Troubled Bridges: The Mojave Narrows Story

It turns out Victorville had more names than the Mojave Narrows Bridge has incarnations. 

 

The Vanyume Indian name for the area was Cacaumeat, and other names were Mormon Crossing, Huntington (for Heber Huntington, a Mormon pioneer), Rogers Station (for Samuel Rogers), and in 1885, Victor, for Jacob N. Victor, a construction superintendent for the California Pacific Railroad.

 

The Victor Post Office was established in 1886. The name was changed to Victorville in 1903 to avoid confusion with Victor, Colorado.

 

One of the most interesting developments of 1889 was the San Bernardino County Supervisors’ decision to construct a bridge across the Mojave River, and the angry debate that ensued over the ideal location.

 

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Mojave River, Upper Narrows, sometime before 1890, and before the the bridges came to town. Photo courtesy: Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, California.

 

The choice was to be between Victor (today’s Victorville) and Oro Grande, at the lower narrows, or Victor and what would later become Apple Valley, at the upper narrows.  

 

The debate raged on into the early part of 1890, as evidenced by a February 25, 1890, editorial in “The Daily Courier,” a newspaper out of San Bernardino at the time, that stated, “Gentlemen, it is for you to act; it is for us to criticize in fairness and suggest in a spirit of all-around equity–a spirit actuated by a regard for the taxpayers of the county . . .” 

 

The editorial ended by saying, ” . . . we tell you further, that in the event of your building only one, to locate it at the upper narrows will be more criminal still.”

 

You guessed it, soon after that article appeared, the decision was made in favor of the upper narrows, and the construction began in earnest.     As the bridge approached completion, the board of supervisors, accompanied by respected San Bernardino civil engineer, A.H. Koebig, visited the site, with the latter preparing a report to be issued a week later, to appease the skeptics in the County.

 

Engineer Koebig pointed out that the bridge would not hold the 1250 pounds per lineal foot specified in the contract.  To prove him wrong, the County Supervisors hardly had a choice but to devise a practical test of strength of the bridge.

 

On the morning of September 26, 1890, as a gentle rain began to fall, and as most of the population of Victor watched, the testing began.  A single wagon loaded with rocks, pulled by six mules, went easily across the 300 foot span of the bridge.  County Supervisors Johnson and Pope rode on the wagon as well, just to show their faith in the ability of the bridge to hold the weight.

 

The first part of the test was a success, and now the first wagon went across again, coupled to a second wagon, both loaded with rocks.  As the wagons, mules and passengers waited near the end of the bridge, on the east side of the river, a third wagon was brought out.

 

According to the unnamed Daily Courier newspaper reporter at the scene, before the third wagon made it across to the other wagons, there was a “terrific roar like a clap of thunder, and the pillar supporting one of the (suspension) cables disappeared like magic, sending up a volcano of dust, carrying the support of that side of the bridge away with a crash awful to hear, and instantly sweeping men, mules, wagons, and loads down, down to the river-bed, 50 feet below.”

 

The news article continues:   “What a sight!  What a scene?  Six human beings hurled 50 feet through the air, amid crashing timbers, huge rocks and struggling animals, their arms outstretched in vain effort to grasp some projecting relief, down, seemingly, an eternity, to the river bed  . . .”   (Sorry, but we had to add this part.  We just love the dramatic way journalists used to write stories).

 

The reporter continued to observe the scene unfold, and wrote of it, “They stood thus a few seconds helpless, powerless, unable to speak or move, as the torturing scene revealed itself, and then they awoke, it seemed, and from a hundred mouths came the despairing cry of, “Oh, my God!  The bridge has gone!”

 

Built Desert Tough

 

One of the passengers on one of the doomed wagons that fateful day, sometimes erroneously identified as a wagon driver,  was a young boy of unknown age by the name of Austin Ellis.  Young Austin survived the plummet to the river below, as did the five others. 

 

According to witnesses, Austin’s leg was broken in three places.  He was taken to his home, where he had the presence of mind to tell his mother to “keep quiet,” and that he was “not badly hurt.”  Desert people are just made a little differently from everybody else.

 

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Edward Greenlee Dolch is seen here testing the first generation suspension bridge for the first time. Photo Courtesy of Victor Valley College, Victorville, California

 

The county Board of Supervisors reported that miraculously there were no fatalities, even to the mules. On September 29, 1890, The Courier, San Bernardino, reported the story under the title of “The Victor Horror”.  According to eye witnesses, both mules were killed in the accident, which The San Francisco Call confirmed on October 3, 1890.

 

A month later, two of the five man county board of supervisors voted to allow the contractor to attempt to rebuild the bridge.  The editor at The Daily Courier, San Bernardino, launched a furious attack asserting the citizens should not allow “homicide another opportunity on the Mojave River.”

 

Play It Again, Sam

 

The second Victor Bridge, erected in 1891 by Phelps Manufacturing Company of San Francisco, served well for a decade. But in mid-1901, the wooden roadway planking of the structure caught fire, undoubtedly from a passing train, although the railway initially denied it.

 

The flames destroyed the entire roadway section, to the dismay of a twenty man bucket brigade. Although the damage was less than anticipated, and repairs could be made for under $4,000.

 

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Victor Bridge held many a high hope. Photo Courtesy of Victor Valley College Library Special Collections.

 

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The second generation Victor Bridge shows the new steel technology composed of rivet, girders and cables, that sustained the bridge for over 40 years. Circa 1921. Courtesy Victor Valley College Special Collections.

