Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Why do we have an deep and abiding fascination with the I-10 bridge failure?

Settle in for a long story.

Well, it dates back to our youthful days....all the way back to 1966, the year before that I-10 bridge was actually constructed.

We graduated from high school in June 1965 and immediately enrolled at Purdue for summer classes to get a jump start on what we thought was going to be an engineering career.  All throughout our freshman year at Purdue we eagerly sought leads and tips for a suitable engineering job the following summer.

One cold Indiana day in mid-January, we happened to be perusing the bulletin board at the Lafayette Post Office.  That's when we hit pay dirt.  There was a federal jobs notice that included all sorts of enticing seasonal positions throughout the Western States.

For whatever reason, the feds limited applications to only three potential positions.  Our top choice was the BPR.  Nope, that's not PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) that's B-P-R as in Bureau of Public Roads.  BPR long ago morphed into the Federal Highway Administration.  However, in the mid-1960's, the BPR was the go-to place to work for budding civil engineers.

I applied to the BPR immediately and was ecstatic when they sent me a notice of appointment a few weeks later.  I wound up working for BPR for three summers: 1966, 1967 and 1968.  In fact, I came with an eyelash of being a career BPR employee...but that's another story...and an even longer story to boot.

Here's how it worked:  The BPR actually paid my travel expenses from Indiana to San Francisco and then put me up in a hotel there.  I spent the first two weeks each summer working with the civil engineers at 450 Golden Gate Avenue...mostly doing "gopher" chores and listening to the wise old engineers tell stories.

Then I spent a week at the BPR's Treasure Island supply deport.  After that, I would be assigned to a field project.  Of course, the BPR paid all the travel expenses, etc.  It was a sweet plum job for sure.
My first summer was on a field survey crew running "rough line" for a new highway in the San Gabriel Mountains.  I lived that summer in nearby Azusa, California.

The second summer I was assigned to a road construction project from Mormon Lake to Clint's Well, Arizona.  The project office was in Happy Jack, Arizona, and I lived in a small cabin at Mormon Lake.

The third summer was on a road construction project at Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada.  I lived in South Lake Tahoe that summer.

Each and every one of those summers is a long story unto itself.

Suffice to say I learned a great deal about all aspects of highway design and construction, especially the civil engineering aspects of bridges and culverts.

In fact, the civil engineers at San Francisco took a liking to me the first summer and they were all smiles when I returned the next two summers.  I learned more from those old guys in my three sessions that I could ever describe in a short blog post.

You have to realize that all engineering design back then was done by hand, the painstaking Old School way with primitive drafting tools, slide rules and pure human "smarts."  (Steve Jobs was 11 and Bill Gates 10 years old in 1966.)

There was a long-standing, generational tradition and hierarchy back then.  First, it was a totally male profession.  There were no females in the drafting room.  The secretaries never set foot in the drafting room.  It would have been a huge faux paus.  Second, there were no young people working in the drafting room.  The only young people allowed into the drafting room were people like me--young people being "exposed" to the inner sanctum...a hushed place where old men worked largely in silence.  Story-telling and socialization were only acceptable in the break room.

The old engineers trusted to design America's highways and bridges had spent their entire careers with the feds.  They were simply not allowed to begin to work up civil engineering plan sets until they were well into their careers and had many, many years of experience.  The idea of a young person being entrusted to create and draw plans would have been outright heresy, if not high treason.  It simply didn't happen.

These days, a young person can come right out of college and get a job on an engineering design team.  Back in those days designs were all done by very old men.  I met one engineer who had graduated from Purdue in 1922!  To me he was a living fossil but looking back he was only 66 or 67 years old.

All of the engineers I met told me stories about their careers and how hard it was to break into the design aspect of highways, especially bridges.  The old guys who designed bridges were held high esteem (if not awe) by their peers.  To be entrusted to design an actual bridge was the pinnacle of an engineer's career!

I learned a lot about bridges during those three summers--both from the actual engineers and from the field crews and contractors.  Both the design and construction of a bridge were really big deals, far more so that the mere design of a roadway.

One bridge engineer in particular took a liking to me and explained many of the nuances of bridge design.  I have long forgotten his name and he's probably long dead by now, too.  But his lessons have stuck with me over my lifetime.  Ever since those days, I have always looked at bridges with an entirely different eye and perspective.

I have actually gone far out of my way to look at old bridges.  Whenever I pass under or over a bridge bearing a pre-computer construction date, I smile inwardly and remember the incredibly meticulous detail those old guys put into their designs as they hunched over their drafting tables, pencils in hand.

So, to sum up this long story, I take is somewhat personally when someone casts aspersions on the structural integrity of a 1960's bridge.  By far the bulk of those bridges were designed far past minimum standards and overbuilt way past whatever you can imagine.

Concrete and steel were insanely cheap back then so those engineers really laid it on thick, so to speak.

Getting back to that I-10 bridge, I see nothing in the photos to indicate that the bridge itself failed due to some design problem or engineer issue or degradation of the construction materials.

What I see is very clearly a "channel migration" that took out the backfill behind the east abutment.  Pure and simple.

And now you know why I have such a deep and abiding interesting in "all things bridges" and highways in general.

Thanks for reading and Happy Trails!