May 14, 2012

History Haunts Pasadena’s Colorado Street Bridge


On a recent jaunt to Pasadena, I was reminded of one of my favorite “haunted” sites, so I thought I’d share it with you. Actually, I always found it oddly charming, even before learning of its grim past. The spot I’m referring to is the Colorado Street Bridge, a.k.a. “suicide bridge.”

Colorado Street Bridge from Arroyo
Located in Pasadena, California, the historic—and some say haunted—Colorado Street Bridge spans the Arroyo Seco, an enormous gorge carved out by an intermittent stream of the same name. Since its construction in 1913, this magnificent bridge has been the site of a hundred or more suicides, most of these occurring in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

The Arroyo itself has quite a history, which no doubt adds to the bridge’s dark charm.

The winding river valley of the Arroyo Seco extends from the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and along the west edge of South Pasadena. Historically, it served as a corridor for wildlife and a hunting ground for the areas original inhabitants, the Hahamongna tribe.

During California’s mission era, control of the region that included the Arroyo Seco fell under Spanish rule when the Mission San Gabriel Archangel was established on September 8, 1771. Six decades later, that authority was handed over to a civil administrator, and the vast land holdings subsequently were deeded and passed to a number of different owners.

During the early 1800s, the Arroyo wilderness became a haunt for outlaws and thieves. Travelers and settlers alike were subject to attack. However, the arrival of the U.S. Army Camel Corps put a damper on these darker activities in the 1850s. Drivers for this curious pre-Civil War experiment—now little more than a footnote in Army history—brought their camels to the Arroyo for water and pasture.

In 1873, Thomas Elliott and a group of migrants trekked from Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois all the way to Southern California. These adventurers came looking for warm weather and cheap land and would become Pasadena’s founders. Drawn to the natural beauty of the area—in particular the Arroyo Seco— they purchased land along the river valley’s east bank and built their homes amidst orchards of walnuts, olives, and citrus trees. By the latter part of the 1880s, Pasadena had become a key stop along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and the housing business was booming.

The turn of the century saw the rise of great tourist hotels as Pasadena became a winter resort for wealthy easterners. The Arroyo became a haven for artists and intellectuals during the early 1900s—a home to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Yet despite the regions growing popularity, traversing the Arroyo Seco remained an arduous task involving horses, wagons, and the often treacherous, steep slopes of the gorge.

Then in 1913, American civil engineer and prolific bridge designer J.A.L. Waddell was commissioned to design a bridge crossing the Arroyo, thus connecting Pasadena to Los Angeles. The result was a 1467-foot open-spandrel known as the Colorado Street Bridge— a work of art now considered an historic landmark.



The completed structure rose 150 feet above the Arroyo gorge—the tallest concrete bridge of its day. The first curvilinear bridge ever designed, its sweeping lines permitted the bridge’s 11 great arches to stand on the firmest ground of the Arroyo. Elegant white-globed light posts lined the structure on both sides. Curved seating bays provided pedestrians with rest areas along the bridge’s wide walkways. Over one million pounds of steel and approximately 14,000 barrels of cement were used in its construction.

 In 1926, the Colorado Street bridge became part of national historic Route 66—the former U.S.
Highway also known as The Mother Road, The Main Street of America, and The Will Rogers Highway. It continued to be part of Route 66 until 1940, when the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened.

Pasadena, like the rest of California and the nation, was hit hard by the economic collapse of the 1930s. The building market plummeted, property owners lost their holdings, and state-wide unemployment reached a staggering 28 percent by 1932.

It was during the Depression era that the Colorado Street bridge earned its nickname “suicide bridge” due to the high number of distraught individuals who hurled themselves from its dizzying heights to “end it all” in the gorge below. It is estimated that nearly 100 people have jumped to their deaths since the first suicide from the bridge on November 16, 1919—most of these deaths taking place during the Great Depression. (Pasadena Post, September 2, 1937, Page 7)

On May 1, 1937, one of the more sensational suicides occurred. A despondent mother first threw her baby over the bridge railing, then jumped to her death. Miraculously, the baby survived, having landed in the thick, supportive branches of a tree, from which she was later recovered.