 

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The second wooden Victor Bridge crossing was built in 1891, shortly after the first one collapsed.  Mojave River and D Street.  Photo courtesy of Route 66 Museum, Victorville.

 

 

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One rail at the Upper Narrows, 1922. Look at all that beautiful water in the Mojave River. Photo courtesy: Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, California.

 

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Enjoying the views of the train tracks alongside the Mojave River, early 1920s. Courtesy Route 66 Museum, Victorville.

 

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The second set of railroad tracks was laid at the Upper Narrows, 1924. Photo courtesy: Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, California.

 

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Unknown family on the granite outcroppings of the upper narrows overlooking the second Narrows bridge on the Apple Valley side of the river, circa 1900.  The line of cottonwood trees in the upper left is what became D Street. over the railroad tracks is the stamp mill, which crushed valuable ore from mines as far away as Calico. Photo courtesy of Victor Valley College, Victorville, CA.

 

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Photo courtesy: Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, California.

 

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Overlooking the Victor Bridge and the Mojave River. I think he’s taking a selfie. Courtesy Route 66 Museum, Victorville, CA.

 

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West end of the Upper Narrows, circa 1920s. Courtesy Route 66 Museum, Victorville, CA.

 

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The Rainbow Bridge, Upper Narrows, 1944. Courtesy Route 66 Museum, Victorville, CA.

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

 

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In 1928, the third Victor Bridge was replaced with the Rainbow Bridge, which still stands but is no longer used. Photo courtesy of Victor Valley College.

 

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One of the fascinating details about the Mojave Narrows bridges is looking at the ebb and flow of the Mojave River below it. Photo courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum, Apple Valley, CA.

 

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Frolicking waders enjoy the Mojave River on its ever-changing shoreline below the Rainbow Bridge. Photo courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum, Apple Valley, CA.

 

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Daredevils enjoying a rope swing under the Rainbow Bridge. Photo courtesy of Mojave River Valley Museum. Photo courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum, Apple Valley, CA.

 

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Rainbow Bridge, circa late 1930s-early 1940s. The Diamond B Ranch was the first house above the bridge, upper right. Photo courtesy of Mohahve Historical Society.

 

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Rainbow Bridge got its name from its characteristic bow shape. Photo courtesy of Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow, California.

 

 

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There’s always that one show-off in every family. Rainbow Bridge, c. 1940s. Photo courtesy of Victor Valley College, Victorville, CA.

 

The Upper Narrows bridge and nearby railroad tracks wasn’t the only one to suffer a catastrophe.  On September 26, 1946,  a Union Pacific passenger train carrying soldiers returning from WWII, derailed near the old iron bridge at the Lower Narrows, two and a half miles from Victorville. 

 

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Photo courtesy of the San Bernardino Sun, 1946.

 

Seven people lost their lives and between 50 and 75 people were injured. Excessive speed was determined to be the causative factor in the accident.  It is ironic that servicemen who survived one of the bloodiest wars in history were almost killed on the way back home.

 

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Photo courtesy of the San Bernardino Sun, 1946.

 

Mojave Narrows Bridge replaced the 1928 Rainbow Bridge in 1963.  Rainbow Bridge remains alongside Highway 18 but is no longer in use.

However, it is occasionally used for film projects, such as the Foo Fighters from their 2003 music video “Times Like These.”

 

This is Version 2 directed by Marc Klasfeld. Version 1 which depicted a kaleidoscope background was directed by Liam Lynch.

 

There were a total of three versions. The third version was acoustic. Photographs courtesy: RCA Records

 

 

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The latest Mojave Narrows Bridge continues to connect Highway 18 travelers to Victorville and Apple Valley. The tree-lined Mojave River is on right.  Protech Minerals Incorporated, is on the upper left. Stoddard Wells Road along the hills is on the right. The Bascom ranch house, first house on the east bluff of the Mojave River, remains just above the right side of the old Rainbow Bridge. The ranch has been existence for over 90 years, and has witnessed the history of three bridges.  Photo: John Earl, (c)2013.

 

Citations:

History of Victor Valley by Edward Leo Lyman

Mohahve VI, A Collection of Histories by Mohahve Historical Society

Mojave Desert Dictionary, 2nd Ed. by Patricia A. Schoffstall

Images of America, Victorville by Dylan M. Almendral

Victor Valley College Library, Special Collections

Route 66 Museum, Victorville

San Bernardino County Museum, Apple Valley

Museum of Western Railroads, Barstow

Mojave River Valley Museum, Barstow

Mohahve Historical Society Archives

The San Bernardino County Sun, September 27, 1946

The Los Angeles Herald, September 28, 1890

The Daily Courier, San Bernardino. September 29, 1890

The San Francisco Call, October 3, 1890

 

Jaylyn

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comments
  • Linda Kruse Crandell

    February 14, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    Awesome story..thank you….

  • Fabulous history of the river’s bridges!!

  • It’s an amazing story…I’ve lived here since 1987 and seen this place change so much..I have a little bit more respect for it since I’ve been reading all these stories today…thanks again

  • Well done indeed !

  • I love your contribution to our local history! Our new non-profit ICR66 has been created to promote and restore Victorville’s place on Route 66! https://www.facebook.com/reviveoldtown/ We would love you to read our Vision and Proposal and have your endorsement of our endeavor!

  • Just love your blog! Love Calico, Ballarat, Death Valley, Geode hunting and dry panning, etc. Thanks for sharing and congrats on the sweet new ride!

  • Enjoyed the History 😀 – Thank You

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