Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Here’s how Galloping Gertie’s iconic collapse 83 years ago shapes bridge designs today

Screenshot of the Nov. 8, 1940 edition of The Spokesman-Review showing the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.  (Spokesman-Review archives)
By Aspen Shumpert The Peninsula Gateway

Engineers still study the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which fell into Puget Sound 83 years ago this month.

The project to build the original span during the 1930s was $6.4 million.

“It was built primarily as a military necessity to link McChord Air Field south of Tacoma and the Puget Sound Navy Shipyard in Bremerton,” according to a Narrows Bridge history website created by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

During construction, an engineer recognized the bridge’s wave-like movement and thought it was concerning, but wave-like motions in bridges were not unheard of at the time.

“In the summer of 1939, they (engineers) had heard rumors of similar small waves in another suspension span, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, which opened in April 1939,” according to the WSDOT website. “The Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, had been designed by consultant Leon Moisseiff of New York.”

When they contacted Moisseiff, he told them that two of his latest bridges (the Deer Island Bridge and the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge) were also experiencing the wave-like movements, but on a much smaller scale.

Six months before opening, engineers installed four hydraulic jacks, known as buffers, hoping it would fix the swaying.

The buffers were put in at the towers “to act as shock absorbers.” But the devices made no noticeable improvement, according to the WSDOT website.

The bridge, which was 5,935 feet long, opened for drivers on July 1, 1940. Locals quickly nicknamed it “Galloping Gertie” due to its motions.

“Tacomans saw the bridge as a dream come true,” according to “It would open Tacoma to shoppers previously dependent on Bremerton, and enable access from Pierce County to the Bremerton Navy Yard.”

Just over four months after its opening, the bridge collapsed during a windstorm on Nov. 7, 1940.

The morning after the collapse, News Tribune reporter Nelson Hong wrote: “It seemed as though the world was falling apart.”

“The bridge’s lightness, combined with an accumulation of wind pressure on the 8-foot solid plate girder and deck, caused the bridge to fail,” the WSDOT website said.

This month marks 83 years since the iconic collapse.

It became famous as “the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history,” WDSOT wrote.

Rebuilding a safer Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The Narrows collapse shaped future bridge constructions around the world.

“The engineering failure became a textbook case and revolutionized designs and procedures for building suspension bridges,” according to the WSDOT website. “When Galloping Gertie splashed into Puget Sound, it created ripple effects across the nation and around the world. The event changed forever how engineers design suspension bridges. Gertie’s failure led to the safer suspension spans we use today.”

A new Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened on Oct. 14, 1950. It cost just under $14 million.

The bridge is 5,979 feet in length. That’s 40 feet longer than the previous Galloping Gertie bridge.

“It was the first suspension bridge built in the United States since the failure of its predecessor, and incorporated all lessons learned,” according to “It has remained a reliable bridge to this day.”

Wind testing, also know as “aerodynamic testing,” became standard procedure in building suspension bridges after Galloping Gertie collapsed.

“The second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built from 1948 to 1951, has perforated girders and open grating in the deck that lets the wind pass through,” according to History Link.

It’s the fifth largest bridge in the U.S. behind Verrazano-Narrows in Lower New York Bay; Golden Gate in San Francisco Bay; Mackinac in Mackinac Straits, Michigan; and George Washington in Hudson River, New York City.

It went through a third reconstruction from 2002 to 2007 to modify and add a parallel bridge to separate directions of traffic, which cost $786 million.

‘Three key points’ about the Narrows Bridge collapse

After the collapse the state and federal government both appointed boards of experts to investigate, according to the WSDOT website.

“The Federal Works Administration appointed a 3-member panel of top-ranking engineers: Othmar Amman, Dr. Theodore Von Karmen, and Glen B. Woodruff,” according to the WSDOT website. “Their report to the administrator of the FWA, John Carmody, became known as the ‘Carmody Board’ report.”

