Orange County Branch Newsletter

November 2012

History and Heritage

Pacific Electric Railway Bridge Over Santa Ana River



Bill Lawson, PE

Back in July of this year I was contacted by a former Civil Engineering business associate, Mr. Phil Chinn, to see if I had any historical information about an old Pacific Electric Railway bridge over the Santa Ana River. As it turned out, the subject bridge had been looked at by the Orange County Branch History & Heritage Committee back in 1984, as a potential Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Mr. Chinn's call sparked some new interest in this bridge (for me) and I agreed to meet with him to look at the bridge first hand.  On October 9, 2012, I met with Phil at Willowick Golf Course, off of 5th Street, just west and across the Santa Ana River from Fairview Avenue in Santa Ana, California.  From there we walked about a quarter mile northerly along the western edge of the river to the subject bridge crossing.  Below is a photograph of the bridge in its present condition:

A few additional photos are included in the Photo Gallery following this article.  Access on to the bridge is prohibited and each end of the bridge is blocked by a chain-link fence enclosure.  The original Pacific Electric rails have long since been removed from the bridge, but the bridge deck still appears to be in fairly good condition.

A brief history of the Pacific Electric Bridge: The bridge is identified in some publications as SRS #2.  According to newspaper records of the day, construction of the bridge was completed in October, 1905, and rail service was initiated on November 6, 1905.  Pacific Electric took over the rail line crossing over this bridge in 1908. The bridge became a part of the Santa Ana Branch of the Pacific Electric Railway and provided "Red Car" passenger service from Los Angeles and Long Beach to Santa Ana, and also carried a small amount of local freight service.  Passenger service continued on this line until 1950.  The bridge was officially abandoned in 1976, and the rails were removed in 1978.  The bridge is currently owned by OCTA.

Bridge Facts: The bridge design is that of a Pegram through-truss.  The length of the longest span is 140 ft. while the total bridge length is 302 ft.  The deck width is 13 ft. and carried only a single line of track.  The line used 60 lb. rails set on redwood ties.  The Pacific Electric Railway right of-way is still clearly visible from the air and on local maps; however, use of the right-of-way has changed to that of parking lots for businesses, self storage facilities, etc.  In general, the bridge and right-of-way are no longer accessible and cannot be walked or explored, and has lost most of its railroad look.

The Future of this bridge is uncertain.  It has been considered as a possible means to connect the bicycle trails on each side of the Santa Ana River.  As of 2010, local governmental officials have been thinking about the possibilities of reusing the abandoned Pacific Electric corridor that connects Orange and Los Angeles Counties.  Also in 2010, Cordoba Corporation was awarded a streetcar planning contract by the City of Santa Ana which would in part determine some of the possible uses of this bridge.  To my knowledge, this work is still in progress and no recommendations have yet been presented to the City Council.

Historical Significance of the Pacific Electric Railway Bridge:  In 2001, the bridge was reaffirmed to be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places; this eligibility status remains unchanged.  Although eligible, the bridge is not currently included on either the State or National Registers.  The Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society is currently interested in moving ahead with getting this bridge listed on these Registers of Historic Places.  The fact that this bridge is of the Pegram truss design makes it of special interest to the ASCE Orange County History & Heritage Committee and may prove it to be worthy of being nominated as a Local Historic Civil Engineering Landmark as it may be the only bridge of this design remaining in Southern California.  One report that I have found says that there are only ten remaining Pegram span bridges in the United States with seven in Idaho, hence this may be the only one remaining in California.  Further research will be needed to verify this.

*****

I would like to thank Mr. Phil Chinn, Preservation Committee Chair for the Orange County Historical Society and member of the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society, for providing some of the information included in this article, and for bringing the significance of this bridge to the attention of the ASCE Orange County History & Heritage Committee.

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