HISTORY OF BRIDGES ACROSS COLORADO RIVER NEAR TOPOCK, ARIZONA
Carroll J. Messer, Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering, Texas A&M University
The Beale Wagon Road—Its Eastern Beginning and Western End
Construction of the Beale Wagon Road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to California began with the building of the six Iron Bridges in 1859-60 in Indian Territory. It ends with the completion of Atlantic-to-Pacific railroad crossing of the mighty Colorado in 1883, near where Lt. Beale initially crossed camels over the river in 1857, then again in 1858 & 1859—Mohave County, Arizona. Beale or the Army never got a wagon road bridge built across the Colorado. Later, the traffic generated by the Beale Wagon Road, desiring to cross the Colorado River to California, began using “Santa Fe’s” new transcontinental railroad completed across the Colorado in 1883, to be described below. Autos and highways later replaced the railroad as future generations migrated west, initially using the National Old Trails Road, soon becoming U.S. 66, and finally Interstate Highway (IH) 40. IH 40 generally follows the Beale Wagon Road from Fort Smith to Barstow, California, and serves similar East-West corridor (35-th parallel) traffic.
Varying Design Controls greatly affected the route each mode followed. Beale’s immigrant Wagon Road of 1858 had three design controls: water, grass, and wood. A reliable source of drinking water was needed for man and beast every 20 miles or so between camp sites. For lack of water, Beale could not go over the High Plains surrounding Amarillo, Texas, for example. His route had to stay close to meager water sources along the washes and creeks along the south side of the Canadian River, but resulting in numerous rough crossings near Tucumcari, New Mexico. Later, Historic U.S. 66 and IH 40 took the smoother “dry” ground. Crossing Arizona/California’s Mohave/Mojave Desert forced Beale’s Wagon Road to take the “rougher high ground” (north of old U.S. 66 from Ash Fork-Seligman-Kingman, AZ then on to Barstow, CA) because “that’s where the water was” found. While steam-powered railroads needed water, and lots of it at times, deep wells could be dug by the 1880’s along the flatter river channels, which also usually provided acceptable vertical railroad gradients needed for steel-on-steel wheel railway operations. Thus, railroads stayed out of the western mountains as much as possible. The early western main highways usually simply tracked the railroads because that is where the (new railroad) towns were located that could and would feed, water, shelter and supply the growing automobile trade. The railroad’s nearby telegraph and telephone lines also provided roaming auto clubs a reliable and convenient way to request needed parts for broken down autos, promoting these early (rail) roads becoming designated “national trails” roads.
The following coverage of the crossing of the Colorado River south of Needles, CA, mostly at Topock, AZ, is complicated by historical facts. Here seemingly every mode of land-based transportation crosses the mighty Colorado River—railroads, highways and pipelines. Yet canoes, wagons and steamboats preceded these users of the river. Today, jet airliners routinely fly directly over the various bridges, and speedboats race up and down the river under them. It was and still is a busy crossing site. Amtrak even uses the current railroad bridge, to and from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, and eastward.
The following YouTube video by a popular u-tuber “Russ of RV’erTV” provides an “Overview” of the bridge crossing sites. Three “fly the drone” positions, all along Historic 66, were shot as he drove IH 40 from Topock, AZ across the Colorado River toward Needles, CA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWcPh_vpcm4
Examining Google Earth and Google Maps helps identify the names and numbers of the various roads. On the top of the ridge west of the bridges now sits PG&E’s Topock Natural Gas Compressor Station!
1.. Eastbridge. First railroad bridge was built across the Colorado River in 1883 between Needles, CA and Eastbridge, AZ. The wooden trestle bridge was built fairly cheaply on piles driven into sand across a wide, marshy flood plain on a more direct route from Arizona northwest to Needles. Southern Pacific railroad was building a connecting railway east from Barstow, CA across the Mojave Desert as A&P (ATSF/Santa Fe/BNSF) built west from Kingman, AZ. The town of Needles was founded in May 1883, and the first railroad built along the 35-th Parallel route of the Beale Wagon Road was completed at Needles on August 9, 1883. Unfortunately, the long wooden trestle bridge was routinely flooded by the rampaging Colorado River caused by snow-melt and had to be rebuilt in 1884, 1886 & 1888.
