In the Bay Area, they’re placing their truss in the bridge troll


OAKLAND — The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is closed to traffic this Labor Day weekend as workers scramble to ready the new, much-delayed and over-budget eastern span for Tuesday morning’s commuters.

During its 16-year construction, the segment has raised concerns. Does the $6.4-billion price tag qualify it as a boondoggle? Will the 2.2-mile suspension span — stretching from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island — live up to seismic safety standards despite dozens of massive cracked bolts?

But the topic now tugging at many minds is neither political nor practical: What will become of the troll?


A creature of mystery, birthed by a blacksmith after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake collapsed a section of the original upper deck, the troll has been lodged on a protected northern steel perch for 24 years.

With a dragon head, goat’s horns, webbed hands and feet and a spud wrench at the ready, the 18-inch-high figure — which was not commissioned or permitted but was embraced and now is beloved — will have to go somewhere when the old bridge is demolished.

The question of where has captivated bureaucrats, folklorists and the artist himself, a man who — like his troll — prefers the shadows to the harsh light of publicity. (Though some news reports have identified him, he asked not to be named here so as not to steal the troll’s glory.)

Employed by a West Oakland shop that allowed workers to fabricate their own creations after hours, this artist had begun work on a gargoyle-like earthquake god named San Andreas shortly before the temblor struck on Oct. 17, 1989.

After the owner of a neighboring shop got the contract to fabricate the span’s replacement beams, the artist was asked if he wanted to put San Andreas on the bridge.

“I thought that was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard,” he recalled, reasoning that Caltrans would yank it down and his work would wind up in some office or flea market. He declined.

Yet as the days passed, he saw how hard the ironworkers labored on the replacement deck. He thought of the everyday citizens who had performed heroic rescues on the collapsed Cypress Street Viaduct nearby.

He changed his mind, opting to come up with a creation based on the ancient lore of trolls — an amalgamation with a dragon’s head, the horns of a goat (a nod to the Three Billy Goats Gruff, who cross a cranky troll’s bridge) and webbed appendages in case it “needed to swim around the piers to do work.”

John V. Robinson, a Bay Area photographer and ironworkers folklorist, has likened the troll’s placement to the long-standing tradition of “topping out” a project. Although that generally involves a Christmas tree and U.S. flag, Robinson said he sees the workers’ affinity for the troll as “an example of someone adapting the topping-out ceremony for an unusual circumstance.”

As for the troll’s fate, Robinson said he’s “already heard talk among friends in the construction industry that when it comes time to take down the bridge, we’re gonna steal that troll.”

The artist would like to see his troll remain in its protective role on the old span until the dangerous work of demolition is done, and then be moved to the new bridge. That, however, probably would involve some type of ceremony for moving trolls without angering them, he noted. (A group advocating for the transition plans to consult a troll expert in Sweden.)

Meanwhile, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee — made up of Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority — has released a dense little report on the topic.

Titled “For Whom the Troll Dwells: A Legendary Case for Supplemental Safety Measures on the New San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge East Span,” it examines the history and symbolism of trolls (the first legends were recorded in Scandinavia more than a millennium ago) before getting down to business.

Bay Bridge officials, it noted, basically have promised that the troll “will be relocated. But it is not yet clear where.”

Randy Rentschler, director of public affairs for the toll authority, said that asking the troll to do “double duty” by protecting a second bridge might be pushing luck too far.

“With respect to the lore of trollness, if that’s even a word, the troll associated with the old Bay Bridge is associated with the old Bay Bridge,” he said. So officials are leaning toward a plan to move the steel creature — still bolted to its beam — to a historical building at the toll plaza “where he will hopefully have a long and fruitful existence,” Rentschler said. “He’ll be in a quiet, dark place, but for public viewing and where everyone can see him.”

Noting in its report that the troll’s presence correlated with “the absence of any earthquake-related interruptions to the Bay Bridge’s service during the past 24 years,” the bridge management team recommended another troll statue be created to provide “a possible extra measure of safety.”

The bigger question is how that new troll might come into existence in the same playful spirit as the first, without the massive foot of multi-agency bureaucracy squashing out all joy and whimsy.

The fabrication, the report said, “should be performed as a rogue act.” It then went on to lay out specifications: The statue should be made of steel, properly covered and shaded from the sun and crafted “either by union ironworkers from the Bay Bridge project, or by a West Oakland group such as The Crucible” — a nonprofit that offers classes in industrial arts.

Still, officialdom is trying to get out of the way as best it knows how. As Rentschler put it: “You have our benign permission or neglect.”