The history of Sacramento’s Tower Bridge

The Tower Bridge glows in the afternoon sunlight.
Did you know that the Tower Bridge replaced an earlier design? | Photo by @angelogenasci

Bridging the gap between Sacramento + West Sacramento, truss us when we say the 160-ft tall Tower Bridge is more than an iconic landmark — it’s an architectural delight whose story tells us about the development of the River City. Let’s dive in

🚂 Railcars, trains, and automobiles

In the 1910s, Sacramento was mainly accessible by boats, passenger trains + freight railcars, which was reflected in the city’s infrastructure. 

Take the M St. Bridge as an example: Erected in 1911 by the Sacramento Northern Railway in the spot where the Tower Bridge stands today, it accommodated the heavy demands of both river + railroad transportation. Oh, and vehicles, but on a single 9-ft wide lane that was one of the major links along US Highway 40

By the 1930s, residents + city leaders began to realize that the bridge — which utilized a swing bridge design — was no longer functional for the city’s transportation needs. Chief among the critics was the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, who voiced concern that the M St. bridge was hazardous to motorists with its modestat-best traffic lane.

Let’s put that concern in a bigger context — by the time 1934 had hit, not only did automobile traffic across the bridge rise by 700%, the city went from 45,000 residents to 100,000. In other words, one lane each way for automobile traffic just wouldn’t cut it for the growing metropolis, and it was an easy decision for the city to declare the bridge obsolete.  

A pencil sketch of what would become the Tower Bridge.
An early sketch of Tower Bridge | Image courtesy of California State Archives

🚗 Motoring out of the past

In early 1934, the San Francisco-based but Missouri-born architect Alfred Eicher began work on a new design as a California state employee that would replace the M St. Bridge. 

Alfred spent several months sketching + refining the elements of the project before landing on the eventual design, which featured a vertical lift design to increase the width of the channel + decrease delays with an adjustable span that could be “raised or lowered at a rate of one foot per second.”

Construction began on July 20, 1934 when crews built “new main piers” for the bridge. Once that was completed, a temporary timber-and-steel bridge for railroad traffic — aka a shoofly — was built, and all highway traffic was sent upriver to the I St. Bridge. With all this out of the way, the team managed to dismantle the old, obsolete bridge by March 11, 1935.

Work on the new bridge itself started in earnest just four days later on March 15, a task large enough to require the creation of 1,500 new jobs during a time when the nation was straddled with massive unemployment as an effect of the Great Depression. In fact, ~130 laborers could be found working at the site at any given time

🌉 A new (over)watermark

Just nine months later, Governor Frank Merriam dedicated the Tower Bridge as the first vertical lift bridge in California’s highway system at a ceremony on M St. on Dec. 15, 1935. The total cost of the project was $994,000, which is ~$21,500,000 million in today’s money. 

The Tower Bridge was initially a silver color until it was repainted a brassy hue in 1976 to match the color of the State Capitol’s copper dome. In 2002, the bridge was painted metallic gold after winning a public vote by Caltrans for residents within a 35-mile radius. 

Symbolizing a change of the times, the railroad tracks were removed in 1963, meaning the bridge only allowed vehicular + pedestrian lanes. By 1980, it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

The Library of Congress has this note on one of the images it has archived: “The bridge represents a rare use of Streamlined Moderne architectural styling in a lift bridge, making it an outstanding expression of the social and architectural climate of the period.” 

Next time you pass Tower Bridge on the highway or admire its view from the docks of Old Sacramento, take a moment to appreciate the work our city did to get to where we are today— or simply geek out at the fact that it’s home to California’s shortest state route.

A dual-tone sketch that shows the height of Tower Bridge.
A perspective sketch of Tower Bridge by Alfred Eichner | Image courtesy of California State Archives