November 7, 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the collapse of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, also known as “Galloping Gertie.” In honor of that anniversary, Dale Wirsing, a longtime Tacoma Historical Society board member, has been kind enough to share his memories of that day in the account that follows.
It was in 1938 or thereabouts that Vern and Hazel Wirsing moved from Tacoma’s Manitou neighborhood to a rather rural University Place – bringing with them their 2-year-old son. A son they had named Dale Robert Wirsing. That of course was me. My sister Linda would arrive two years later.
I’ve had a connection with the Narrows Bridges nearly all my life. Work started on the first bridge even before my family moved to University Place.
The first bridge – the one that became known as “Galloping Gertie” — lasted only four months and splashed into the history books as one of the classic engineering failures of all time. Sometime after “Galloping Gertie” opened, on a sunny summer evening, my mother and dad took me for a walk on the bridge, probably to the midpoint. I was 3 years old, going on 4. I do remember a wavelike motion.
November 7, 1940, was an eagerly awaited day. It was my fourth birthday. What could be more important? I was about to find out. We lived near the west end of South 19th Street, about two blocks from the railroad tracks, close to the intersection with Walters Road. We were enough in the boondocks that we had an RFD mailing address. At that time we had a view of the newly completed Narrows Bridge. (Since then trees have blocked the view.)
By 7:30 a.m. people started to worry. My mother was listening to the radio, I’m sure, following the mounting alarm. My dad left to go to his business downtown. My sister Linda was 6 months old and probably asleep in her crib.
It is recorded that at 10:03 a giant twisting motion became evident. At about 10:30 a.m. the first chunk of concrete fell off the bridge. My mother and I would have watched that from our front window. We watched big pieces fall off the bridge and splash into the Narrows for what was probably half an hour. Then my mother got a phone call from a neighbor who lived about half a block higher up the 19th Street hill, inviting us to watch the spectacle from her living room. Invitation accepted. At her picture window we watched transfixed for maybe 45 minutes.
As a 4-year-old it took me a while to comprehend that this was more than just entertainment arranged for my birthday.
Sturdy Gertie followed in 1950.
When the replacement bridge was under construction, a neighborhood kid made front-page news in The News Tribune. The high schooler had sneaked onto the construction site and crossed the Narrows on the catwalk. I think he got off with a stern lecture.
The evening before the opening ceremony on October 14 my folks got a phone call from the Scoutmaster of Troop 48, asking that they deliver me, in uniform, at the bridge, by 8 a.m. Since my mom didn’t drive at the time, it would have been up to my dad to drive me. (Oct. 14, 1950.) I don’t recall any prior discussion (such as at a Scout meeting), which makes me think that the color guard was a last-minute request to the Scout troop.
When we started out, my friend and classmate Robert M. Monsen and I carried the American flag and the Washington state flag — I don’t recall which. Apparently we Scouts switched off on carrying Old Glory, because I’ve seen photos where I was in the back rank.
I remember the weather as gray but dry.
Robert Monsen and I remain friends to this day,
A personal footnote: Years later the woman I would marry and I figured out the bridge opening ceremony was the first time we would have been in the same place. Her Proctor District Girl Scout troop was one of the marching units.
From the time I was in the third grade I delivered newspapers – the Tacoma Times until it went out of business in March of 1949 – and then the Tacoma News Tribune. My route was Titlow Beach. I needed the paper route to support a bad habit – candy bars. I did know where to find nickel candy bars – Dorman’s Grocery, Barnhart’s Grocery (which occupied part of the building that is still the Beach Tavern, and Stephens Store. My folks thought of Frank and Bessie Stephens as an unlikely pair. Mrs. Stephens was a DAR member. She ran a little gift shop, sold real estate, and promoted conservative causes. I don’t think I ever saw her except in gray business attire.
Frank Stephens, on the other hand, always dressed in mechanic’s coveralls. He ran a little store and soda fountain. I spent a lot of time at the Stephens store. I think Frank liked to talk with know-it-all kids.
The store building, at the foot of South 19th Street, is still there. Crystal Creek Pottery is painted like a mural on the building. The for-sale signs have been replaced with “no trespassing.” I don’t think there’s been any activity there in years.
Titlow Beach is home to a business that’s been in operation a year longer than I have. It’s the Beach Tavern. The sign says it was established in 1935. As a kid I wouldn’t have gone into the Beach Tavern . . . except to collect from a few customers I couldn’t find otherwise.
All in all, I am grateful for the life lessons and experiences of growing up in a much smaller University Place, at the edge of the Sound and the end of Sixth Avenue . . . at Titlow Beach.
— Dale Robert Wirsing
Narrows Bridge construction photographs courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation.