Albion – From the surface of Highway 1, which hugs windswept cliffs and spans more than two dozen rivers as it snakes along the Mendocino Coast, there is little remarkable about the Albion River bridge except for the spectacular views it offers.
But taken in from the bluffs or the river inlet below, the two-lane span presents an entirely different, awe-inspiring spectacle: a towering, wooden structure with criss-crossing support beams that conjure images of tinker-toys and old roller coasters.
It’s a view that residents of the tiny burg cherish but that is now threatened under Caltrans’ plan to replace the 70-year-old bridge with a wider, sturdier modern span. The plan has triggered a standoff little noticed beyond this far flung stretch of coast, pitting those who say the landmark bridge should remain — it is the only wooden truss span left in California on Highway 1 — against a state agency that has concluded it is outdated, too narrow and seismically unsafe for the estimated 3,000-plus vehicles that cross it every day.
Those who want the bridge to stay have marshaled an engineering professor from UC Berkeley into their cause, using questions he has posed to chip away at Caltrans’ safety conclusions. But they also are lobbying for the structure to remain on more symbolic terms, as a historic landmark befitting Albion’s reputation as a place apart, a hamlet that, while located along the state’s main coastal byway, maintains a fierce independence characterized by the hippies who moved here decades ago to pursue alternative lifestyles.
“I do think it’s a rare treasure,” said Tom Wodetzki, who moved to Albion 40 years ago as part of a commune.
The hippie migration gave birth to the Albion Nation — activists who continue to pursue environmental and social causes and to question authority.
The town has a population of fewer than 200 at its core and fewer than 1,000 people including the surrounding areas.
The downtown, just south of the bridge, is comprised of a post office and small hardware and grocery stores. At the mouth of the Albion River is a campground and boat docks with views of the bolted bones of the 150-foot-tall bridge. One resident compared standing under its 969-foot-long span to “a religious experience.”
“Albion does love that bridge; it’s part of our landscape,” said another resident, Tim Bray, a semi-retired hydrogeologist.
But Caltrans says the bridge has to go. It was built at the end of World War II, when standard bridge construction utilized steel and concrete. But steel was being conserved for use in the war effort so only a small portion of the bridge — the section directly over the Albion River channel — is made of modern bridge-building materials while the majority is built of pressure-treated Douglas fir.
“It’s all the steel they could allocate,” said Caltrans’ spokesman Phil Frisbie. It was supposed to be a temporary bridge, he said.
“This was only designed to have a life of 25 to 30 years,” Frisbie said.
The cost of the Albion bridge replacement is estimated at $24 million to $30 million, Frisbie said. It would continue to have just two traffic lanes but would be wider to accommodate shoulders for stalled cars and pedestrian and bike traffic. A design has not yet been chosen, but it will be built of steel and concrete. Caltrans hopes to begin construction in 2017 and have it completed in 2020.