damage has yet to be assessed. Diving at the site is still restricted even as the second span nears completion.

Before construction began in 1999, state and federal transportation officials predicted the work would not harm the site and signed an agreement that required an “Unanticipated Discovery Plan” for spotting and protecting archaeological remains.

Transportation officials acknowledged that the ruins had been damaged in 2003. Sterner suggested that state and private construction crews skirted requirements to notify the state’s historic preservation office until after the damage was done.

“They impacted a national register-listed site,” he said.

Officials with the transportation agency and the contractor disagree, citing correspondence with the historic preservation office that mentions construction anchor cables crossing the ruins and a letter of acknowledgment dated July 28, 2003.

Further negotiations resulted in a revised memorandum of agreement that was signed last fall. That agreement requires such measures as state contributions to a bridge exhibit for the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society and Museum and a high-resolution side-scan SONAR survey of the ruins.

It also added a requirement for monthly monitoring of construction near the ruins and reports on any damage.

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