The historic bridge https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p16003coll5/id/25237
Needles, California https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Needles,_California
Eastbridge, Arizona https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastbridge,_Arizona
A&P Railroad https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_and_Pacific_Railroad
2.. Red Rock. Second railroad bridge across Colorado River was built in 1890. Red Rock bridge replaced Eastbridge, but was located 10 miles south of Needles at the red rocks. First steel cantilever thru-truss bridge built in the West. Massive, 990-ft long, 20-foot wide, single-track structure built on good rock piers was structurally upgraded as railroad traffic became heavier from 1890-1945. The A&P (SF) Railroad had to build a new railroad in 1890, ten miles along the west side of the Colorado up to Needles for this new Red Rock bridge. These 1890 tracks ran north thru modern Pirates Cove Marina and Resort of today. The former seven miles of eastside track thru the swamps (of Topock Bay) was removed. A new 3-mile realignment of east side track near the river (at Topock, AZ) was necessary for the new Arizona approach. Fifty years later, heavy rail usage during World War II demonstrated that more rail capacity was needed along this critical east-west rail line across the Colorado River, so a new railroad bridge was built in 1945 about 400 yards up river from the Red Rock bridge.
In 1947, the Red Rock rail bridge was converted into a two-lane auto bridge, serving existing US 66 traffic until 1966, when the modern IH-40 bridge was completed across the Colorado. Red Rock bridge then sat unused until it was demolished in 1976. Almost nothing of it is visible today, except for its west side curved (former rail) approach road which became US 66 north to Needles (about 1.5 miles of the former railway was upgraded for US 66 from 1947-1966, now the poorly maintained eastern segment of Park Moabi Road near the river). http://bridgehunter.com/ca/san-bernardino/colorado-river/
Any other pioneer land-based traffic, such as wagons or later automobiles, crossed the Colorado using a rope-guided ferry. As auto traffic slowly increased by the early 1910’s, the railroad began operating highly regulated toll crossings of some auto club traffic across the railroad bridge, when the railway schedule permitted. Twenty-eight years after the Red Rock railroad bridge was constructed, a dedicated automobile bridge was finally built nearby to cross the Colorado to serve the growing “national trails” auto-oriented Good Roads movement. http://bridgehunter.com/ca/san-bernardino/colorado-river/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Rock_Bridge
3.. National Old Trails Highway (aka Old Trails Arch) Bridge. This beautiful steel arch-truss bridge was built in 1916 solely for autos to cross the Colorado River, about a one-fourth mile south of the existing Red Rock railroad bridge. This new auto-bridge was to serve as a missing link of the Kansas City-Los Angeles National Old Trails Road (NOTR). The main steel arch span was 600-ft long anchored into solid rock supported concrete abutments. Thus, no structural bow string was needed to hold the ends of the arch together. Two steel curved trusses (somewhat like the old Whipple arch design) provide structural support for the arch-tied cable stringers holding up the highway decking. A few pictures of the highway deck suggest a roadway width of about 20 feet, so that low-speed, low-volume, two-way traffic operations was plausible. The west side departure ramp to California turned immediately at a right-angle away from a solid rock face, and headed north along the riverside until it approached the curved railway to Red Rock bridge. The Old Trails Arch Bridge served as the NOTR route from 1916-1926, when it became (11-11-16) part of the newly created Federal US Route 66 highway network. The Old Arch Bridge served historic US 66 traffic from 1926-1947, (5-21-47), all during the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and World War II. http://www.americanroads.us/forum_files/CA_MojaveWater_Homer-Topock_250k_1921.jpg
The NOTR-US 66 road (from 1916-47) turned west as it approached the A&P Red Rock railroad, climbed a long steep grade up a ridge forming the east side of Bat Cave Wash. (Today in 2020, PG&E’s Topock Compressor (natural gas) Station covers (since 1951) the flat top of the ridge the historic road first used.) NOTR-US 66 then headed north (at least by 1931) down the west side of the ridge about a half mile, crossing Bat Cave Wash in a sweeping left turn. NOTR-US 66, at first the best dirt wagon road around, then graded but unpaved until 1931, circled south as it climbed out of Bat Cave Wash, and then it headed west for about a mile, now paralleling the north side of SF’s 1945 relocated railroad, but Historic US 66 was there first. This western stretch of old US 66 (1931-1947) today looks like the original dirt road, but its new owner, PG&E, was required by the state to cover US 66’s pavement to historically protect it. A tough fabric and 6-inches of finely graded gravel base were used. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJgEitbgWAs (13:06-13:28, 14:32-15:15, 25:12-26:20).
