Decline of iconic Albion bridge stirs debate
A group of Mendocino Coast residents working to save the historic Albion River Bridge is intensifying its efforts amid plans by Caltrans to conduct drilling and seismic exploration in the area this fall to aid site selection for a new span.
Though no official decision has been made to replace the iconic trestle bridge, Caltrans representatives said recent inspections show the existing 1944 structure is deteriorating quickly, resulting in areas of timber rot, splits in the wood, and corrosion of steel bolts and internal connectors that can only be replaced if the bridge is dismantled.
The bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year, is entering a phase of “exponential decay,” exacerbated by the harsh marine environment, Caltrans officials said.
“It was never made to last this long,” said Caltrans project manager Frank Demling. “We recognize that it's very personal, very unique and defines the community. But it's reaching the end of its service life and just becoming very expensive to maintain, and quite frankly, it's getting to the point where it's not possible to justify the amount of funding that we'll be spending to maintain it.”
Preservationists in the community distrust Caltrans' assessment of the situation, and argue the agency should do what's needed to retrofit and maintain the bridge for as long as it can be made to last. They are focused on thwarting disruptive geotechnical studies that Caltrans hopes to complete over about eight weeks this fall to assist with the surveying and design for future bridge rehabilitation or replacement.
The bridge is crossed by about 3,100 vehicles per day.
Caltrans has a pending permit application with the California Coastal Commission for the work.
It would involve removing about 155 bluff-top eucalyptus trees, some with multiple sprouts, grading bluff-top land and establishing drilling platforms - some of them set in place by helicopter.
The plan is to bore holes up to 125 feet deep at six sites to determine subsurface conditions at various locations.
The project also covers site restoration that includes replacement of soil, regrading, seeding and other mitigations.
But Annemarie Weibel, a leading Caltrans critic, said the work would turn Albion into “a war zone.”
She hearkened back to archaeological surveys and related trenching conducted on the flats below the bridge last year that Demling conceded were mishandled by a contractor and had to be called off.
Peter Wells, co-owner of the Albion River Inn off the north end of the bridge, said replacing the span would spoil the visual character of the coastal village with a population of about 170. But even the preconstruction work would be a blow to the picturesque town and its economy, hitting his bluff-top hotel and restaurant, which looks onto the eucalyptus trees slated for removal, particularly hard.
“We have weddings on the bluff there, all within sight of that same area or right next to the dining room, and it's a total disaster,” Wells said.
Built during World War II, when materials like steel and concrete were diverted to the war effort, the wooden trestle bridge is a unique landmark 150 feet above the Albion River, its airy gridded framework imbuing the view of the headlands at the river mouth with a sense of grace and nostalgia.
It has a charming history, as well. Though plans for a three-arch, concrete span were in place just a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wartime austerity required a compromise solution.
The resulting bridge was built principally of Douglas fir floated down from Oregon, and a recycled 130-foot steel truss railroad bridge that once spanned the Feather River in Oroville. Salvaged railroad ties were used to reinforce the concrete towers at each end, and the footings of the timber towers.
It is the last wooden trestle bridge on scenic Highway 1, “and for good reason,” Demling said. “They're high maintenance, and they don't last.”
The work needed to keep the bridge operational involves periodic replacement of hundreds of large metal bolts that secure the timbers in place, injection of epoxy into splits, or “checks,” in the wood, and seismic reinforcements.
The work has become more complex and time-consuming than the Caltrans maintenance crew can handle, Demling said, driving costs toward a $500,000 a year or more.
Hazardous chemicals including arsenic and chromium used to treat the lumber used in construction have leached into the water and surrounding soil at the base, as well, increasing the wood's vulnerability to decay, Caltrans said.
“The vast number of people in the transportation corridor wish the bridge to be replaced, with a safe, seismically strong bridge,” said Albion resident Leonardo “Lynn” Bowers, a retired civil engineer.
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