Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse
Barney Elliott and Harbine Monroe, 12 min., 16mm, 1940
Original footage held by the Elliott and Monroe Families
Added to National Film Registry: 1998
Essay by Hannah Palin with Nicolette Bromberg
Construction began on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in November 1938. On July 1, 1940, the bridge opened to traffic. Lauded as an essential economic and military portal to the Olympic Peninsula, its completion was called a triumph of man’s ingenuity and perseverance. It had been completed in record time and was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world with the longest single span in the United States. With its narrow towers and Art Deco-influenced design, the bridge span was lauded as slender, elegant, and graceful. The bridge’s designer, Leon Moiseff, described it as “the most beautiful bridge in the world.”
From the moment it was completed in May 1940, however, it was clear that something was wrong. During the final stages of construction, the bridge began to exhibit wavelike motions and, soon after its official opening, the bridge earned the nickname “Galloping Gertie” as it swayed in the winds rushing down the Tacoma Narrows strait. The Washington Toll Bridge Authority hired University of Washington engineering professor Frederick Burt Farquharson to develop solutions to reduce the oscillations of the bridge. He used motion picture film and photographs to record the bridge’s movement in the field. Professor Farquharson and his students built a 1:200-scale model of the bridge and a 1:20-scale model of a section of the deck and recreated and recorded the bridge movement in a wind tunnel. His first studies concluded on November 2, 1940 and he proposed two solutions for fixing the problem. Five days later the bridge collapsed in what was later called the “Pearl Harbor of engineering.”
The failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is an enduring image in the popular imagination, in part because it was caught on film. It has been seen in commercials and documentaries, in museum exhibits and in classrooms, in lecture halls and in textbooks. It has been endlessly studied and dissected by scientists, engineers, historians and the public. In Inventions and Technology, Frederic D. Schwartz compares the significance of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge film footage in importance to the Zapruder film of the John F. Kennedy assassination. “There’s the grainy black-and-white film endlessly scrutinized frame by frame; the reams of expert analysis next to impossible for a layperson to evaluate; and, of course, the buffs who are convinced that only they know the real story.”
The images so familiar to the scientific community and the general public are most often based on film footage shot by Barney Elliot and Harbine Monroe of the Tacoma Camera Shop. The two were contracted by the Washington Toll Bridge Authority to document construction, so when the accountant at the toll plaza called to say something was happening on that fateful November morning, Elliott and Monroe grabbed their 16mm cameras, several rolls of Kodachrome color film, and raced to the east side of the bridge. According to Richard S. Hobbs’ masterful retelling of the day of the collapse in Catastrophe to Triumph, Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows, Elliott worked from the center and right side (north) of the bridge and Monroe on the left (south). Harbine Monroe captured the collapse sequence that became famous.
While Elliott and Monroe receive sole credit for footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, there were other people on the bridge that day, including Professor Farquharson who arrived that morning armed with several cameras and a 16mm Cine Kodak Special, to record the unusual oscillations from the center of the bridge. He’s caught on film several times walking on the swaying span and is credited with being the last person off the bridge. Walter Miles of the Pacific Bridge Company also took extensive color motion picture film before, during, and after the collapse. Dr. Jesse W. Read, the last person to safely cross the bridge from east to west, took 8mm movies of the collapse from the west side of the bridge, although these images appear to be lost to history. In 2019, footage taken by Arthur T. Leach, a civil engineer who served as a toll collector, was donated to the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, Washington and shows the only known surviving film of the collapse from the west side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Elliott and Monroe sold their film to Paramount Studios which converted the film to black and white for theatrical distribution. Castle Films subsequently bought distribution rights, sending thousands of reels of the “Disaster! Greatest Camera Scoop of All Time” into homes around the world. Farquharson was given footage from both Miles and Elliott, creating a 21 minute film that documents the life of the bridge from construction to collapse and that also includes footage from tests the professor conducted to determine the cause of the bridge’s failure.
The Tacoma Camera Shop film continues to be a topic of study, controversy and fascination. As recently as 2015, a study conducted by Don Olson, Joseph Hook and Russel Doescher from Texas State University and Steven Wolf from East Carolina University determined that the original Tacoma Camera Shop film, copied onto 35mm black and white stock, was duplicated at the wrong speed. The original 16mm film would have been shot at 16fps, but was printed at 24fps. Thus, the bridge is shown to be oscillating approximately 50% faster than real time, resulting in decades of physics and engineering students interpreting the wrong data.
According to Hobbs, “unraveling the tangled issue of ‘who shot what’ is not easy.” What is certain, however, is that the Tacoma Camera Shop film of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse and the footage shot by Frederick Farquharson, Walter Miles, and now, Arthur Treach, is an important contribution to the historic and scientific record.
Sources for this essay include:
F.D. Schwarz, Still Falling, American Heritage of Inventions and Technology 9 (1993)
Richard S. Hobbs, Catastrophe to Triumph: Bridges of the Tacoma Narrows, Washington State University Press, 2006
“Lost footage of wild 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse revealed”. KING-TV. February 28, 2019.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Film Collection and University of Washington Engineering Experiment Station collection of Tacoma Narrows Bridge moving images, 1938-1984, notes by Alexis French and Maisie Harrison, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, 2017
Hannah Palin is the Moving Image Curator at the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections where she has been caring for the visual heritage of the Pacific Northwest since 2001. Nicolette Bromberg as worked with photograph collections for more than 25 years and is the Visual Materials Curator for the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections. In 2017, funding from the Friends of the UW Libraries allowed over 70 reels of film shot and collected by Frederick Farquharson from the University of Washington Engineering Experiment Station collection of Tacoma Narrows Bridge moving images, 1938-1984 to be made available to the public for the first time. Alexis French and Maisie Harrison were invaluable to the success of this project managed by Palin and overseen by Nicolette Bromberg.