By Stan Brown, Copyright 2007
My fascination with steel span bridges began as a kid on my grandfather’s farm in Illinois. Old family photos reveal the wooden plank deck and triangular steel network of that one-way bridge across the Little Wabash River. Imagine my nostalgia when I came upon three spans just like that, close to my home in Prescott. My excitement increased when I realized they were identical to the span that had bridged the East Verde River near our family cabin north of Payson. Curiosity drove me to search out the history of these antique structures, standing like anachronisms in the Tonto and Yavapai National Forests.
The story begins on the San Carlos Indian reservation where the frequent flooding of the Gila River prevented trade between Globe and points north, and took the lives of many Indians as they tried to cross. Most of the Apache and Yavapai who had been forced to live on this reservation after 1872 were camped north of the Gila River, while the Agency from which they obtained their rations, and where they farmed their fields, was south of the river. During the first forty years of reservation life the lack of a bridge meant to ford the river was not only an inconvenience but extremely dangerous. Teams often became stuck in quicksand, and sometimes were lost. Newspapers and army records of the day report frequent drowning as the raging river swept away persons, animals and supplies.
In days before white settlement there had been a heavy growth of vegetation on the banks of the Gila River. To a great extent it held back the floodwaters. By the turn of the century the banks had been denuded by cutting the wood and clearing the land for farming. No longer was there vegetation needed to retain the rising waters.
In December of 1912, Congress authorized a study made "with respect to the necessity of constructing for the use of the Indians, suitable bridges across the San Carlos Creek and the Gila River." The next year Congress appropriated funds for construction, and the Office of Indian Affairs erected a seven span steel truss wagon bridge over the Gila River. It was the earliest one-way, multiple span wagon bridge in Arizona. Each span was 138 feet long, and the overall length was 980 feet. The spans were designed by Midland Steel, the steel pieces rolled by the Cambria Iron Works of Pittsburgh, and then riveted in Midland’s Kansas City shops. Carloads of components were taken by rail to the site in the fall of 1913.
The Christmas flood of 1914 gave the new San Carlos Bridge a major test. While the steel structure held up well, the floodwaters cut a 500-foot swath around the south abutment and left the bridge spans useless. No money had been appropriated for its repair or maintenance. In February 1916, an even more devastating flood destroyed irrigation canals and dams, and washed out fields all along the Gila, including 1,200 acres the Indians had under cultivation. The river cut a new channel around the unused bridge. For six years the beached bridge stood as a monument to poor planning, until the Office of Indian Affairs opted to extend it over the new channel instead of trying to reroute the river. Four additional 126-foot trusses were added to the south end to reach the new embankment, and in February 1921 the San Carlos Bridge was put back in service. In the mid-1920s it became part of U. S. highway 180, under the aegis of the Arizona Highway Department, but in a few years the narrow trusses were a bottleneck as traffic increased and vehicles became larger.
The floods on the Gila River brought other congressional actions, building diversion dams, irrigation ditches, and ultimately the Coolidge Dam at San Carlos, built between 1924 and 1928. On May 29, 1928, Congress appropriated money to "dispose of two bridges, one across the Gila River on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, Arizona, and the other across the San Carlos River, on that reservation." Not only had the bridge spans become congested, they would "no longer be serviceable after the completion of the Coolidge Dam now being constructed across the Gila River." Proceeds from each sale were to be credited to the San Carlos Indians.
Now began a new era for the historic San Carlos Bridge. In 1935 the original bridge was replaced with a wider structure by the Arizona highway Department. Four of the original truss spans were moved and reinstalled in the Prescott and Tonto National Forests. One of the steel trusses was used to span the East Verde River north of Payson, on The Control Road (Forest Road #64). The Civilian Conservation Corps did the construction of its approaches and foundations. For decades our family enjoyed crossing that old historic structure with its rattling wood plank deck. We could feel the aura of the past, but its three ton limit was exceeded each time emergency vehicles and fire trucks, or lumber and concrete trucks used the increasingly traveled back road.
I happened to be there one day taking photos when a group of county and forest service officials stood under the old bridge, considering its replacement. Just then a concrete truck rumbled overhead, and they thought the whole thing was going to come down on them. Within an unusually short time federal funds were made available for its replacement, and in 1995 the historic span was demolished.
Meanwhile, "the steel bridges of Yavapai County" were put in place. In 1936 a second span of the San Carlos Bridge was moved into place over Walnut Creek, north of Prescott on the forest road to Seligman. An old concrete bridge owned by the forest Service was torn out and the steel truss placed over a new easement just downstream. Yavapai County took the lead in constructing the approaches and securing the easements from local ranchers. In December 1940, the road was designated as a county highway, maintained by the county. However, since this was also a forest road both entities shared the inspection and maintenance of the bridge. Which had actual jurisdiction was unclear. In 1976 the Forest Service requested the bridge be transferred to the county but it was almost 1990 before the red tape and apathy were cleared away and the transfer made. In 1990 Yavapai County secured and renovated the seventy-seven year old span. It can be enjoyed with all its nostalgia today for just a thirty-mile drive north on Williamson Valley Road.
A somewhat more extensive sight-seeing drive is to take the Perkinsville Road out of Chino Valley to the Verde River. There, two more of the four San Carlos spans can be experienced. The Perkinsville Road out of Chino Valley not only provides spectacular scenery and open space, but will bring you to the upper waters of the Verde River that are so much in the current water discussions. Here in 1936, the Forest Service constructed the piers and abutments and Yavapai County purchased and moved the two superstructures into place. As with the Walnut Creek Bridge, confusion developed over the years, as to who was responsible for inspection and maintenance, the county or the Forest Service. Again, this was resolved in the late 1980s when transfer was made from the federal agency to the county government.
There is yet another steel truss bridge in Yavapai County, and to see it is worth a day trip. It is the span over the Hassayampa River on Wagoner Road (otherwise known as the Walnut Creek Road). Unlike the San Carlos trusses, this one has a different profile (called "riveted Camelback through truss") and was built on the spot in 1924, designed by the El Paso Bridge and Iron Company and contracted by Carnegie Steel. (Drive to Kirkland Junction at Highway 89, and take the Walnut Creek road east.)
Metal truss bridges were being constructed everywhere across America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A truss bridge is composed of a network of metal or wood triangles, steel being the most common form of construction. The triangular forms are designed to support the push and pull stresses the bridge endures. These complex types came in a wide variety of designs. The bridge spans from San Carlos are called "riveted steel Pratt through trusses," featuring trusses on either side of the deck, with bracing above the deck, under which vehicles pass.
All four of Yavapai County’s steel truss bridges were added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.