The fun of exploring new places is that you don’t necessarily know what to expect. Sometimes in the middle of nowhere, you turn a corner and discover a little gem like the Klamath River Bridge in Del Norte County.
On the day we came across this concrete curiosity, we were on our way to visit another odd site, Radar Station B-71, a WWII-era radar station disguised as a farmhouse, which I’ll post about soon.
The directions to the radar station told us to turn at the old Douglas Bridge remnants, so I was keeping an eye out, not really sure what I was looking for. However, we easily recognized the old bridge once we arrived.
It’s worth a note that many people who post photos or reviews about the bridge on sites like Tripadvisor actually miss the monument itself, fooled by the golden bears of the replacement bridge on U.S. Highway 101. That’s NOT the bridge I’m writing about here, which is a stub of a long-gone bridge that’s been saved as a historical memorial.
* * *
Hailed as “one of the greatest feats in the history of the California highway system,”1 the Douglas Memorial Bridge was big news up and down the West Coast when it opened in 1926. The bridge replaced a “five-minute” ferry that carried three cars at a time, with waits of an hour and a half or more during peak travel times. It was the final link completing the Redwood Highway that connects Grants Pass, Oregon, to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
On May 17, 1926, the widow Mrs. G. H. Douglas2 dedicated the bridge in front of a crowd of 6,000. “This was the largest gathering in the history of Del Norte, California’s northernmost county,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. “An interesting feature of the dedication was the fact that there were nearly as many visitors at the Douglas memorial bridge as there are residents of Del Norte county.”
The dedication was attended by the governors of Oregon and California, who met for the first time at the event,3 as well as members of my favorite hometown booster club, the Oregon Cavemen.
An article in the Los Angeles Times nicely summed up the excitement:
Governors to Witness Dedication
Klamath River Bridge One of Finest on West Coast;
Richardson to Speak
SACRAMENTO, May 12  — Within the next few days two Governors, the highway commissioners of two States and a throng of other public officials and representatives of city, county and State organizations, will be gathering in Del Norte county to participate in the dedication next Monday of the new Douglas memorial bridge across the Klamath River.
Constituting an important link in the chain of motor vehicle communication between California and Oregon, the new bridge is not only the largest in the California State Highway system but one of the finest in the country. It consists of five reinforced concrete arch spans, each 210 feet in length, with two fifty-foot approach spans, making the total length 1150 feet.
The bridge bears the name of Dr. G. H. Douglas4 of Crescent City, because of his labors as an Assemblyman for the passage of an adequate bridge across the Klamath River. Dr. Douglas died suddenly in 1923 just after making a plea for the bridge before a legislative committee, and so when the appropriation was passed it was stipulated that the structure should be a memorial to him. The appropriation provided $225,000 of the $400,000 cost of the bridge. The remainder is Federal aid money.
Gov. Friend W. Richardson will deliver the dedicatory address at Monday’s ceremony’ other speakers will include Gov. Walter H. Pierce of Oregon, Louis Everding, California Highway Commissioner; R. D. Borton, State Highway engineer; President Frederick Meyer of the Redwood Highway Association; Burton Towne, president of the California State Automobile Association; President H. W. Keller of the Southern California Automobile Club; Dr. L. I. Hewes, deputy chief engineer of the United States Bureau of Public Roads, and Newton B. Drury, secretary of the Save-the-Redwoods League, Chairman Harvey H. Toy of the California Highway Commission will be chairman of the day.”5
The San Francisco Examiner explained the significance of the bridge to California’s northern coast communities:
“The dedication of the Douglas memorial bridge makes it possible to drive a motor car from the Mexican border into Oregon very close to the coast at all times. In addition, it will mean that tourist travel instead of coming south by way of the [inland] Pacific highway from Grant’s Pass will be able to follow the Redwood highway, regarded by many as California’s most scenic route, through Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties.”
At the time of the May dedication, the southern approach wasn’t quite complete and the bridge didn’t open immediately. Construction defects — cracks in the supporting arches — caused delays. The bridge was completed and accepted by highway commission in November 1926, and the ferry was discontinued.
* * *
The four-ton concrete bears that guarded either end of the structure were a popular photo opportunity for several decades. In the late 1950s or early ‘60s, a group of businessmen painted them gold.
* * *
A series of storms battered the Pacific Coast in December 1964, dumping 24 inches of warm rain on the region. Massive flooding destroyed the town of Klamath and took out at least 15 bridges along Highway 101 from Gasquet to Scotia. A “battering ram of logs” piled up against the supports of the Douglas Memorial Bridge, which suffered a partial collapse on Dec. 23, 1964.
“Redwood Highway bridge losses which will take millions of dollars and months of labor to replace are the Douglas Memorial Bridge across the Klamath River at Klamath. This stops all north bound traffic.”6
Dwight O’Dell, president of the Redwood Empire Association, made an aerial survey of the destruction. “I never saw as much devastation as this,” he said. “Even Okinawa after a typhoon in World War II couldn’t match it.”7
Temporary repairs allowed the bridge to reopen in March 1965. A new four-lane bridge opened Nov. 28, 1965, at a cost of $2 million and nearly a million hours of labor. Golden bears were placed at either end of that bridge, and a stub of the 1926 Douglas Memorial Bridge was preserved for history.
- “Douglas Span is Dedicated,” The San Francisco Examiner, 23 May 1926, p. 36, col. 6; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30863962/douglas-span-is-dedicated-gh-douglas/: : accessed 22 Apr 2019).
- “Klamath River Span Dedication Fete Tomorrow,” Oakland Tribune, May 16, 1926, p. 6, col. 1; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=30863773): accessed 22 Apr 2019).
- “Richardson to Meet Governor of Oregon,” The Los Angeles Times, 25 Apr 1926, p. 39, col. 6; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=30863132: accessed 22 Apr 2019).
- Dr. Gustav H. Douglas was born in 1860 in New York. He served in the California State Legislature representing Del Norte County. He died in office on 27 March 1923 and is buried in the Old City Cemetery, Sacramento. The Douglas Archives, www.douglashistory.co.uk.
- “Governors to Witness Dedication,” The Los Angeles Times, 13 May 1926, p. 7, col. 2; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/30863712/klamath-river-bridge-one-of-finest-on/ : accessed 22 April 1926).
- “Towns and Bridges Destroyed by Flood,” Ferndale Enterprise, 8 Jan 1965, p. 2, col. 4; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/630019479: accessed 28 Feb 2020)
- “Redwood Empire Head Has Eye-Witness Story,” Eureka Humboldt Standard, 24 Dec 1964, p. 3, col. 7; digital image, newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/22086509: accessed 28 Feb 2020).