Later that year, a jump-proof fence was put in place with hopes of ending the bridge deaths by suicide. At this time, official police records placed the total number of suicides at 79—15 women and 64 men. Sixty-three of the jumpers were non-residents, attracted by sensationalized suicide stories published in out-of-town magazines and newspapers. (Pasadena Post, September 2, 1937, Page 7)

Over the ensuing years, the bridge gradually fell into disrepair—still structurally sound but cosmetically shabby. Following California’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, city officials decided that the bridge required extensive renovation and, in the interim, should be closed to traffic.

Restored and rededicated on December 13, 1993, the Colorado Street bridge is again open for use. However, with its proximity to a major freeway, the structure has become only a minor thoroughfare, happily permitting it to preserve a charming air of nostalgia. With romantic street lamps and excellent views of the Rose Bowl to the north and the Arroyo Seco to the south, the bridge offers a quiet pedestrian stroll pleasantly evocative of another era. Each summer, the architectural landmark is the site of the Celebration on the Colorado Street Bridge, an evening of music, food, and family entertainment.

It is not surprising that unsettling tales of unexplained phenomena have arisen in connection with the Colorado Street bridge. View the sweeping structure on a foggy night, the globed lighting haloed with mist, the Arroyo wilderness below veiled and in shadow—it’s not hard to imagine that it is a haunted place. Today, hikers, teens prowling the Arroyo after sundown, and people camping along the stream bed beneath the bridge—many of these homeless, semi-permanent residents—have reported seeing ghostly figures, hearing mysterious sounds and voices, and seeing orbs. Some witnesses have reported feeling extremely unwelcome or sensing strong anger.

A popular legend concerns the first death connected to the bridge. This supposedly occurred in 1913 when a worker lost his balance and fell into the wet concrete that was filling a form for one of the huge supporting pillars. By the time his absence was noted, it was too late to retrieve the body. Some people believe it is his spirit that beckons the despondent to jump to their deaths.

Though this particular story is unsubstantiated, there was a tragic death associated with construction of the bridge that may be the source. On August 1, 1913, span No. 9 of the bridge (still under construction) unaccountably gave way. Two hundred tons of liquid concrete and 100 tons of steel and wood cascaded to the bottom of the Arroyo, 120 feet below. Three workers fell with the wreckage. John Visco was killed instantly and two other men were severely injured. (Pasadena Star, August 2, 1913, Page 1)

Another interesting source for ghostly tales concerns a mental hospital. The slopes below the Pasadena-side entrance to the bridge formerly accommodated a sanitarium for housing the insane. Long since torn down, a bit of foundation, some steps, and a low wall are all that remain. The locale is now the site of a new condo development. It has been suggested that some manifestations are linked to that demolished asylum.

So, there you have it. Any haunted locales near you? 

Happy Hauntings!

5 comments:

  1. I have original pictures and negatives from july 24,1940 arroyo seca bridge collapse/landslide "workman killed by landslide"is hand written and dated.

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    1. Very cool! Are they posted somewhere? I'd love to see and reference them. Thanks!

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  2. Hi, Christine! Thanks for your message. I can't tell if you are "Anonymous" from the previous post (Feb. 19, 2015) or a new source of pics and negatives. Whichever, I'd be interested in seeing the pics if they are posted somewhere. I love local history, and signs of it in the way of landmarks are slowly disappearing. What remains available in photographs is important and intriguing.

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  3. The pics are not posted anywhere. I had been doing some research on line looking for info on Arroyo bridge to confirm the photos which i had recently received along with the negatives which i still have. And I've had zero luck on finding anything matches online .so my next assumption is that some key dates have been intentionally erased due to some horrible events that claimed the lives of those who had been helping build this bridge.

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