Identifying A Need
By the early 1930's, Americans were moving away from trains and ships and turning to automobiles as their mode of transporation. As a result, traffic on roadways increased dramatically. In Sacramento, M Street (now Capital Mall), one of the city's busiest routes during his period, served as a major link to U.S. Highway 40 (now West Capital Avenue and State Route 275). The Sacramento Northern Railroad Bridge spanned the Sacramento River directly north of the existing Tower Bridge. Although it could accommodate vehicles, by 1933 the bridge had reached its automobile capacity and the state recognized the need for a new crossing at M Street.
New Deal Plan
In the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government initiated New Deal programs in an effort to boost the economy and create jobs. New Deal programs focused on infrastructure projects throughout the country. A joint effort by Sacramento and Yolo Counties, the State of California, and the Federal Civil Works program made funds available for the construction of a new bridge at M Street. In early 1934, the California Division of Highways (now the California Department of Transportation) Bridge Department and the state's Division of Architecture embarked on plans for the new bridge.
Fred W. Panhorst and George Thompson from the Bridge Department served as structural engineers for the impressive vertical-lift type bridge, and Alfred Eichler, from the state's Division of Architecture, served as the designer. The bridge design included a rail line in the center of the deck with two lanes for increased automobile traffic on either side, along with pedestrian walkways. Eichler conceptualized the Tower Bridge in the Streamline Moderne architectural style, a later outgrowth of Art Deco that gained worldwide popularity between World War I and World War II (1919-1938), as the style symbolized progress, modernization, speed, efficiency, and technology.
Building the Bridge
George Pollock & Company dismantled the old M Street Bridge and built the new structure in the summer of 1934. During the course of construction, the project employed an average of 130 workers for 16 months. Spanning 737 feet, the bridge has a vertical-lift section that is 209 feet long and rises nearly 100 feet above the Sacramento River when fully elevated. The Tower Bridge, named for its streamlined towers, was the first vertical-lift span bridge on the California highway system. The bridge deck and sidewalks were built with experimental lightweight concrete that was used later in the construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Gateway to the Capital
The designers gave special attention to the appearance of the bridge, creating portals that form a welcoming gateway to the City of Sacramento and the State Capitol. At a total cost of $994,000 the Tower Bridge formally opened to traffic on December 15, 1935. For the year of 1936, the American Institute of Steel Construction recognized it as "The Most Beautiful Bridge." The bridge is exceptional as a rare example of an industrial lift bridge design in the Streamline Moderne style. In 1982, the Tower Bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its historical significance in architecture, engineering, and transportation.