Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses: November 7, 1940

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapses
On November 7, 1940, at 11 a.m., the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed into Puget Sound just four months after its opening.

Although locals had wanted a bridge between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula for decades, it wasn’t until the U.S. military got behind the idea as a defense measure that the idea became a reality. Construction began on November 23, 1938, and was finished a little over a year and a half later. At the time of it’s opening on July 1, 1940, the bridge was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, with a center span 2,800 feet long. It was extremely slender, with a deck just 2 lanes (39 feet) across and 8 feet deep, making it the most flexible suspension bridge in the world.

Before the bridge opened to the public, workers noticed that even in light winds the bridge deck developed rippling vertical waves and nicknamed the bridge “Galloping Gertie.” The motion was sometimes so pronounced that it caused some workers—and later motorists and pedestrians—to feel motion sick. Bridge engineers worked to find a solution to dampen the bridge’s movement, but when initial methods failed, they hired a university professor to solve the problem. The professor’s report was released just a week prior to the collapse and before any of his suggestions could be implemented.

Opening of new Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1950

On the morning of November 7, under winds that eventually reached 42 mph, the bridge began its typical undulations. The waves became so bad that the bridge was closed to traffic. Finally, one of the cable bands slipped, and the bridge took up a new twisting (torsional) motion. The unexpected twisting (caused by the bridge’s design and aereoelastic flutter) put too much stress on the bridge, and it collapsed 190 feet into the Sound. The only fatality was a dog in a car abandoned on the bridge.

World War II interrupted the rebuilding of the bridge, so the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge wasn’t completed until 1950. The new “Sturdy Gertie” bridge, which abandoned the extreme slenderness of the old bridge, is still in use today.

Do you have any family stories about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? Tell us about them! For more information about the collapse, start a search on Newspapers.com.

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52 thoughts on “Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses: November 7, 1940

  1. Interesting article on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Look forward to other historical columns.

    1. Where in the world were the
      Qualifid engineers needed to
      Approve the way bridge was to be constructed, thereby predicting and preventing this
      Plan and expense??

  2. I remember seeing film of this collapse in my HS chemistry class more than 30 years ago. Our teacher said she thought it was due to something as small as a missed decimal point, but reading this now I think there were bigger problems here.

    1. I so SO love the thought of a teacher scaring everyone into triple checking their work by implying that a bridge collapsed over a decimal point!

      1. Mary, You SO obviously have an attitude against teachers! Didn’t do well in school?

        1. Whatever the reason, it was frightening whether over a decimal point, the wind or too many birds sitting on the top of the bridge.~

        2. Karen, I think her comment suggests Mary likes teachers. Presuming negativity from such a nicely phrased sentence suggests to me that you may have been chastising youngsters unfairly for a long time…. That’s just sad.

        3. This comment sounds like it comes from a teacher many complained about, from the sounds of it. What do you think about that Karen?

      2. I don’t think if it as scarring, but more as implementing “attention to detail”. Kudos to teachers for making students pay attention to the smallest details.

    2. It was because of a bifurcation value in a differential equation. Basically its where the frequency caused by the wind matches the square root of the bridges natural spring constant divided by its mass. In other words if frequency=sqrt(k/m) then the system will oscillate out of control as more time passes. And yes it could be caused by a very small error in the engineers’ calculations.

      1. Wasn’t this caused by an unpredicted coupling of torsional and heave modes? Still an engineering boo-boo….like the Hood Canal Bridge in 1974 and the Mercer Island bridge around 1999. Almost Live had a great skit about bridge design engineers.

  3. I’ve been waiting since 1940 to find out what happened to the dog. It was very clear in the newsreel of the time…knew the man cleared the bridge. Always hoped the dog did too.

      1. Why would anyone leave their dog behind? Why did he not bring the dog with him when he left the bridge?
        Does anyone know?

        1. From what i recall, his dog was spooked and he couldn’t get it out of the car, he barely made it across to save his own life. When anyone made the trip ‘across the bridge’ it was often an all day visit to see someone, so it makes sense to me that he would have his dog with him. It was a small breed dog and was hiding in the car.~

      2. Naming the new Tacoma Narrows bridge after the only fatality? That being a poor dog – well, how would people feel traveling across a bridge with a plaque on both ends proclaiming: “Trixie Memorial Bridge”; or “Toby Final Bark bridge”; or “Shadow’s last leap lost life Bridge”? Moreover, think about reminding folks for generations to come, that this failed bridge resulted in one loss: “man’s Best Friend”! A grim reminder to those who have a beloved pet, esp. a dog.
        I like that follow-up nickname a lot: “Sturdy Gertie”. Submit more descriptive names — like:
        Bridge over troubled Narrows!”
        “No-melt Fridge Bridge”;
        “The Last Bridge Standing”
        “Will-Save No-Grave Anti-Wave Lets–RAVE Bridge of the Brave!

        Stephen K. Chief Bridge-Keeper

  4. I didn’t need to read the stories or watch the newsreels. My mother cut class to watch it fall, and has told us, and her grandchildren, about it. Her first-hand account puts it in a much more “real” perspective.

  5. My mother was 11 at the time the bridge collapsed and her family lived in Tacoma. My grandfather and mother drove over the bridge two hours before it collapsed. Mom remembers vividly how the car in front of them would disappear and then re-appear as the bridge deck undulated. She says it was one of the most frightening experiences of her life!