Approaching another large wash and further rough ridges beyond (now at Park Moabi Road), NOTR-US 66 curved north about one-half mile, descending toward the river plain, today arriving near the southern entrance to modern Pirates Cove Resort, Marina and RV Park (on northbound Park Moabi Road). http://bridgehunter.com/ca/san-bernardino/old-trails-arch/
Google Maps assumes that historic NOTR (1916-1926) and US 66 (1926-1947-1966) used basically the same route from this point on northwest to Needles. Caltrans maps of the 1955-66 era show some differences as US 66 was upgraded (and rerouted) at least twice during this time period. Caltrans maps and Google Maps imply that NOTR and Historic US 66 proceeded west another two miles (passing along the southern boundary of Pirates Cove RV Park. The historic now-abandoned roads crossed under the modern SF railway), then turned southwest up a wash (now crossing under modern IH 40), all lying far southwest of the original A&P/SF railroad tracks of 1890-1945. Once south of modern IH 40, Google Earth and Google Maps show that NOTR -Historic US 66 ran nearly parallel to IH 40 northwest for about 4.5 miles (passing south of the Agricultural Inspection Station) to Five Mile Road (Exit 148). Historic NOTR and US 66 then turned west and proceeded about another 0.4 miles (now Five Mile Road) before veering northwest again toward Needles, joining US 95 at Parker Junction (or Calizona RV Park) 1.1 miles later. Caltrans maps show that Historic US 66 joined a wagon road later upgraded to US 95 slowly building north from Vidal to Needles, so the main roadway to Needles was initially US 66.
Aerial photo examination of the abandoned (by 1960) roadway of Historic US 66 southwest of IH 40 and south of Five Mile Road shows at least two highway design speeds were used during the period 1926-1960, as vehicle operating speeds increased. Flatting of horizontal curves suggests that the original US 66 paved alignment (1931-32) was perhaps a 40 mph design speed, and the second higher design speed was for post-1947 highway speeds, of perhaps 60 mph. On the south roadside of Five-Mile Road, (Google Maps labels as “National Old Trails & Historic US 66) near its eastern junction to IH 40, sits the “Historic Route 66 California Gateway Site” and BLM information center. This roadside park sits squarely in the roadway of the abandoned historic US 66 highway alignment of 1926-1931-1958 previously described as it turned northwest toward its junction with US 95, headed for Needles. The abandoned southern section of US 66 highway, now lying southwest of IH 40 for several miles, was also the alignment of US 66 after World War II, from 1947 to about 1960.
A new two-lane primary highway to Needles (for US 66), later to become Interstate Highway (IH) 40, was incrementally completed over the next 15 years: firstly, south from Needles five miles to Five Mile Road by 1958, and then another 4 miles southeast toward Park Moabi Road by 1960 (at the crossing of Historic 66 with upgraded 66/later new IH 40). Beginning around 1964, as the new IH 40 bridge across the Colorado was being constructed, road building began on a new four-lane divided access highway west of the new bridge. The first 2.5-miles of future IH 40 westward, to the Park Moabi Road interchange, connecting to the new IH bridge across the Colorado, was finished by 1966. IH 40 was completed to the old US 66 crossing by 1967, and IH 40 was completed on north to Needles (@ US 59 junction) by 1969. The costly IH 40 bypass around the west side of Needles was not completed until the early-1970s.
