Terminal Island Cargo Has Outgrown Old Bridge

Times Staff Writer

The Gerald Desmond Bridge towers 250 feet over the back channel of Long Beach Harbor, providing a vital connecting route between downtown Long Beach and Terminal Island, linking cargo ships to terminals.

These days, the bridge also wears a diaper.

Unable to sustain the daily onslaught of trucks and cars, the 36-year-old bridge has started to buckle, sending pieces of concrete into the water. To catch the debris, port officials have placed a net, which some call a “diaper,” under the bridge.

With a replacement bridge plan underway, port officials say 10% of all the nation’s waterborne cargo now travels across the Desmond bridge on its way to or from the docks. But the structure has not kept up with the times.


When it was built, planners expected only modest traffic -- mostly people going to and from the Long Beach Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island. But when the shipyard was closed in the mid-1990s, the land became home to six container terminals, which spread over 1,600 acres and handled an estimated $15 billion in imports in 2003. Port officials estimate truck traffic across the bridge has tripled and cargo ships traveling under the bridge have more than doubled in size.

“Its capacity is inadequate; the height is inadequate, because we don’t have the ability to get large ships underneath the bridge and into the back harbor; and thirdly, the physical condition of the bridge is marginal,” said John Hancock, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners.

Bridging the gap between Long Beach and Terminal Island has long challenged planners.

Before any structure connected the two lands, a ferry carried passengers across the back channel, port officials said.

Eventually, a pontoon bridge was erected by the Navy during World War II as a temporary structure to reach the shipyard. The pontoon, which floated on water, was a concrete roadway with a wood and metal bottom. It had to be opened in the middle every time a ship needed to pass, forcing cars to wait.

It was so peculiar that it became a Southland attraction and was featured in a road scene in the 1963 film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

In a 1966 Times article, a pontoon bridge operator was quoted as estimating that the structure opened and closed at least 100 times a day. He recalled frequently throwing life preservers to drivers whose vehicles became airborne and landed in the water after the drivers failed to navigate the unusually shaped bridge surface, which dipped suddenly during the crossing. Many drivers did not survive the dip and drowned in the channel, which is 170 feet wide and 50 feet deep.

Construction of the Gerald Desmond Bridge began in 1966 and cost $13 million. The bridge was built as a toll-free thoroughfare but was never as famous as its larger counterpart, the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which connects San Pedro and Terminal Island and was completed in 1964.


Commuters recognize the Gerald Desmond Bridge by its steel arch. The structure was designed in a truss style, which means it supports itself through straight links and joints. During its construction, the bridge’s last beam fell 100 feet to the ground while it was being hoisted. The beam damaged two oil wells, barely missed two workmen and delayed the project by two to three weeks.

The bridge was dedicated in June 1968, a day after the assassination of Robert Kennedy Jr. Because of the assassination, a moment of silence preceded the ceremony, and a planned fireworks show was canceled.

The bridge was named after Gerald Desmond, a Long Beach city councilman and then city attorney, who died of kidney cancer in 1964 while still in office. During the dedication, his son, Gerald Desmond Jr., tightened the final bolt, which was gold-plated.

Although port officials aren’t sure where the gold bolt is, Desmond has an approximate idea and hopes port officials will consider giving it to his family once the bridge is destroyed.


“My family is very happy there is a tribute to my father, and very proud that bridge is named after him,” Desmond said. “We would never do anything to prevent the replacement.”

It has yet to be decided whether the new bridge will keep the Desmond name.

But it will be able to accommodate large freighters with 200 feet of space between its deck and the water, compared with 150 feet from the deck of the Desmond bridge to the water. The new bridge’s two towers will stretch 200 feet into the air from its deck. Architects plan to build the bridge in a cable-stayed style, which allows cables anchored in the bridge’s two towers to support its deck. And it will be 10,000 feet long, double the length of the Desmond bridge.

Port officials have been seeking state and federal funding for a $711-million project to construct a new bridge and demolish the old one.


In 2002, officials completed $14 million in upgrades to the Desmond bridge. The project flipped the bridge’s sidewalks outside its rails and widened the bridge by adding an extra lane. Those improvements, the port says, will go only so far.

“I think the new bridge is going to be a signature bridge for the city of Long Beach,” said Geraldine Knatz, managing director of development for the Port of Long Beach. “It’s going to be much taller but slender and beautiful. We hope it will become an attractive landmark.”