  6. Following the rebuilding of the bridge, my friends and I used to ride our bikes across the bridge, it cost .10 toll, round trip. I’m sure our parents didn’t know what we were up to. I grew up a couple of miles from the Narrows, and until now, have NEVER heard it called sturdy Gertie! I think someone recently made that up~

  7. Nov. 2, 2015
    I had just turned 4 years old, (Oct. 29th) when the Narrows collapsed in 1940. My parents and I used to make what was called “the loop” from Tacoma to Shelton and down to the beach at Oyhut to dig for geoducks and razor clams.
    We returned to Tacoma via Olympia, Lacey and Ft. Lewis.
    Some of my best memories of childhood.

  8. y father, Lawrence Brownell, was in the process of crossing the bridge just before it fell. He turned his car around and barely made it off.

  9. One little known fact is that the Bronx White Stone Bridge in New York City is a direct copy of the Tacoma bridge. During its construction the Tacoma bridge fell so to continue the project they built a truss below the span to brace the bridge. Because the bridge is much wider they really did not have to do that. Just a few years a go they removed the truss because it was it was difficult to maintain.

  10. I understand the Whitestone Bridge across the East River in NY was of very similar design. After the Tacoma bridge collapsed the Whitestone was reinforced and its mass changed.

    1. That would be the extensive truss placed under the road way. As I mentioned it has been removed.

  11. Can we please learn the difference between it’s and its??? “It’s” is a contraction for “It is”; it is not a possessive form of it. “Its” is the possessive form. This breaks the rule for apostrophes but there it is! Think of his and hers — these possessive forms have no apostrophe either.

    1. Thanks Judith. And earlier commenter stated the Bridge collapse may have been due to a missed decimal in a calculation, but I think you and I both know it was an incorrect apostrophe!

  12. I got as far as the 2nd paragraph when I found the first spelling error. There is enough free Internet content that is non-professionally written.

  13. Oh my goodness it makes me laugh, All of the grammar Nazis come out to play when some one comments about a bridge. Were you picked last at recess? So that now you sit behind your computer screen and pick on other people. I am sure you will find lots of things wrong with this post so I will lol about it before you do.

  14. I first saw a movie of the Tacoma Bridge collapse in engineering school in London over 50 years ago. It left a lasting impression. Of course we learned that the bridge simply occillated on its own frequency and so destroyed itself. The Throgs Neck bridge in New York is, I think, the bridge that is built similar to the Tacoma Straights for it too occillates in high winds.

  15. Each year I use the story of Tacoma Narrows Bridge (with the video) as the topic of my first class in control theory.

  16. I am thankful that there were no human fatalities and sorry for the loss of the pet. I am also thankful that the comments about the bridge turned back to the bridge after the conversation began to do a bit of its own undulating, and turning against each other. Good people make bridges to one another, un-thinking people cause breaking of bridges through their words of accusation, and sway of emotion through mean- spirited words.

    1. I contacted a local historian who sent this to me: Marty I found on Wikipedia titled “Tacoma Narrows Bridge 1940” the full story and the dogs name was Tubby and and he was a cocker spaniel. It said that a photographer tried to rescue him but tubby bit him, so he left him. It sounds like they were pretty pressed for time to be able to do much else but leave Tubby. The owner of the dog was the car guy’s daughter who was taking the dog to her. Check it out, it’s a pretty detailed account and interesting.

  17. I personally know one of Leon Moisseiff’s descendants. Although he was blamed for the collapse, it was not entirely his fault.

  18. The history lesson is fantastic. Made even better by the lack of loss of human life. The diversity of replies: from the profound to the absurd, made me laugh. A great Sunday afternoon read!

  19. I was born in 1947. As a small child I was terrified of bridges. I would hide on the floor of the car until we were over the bridge and I refused to walk across the bridge in the downtown of my hometown. It wasn’t until years later when I saw a news clip of the bridge collapse that it all came together. I must have seen a newsreel on the 10th anniversary of the collapse, 7 Nov 1950. I am still not overly fond of bridges, but I can drive over them now by just not looking down! I have even driven over the Narrows Bridge a couple of times – white knuckled and breathless.

  20. A narrow bridge over a narrow straight,
    A narrow minded professor who was simply too late.
    Was a narrow miss for a man in his car
    But the poor little doggy didn’t get so far.
    So the sad folks in Purdy
    Had to wait for a sturdy
    new design of a span
    so that car, dog or man
    could traverse the great Sound
    on a bridge that was found
    to be strong and less turney
    And safe for the the journey.

  21. I was born in 42 so missed the collapse of the bridge but remember well having to take the ferry from the peninsula to Tacoma. I too would hear stories from my father about how the cars in front of them would disappear due to the movement of the bridge!

  22. Follow up story of the bridge was the legal insurance claim. Agent went to jail and several insurance companies had to pay after legal battles.

  23. This bridge failure may have been the FIRST of its kind to be captured on film. Very uncommon in 1940 but we capture just about everything on video today.

    1. I think this is the first time that a modern suspension bridge did collapsed. I think the first one was built in England in the 1860’s. In addition prior to the bridge collapse there was never a study of harmonics done in any civil engineering program.

  24. This has been a wonderful thread !
    Living in Dublin Ireland I never heard of the Tacoma Bridge collapse before , but in the last 10 minutes I have learnt so much !.
    From the perils of bridge design to the importance of paying attention to decimal points taking in teaching methods and even grammar and apostrophe lessons !.
    Torsional and Heave movements
    Oscillated on its own frequency
    Are two subjects my engineer friend Adrian Young will be explaining to me when next he calls for a cup of coffee !.
    Human nature is seen at its best in not wanting to abandon Tubby !
    Yes this 75 year old story has it all !.

  25. The only casualty was not necessarily the canine. Don’t forget the marine/aquatic life the bridge may have fallen on. Some poor Plesiosaur may have gotten a concussion or worse.

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