But we have skipped a lot of prior US 66 road building! Recall that a cheap opportunity for providing an improved highway alignment of original NOTR+US 66 coming across the old Arch Bridge for about two miles west after crossing the Colorado River came with the conversion of the former Red Rock SF Railroad bridge to auto service (now only US 66) in 1947. By following the abandoned railway, several bad horizontal and vertical highway curves were eliminated, beginning at the Old Trails Arch bridge, then those along the narrow cliffs of the Colorado River, and those of the meandering road up, around, down, across, and out of Bat Cave Wash. In addition, the new route was shorter, by about 0.7 miles. US 66 was much improved. https://bridgehunter.com/photos/44/85/448545-L.jpg
Subsequently, the vacant Old Trails Arch auto bridge was converted in 1951 into the beautiful white arch bridge of today. The Arch Bridge now carries two gas pipelines (PG&E’s 300-A-1951 & 300-B-1955) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJgEitbgWAs (21:08-21:19) across the Colorado River, located between two other modern white pipeline bridges of dissimilar span-wire designs. All three pipeline bridges are beautifully maintained today (in 2020), and, when packaged with the replacement railroad bridge, and a modern Interstate Highway bridge, present an attractive vista. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIsMfgNMiIw
4.. BNSF-Topock Railroad Bridge. It was apparent during World War II that a double-track railroad bridge was needed across the Colorado River at Needles to serve the growing East-West (Atlantic-Pacific) trade. Thus, a new double-track steel railroad bridge was completed in 1945 about 400 yards north of the older Red Rock railroad bridge for the Santa Fe Railroad, or ATSF, now BNSF. The 1507-foot long bridge (including 7 feet of spacers) has three connected 350-foot Warren truss spans of heavy steel over the Colorado River connected on the west side to three 100-foot spans of double-box (four plate girders), and one 100-foot girder section on the east side connected to a 50-foot, 8 I-beam span. The railroad bridge has an open deck with two tracks on top. A major realignment of the west side track was necessary due to the northern move, a bearing change of the new bridge, and wider double-track railway requirements. An almost due west track alignment is now provided for over a mile to promote safer and faster train speeds across the dual-track high bridge, before it slowly begins to curve northward toward Needles. Thus, after 1945 much of the older A&P (Santa Fe, or ATSF) railroad alignment, built in 1890 and closely following the west bank of the Colorado River north up to Needles, was now available for highway use, if needed. And use it Caltrans (for US 66) did for nearly the next twenty years.
Post World War II era US 66 (1947-1966) ran from the west end of Red Rock bridge along a path curving north under the new SF railroad (of 1947+) along the abandoned (in 1945) SF railroad along the Colorado River for nearly a mile until the railroad curved west (now the Park Moabi Road). US 66 followed the old railroad alignment nearly another mile due west. There, US 66 veers slightly west-southwest leaving the old 1890 railway alignment as it began to curve northward (now along the Marina beachfront). US 66 passed the south gate of modern Pirates Cove Resort and RV Park (on Park Moabi Road) where it rejoined the original route of Historic US 66. See map and photos of Historic US 66’s 1947 Red Rock bridge realignment near the Colorado River at:http://gbcnet.com/ushighways/US66/66_colorado_river.html
Historic US 66 realigns west for another two miles, passing under the new 1945 SF railroad. Crossing under the post-1945 railroad, then crossing under modern IH 40, legacy US 66 soon curves west, then northwest along a route that is about 300 yards south of and parallel to modern IH 40, as shown in Google Maps, until it reaches Five-Mile Road. https://bridgehunter.com/ca/san-bernardino/bh46744/
5.. INTERSTATE 40 Bridge. Completed in 1966 to serve US 66 auto traffic crossing the Colorado River to Needles, the four-lane Interstate Highway bridge is a visually unappealing, composite concrete-steel, multi-span, open highway, plate-girder bridge providing a clear view of the surrounding landscape. Driving across the bridge is hardly noticed, as the surrounding bridges are clearly in view. The large, black BNSF-Topock railroad bridge lies just to the north and the glistening white Old Trails Arch Bridge, now carrying only two natural gas pipelines, lies nearby to the south, along with two other surrounding smaller pipeline bridges. https://bridgehunter.com/photos/29/66/296638-L.jpg
Once the IH 40 bridge was completed in 1966, IH 40 was incrementally completed north to Needles by 1969. The Red Rock (highway) bridge, lying just to the south of IH 40, was closed and stood abandoned until 1976, when it was demolished after 88 years of standing ready for service to the transportation industry. Its old location and long service to transportation go unnoticed by passing travelers. In fact, even the glistening white Old Trails Arch bridge looks like a pipeline carrier that it now is; passing travelers not aware that it was the highway bridge that carried Historic US 66 Dust Bowl travelers to California during the Great Depression. To be sure, this historic fact is noted at the Historic Route 66 California Gateway site previously noted on Five-Mile Road near IH 40. https://www.cahighways.org/maps.html