In March 1941 the Carmody Board announced its findings.

“Three key points stood out: (1) The principal cause of the Narrows Bridge’s failure was its ‘flexibility;’ (2) the solid plate girder and deck acted like an airfoil, creating ‘drag’ and ‘lift;’ and (3) aerodynamic forces were little understood and engineers needed to test all suspension bridge designs thoroughly using models in a wind tunnel,” according to WSDOT.

Instead of blaming one person, the board blamed the entire engineering profession.

“They exonerated Leon Moisseiff,” according to the WSDOT website. “However, after Nov. 7, 1940, his services were not in high demand.”

The dog that didn’t survive the Narrows Bridge collapse

After getting word that Galloping Gertie was in trouble, The News Tribune sent reporter Bert Brintnall and photojournalist Howard Clifford to the scene.

Many of the shots by Clifford show the bridge’s last moments and were seen by people all over the country.

A copy editor for The News Tribune, Leonard Coatsworth, was also there.

Coatsworth was the last man on the bridge before its collapse. He published a story that shared how he escaped Galloping Gertie’s fall.

“Before I realized it, the tilt from side to side became so violent I lost control of the car and thought for a moment it would leap the high curb and plunge across the sidewalk of the bridge and into the railing,” Coatsworth wrote.

Inside the car was his daughter’s cocker spaniel, Tubby.

“I jammed on the brakes and got out of the car, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb,” Coatsworth said. “I tried to stand and was thrown again. Around me I could hear the concrete cracking.”

Coatsworth tried to get the dog out of the car, but after he was thrown around multiple times and couldn’t reach Tubby, he made the decision to go back to shore.

“I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows,” he wrote.

You can read “Watching a bridge die — and nearly going with it” by Coatsworth online at

Tubby’s Trail Dog park is an off-leash dog park located just off the bridge on the Gig Harbor side.

“PenMet Parks has named this off-leash dog park in remembrance of Tubby, the only fatality when the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge fell into Puget Sound,” according to the PenMet website.

The ferry during the rebuilding phase

Mitchell and Joseph Skansie, known as “The Skansie Brothers” founded their shipbuilding company in 1912, according to

The Skansie Shipbuilding Company was formerly located at 3207 Harborview Dr., where they built fishing boats and ferries.

“The company worked hand in hand with Mitchell Skansie’s other business, the Washington Navigation Company ferry line, constructing and repairing the car ferries used on the company’s four routes,” according to History Link.

Before the Narrows Bridge, travelers had a long trip to get to the Peninsula. The only route was by highway, driving through Olympia.

“By the late 1920s, with more and more people driving automobiles, the demand grew for a better route to the Peninsula,” according to the WSDOT website.

In 1926 “Pierce County granted a 10-year contract for ferry service across the Narrows to Mitchell Skansie,” according to the WSDOT website.

Construction by the Skansie Shipbuilding Company of the diesel-powered, 180-foot long Defiance, which had the capacity to hold 80 automobiles, began the same year.

The Defiance ran on the Washington Navigation Company’s route between Point Defiance in Tacoma and Point Fosdick in Gig Harbor. It launched in 1927.

The company also launched a smaller ferry, the Narrows, the same afternoon.

“The Narrows, a much smaller vessel, only had the capacity for 20 cars but would also serve the Point Defiance-Gig Harbor route,” according to History Link.

Over time the ferry system became less popular. Citizens saw it as old fashioned and expensive.

“The Narrows became a logical site for a bridge,” WSDOT said.

A bridge from Tacoma to Gig Harbor would cut a two and a half hour drive down to 11 minutes, the News Tribune previously reported.

The Skansie Shipbuilding Company continued to operate its routes until 1938.

But after Galloping Gertie’s collapse, there was a demand for the ferries again.

Ferries were up and running the day after the collapse, according to a Harbor History Museum blog post. The completion of the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1950 ended the ferry route between Gig Harbor and Point Defiance.