New Structure Evokes Memories of the Old Pike

Times Staff Writer

You won’t be able to ride this roller coaster. It’s a Tinkertoy.

The same sticks-in-a-hub building concept used by generations of children to create fanciful playthings has produced Long Beach’s newest landmark -- a 450-foot pedestrian bridge over Shoreline Drive.

The suspension bridge mimics the legendary Cyclone Racer roller coaster, once a dominant feature of the city’s waterfront.

Billed as “the fastest and steepest ride in the world,” it thrilled visitors to the old Pike amusement park for 38 years before it closed in the late 1960s. The Pike itself disappeared in 1979.


These days, the Pike is being resurrected. Not with the arcade games and carny hucksters of old but as a retail and entertainment center called the Pike at Rainbow Harbor.

Shoreline Drive, the roadway used for the Long Beach Grand Prix race, cuts through the middle of the 18-acre development site. The pedestrian bridge connects the new Pike’s two sides.

While the design conjures up memories of the Cyclone Racer, the swirling, 87-foot-high superstructure is actually the framework that supports the bridge.

But that’s not what’s unusual about the $2.5-million structure.

The fact that it was assembled by hand from 10,000 aluminum pieces without any welding or bolts puts it in a class by itself.

“Ten men put it together in three weeks,” says Glenn Reynolds, the engineer who invented the screw-together construction system employed on the bridge. “Nothing like this has ever been done before.”

Reynolds, 50, of Long Beach, was working in the 1990s for a company that produced geodesic domes when he got the idea for what he calls his “coaxial joint system.”

Geodesic domes typically are built using bolted-plate connections. Their decorative cousins, lightweight structures known as space frames, use ball-node connectors. But Reynolds’ heavy-duty joints and pipes are screwed together much like jars and lids.

The ends of the 10-foot lengths of pipe and the hubs’ connector points are machine-threaded so that grooved sleeves and couplings can be twisted in place to lock the pieces together.

The only tool needed to build a structure like the bridge is a hand-held wrench to tighten the connections.

Reynolds patented his connector system four years ago and set out to find a way to put it to use. He didn’t have to look far.

A partner, Gary Noble Curtis, spied a newspaper story that mentioned that a pedestrian bridge was planned for Shoreline Drive. Curtis went to City Hall to find out more, and officials there directed him to the Pike project’s general contractor.

Representatives of Snyder Langston, an Irvine-based construction firm, told him that the developers planned to build a conventional bridge with decorative trim that would mimic a roller coaster. Curtis replied that he and Reynolds could incorporate the roller coaster look in a suspension bridge using the new coaxial joint system and save developers money by doing it.

Reynolds and the 65-year-old Curtis, a resident of Anacortes, Wash., whose structural engineering experience includes work on the Seattle Space Needle and Long Beach’s Spruce Goose Dome, got the job. They formed the firm Gossamer Space Frames with a third partner, Dean Hackbarth, 46, of San Pedro, to do the design work.

Snyder Langston project administrators remember their reaction when they got word that they would be constructing a first-of-its-kind, screw-together bridge.

“I guess we rolled our eyes a little bit--how are we going to do this,” project executive Karl Kreutziger said.

“I thought, ‘OK, this is different.’ We didn’t have any historical data on a structure like this,” said project manager Michael Harness. “We took Glenn’s word on it that it would work.”

Temporary support beams held up the bridge’s concrete-topped steel walkway deck while the superstructure was being screwed together. When the supports were removed two weeks ago, everybody stopped what they were doing to watch.

“Until we cranked down the shoring, we didn’t know if it was going to stand,” Harness said.

The 25-ton bridge stood. And its rate of deflection -- or sag -- was only about an inch, less than anyone predicted. An unsupported steel span could not stretch across the 150-foot width of Shoreline Drive without drooping dangerously, according to engineers.

The bridge uses two miles of 4-inch piping for the grid that gives it its strength and roller coaster look. The aluminum is coated with white paint formulated to withstand the harbor’s ocean air for 25 years.

The curving top rail is painted blue and will be outlined with xenon “chaser lights” that at night will simulate the appearance of roller coaster cars slowly climbing up the old Cyclone Racer and then plunging down it.

The bridge will open to foot traffic in mid-November. That’s the date that the developer -- Chicago-based Developers Diversified Realty -- has set for opening the Pike’s movie theaters and the first of its restaurants.

The $130-million project will include a 100-foot Ferris wheel and an antique carousel. But it will lack some of the attractions that the old Pike amusement zone was known for, like the Laff in the Dark fun house.

That’s where the Mummy Man was displayed until the day a member of a film crew shooting a TV show in the place tried to move him and accidentally pulled off an arm, revealing a bone. The Mummy Man was subsequently identified as Elmer McCurdy, a small-time bank robber who was killed in 1911 and whose body was sold to a traveling show.

The old Pike advertised itself as the “Place Where Fun Was Invented.”

The new Pike may become known as the place where the Tinkertoy bridge was invented.