Bridge collapse then. Placid crossing now
There was warning before the surge of water rising 25 feet arrived.
Upstream, the partly constructed Hell Hole reservoir project on the middle fork American River was having problems containing water from seven straight days of rain that was sending a torrent of water downstream from the mountains.
The date was Dec. 23, 1964. The time was 9:27 a.m. And a wall of water was on a collision course with what was known then as the Georgetown Bridge in the American River canyon below Auburn.
Placer County Sheriff Bill Scott personally took command of the radio dispatch that day, sending deputies to clear the canyon of any people, corralling the expected lookie-loos to keep them out of harm’s way.
By 12:27 p.m., the roaring torrent of logs, mud and water had wiped out the U.S. Forest Service’s Rucky Chucky crossing, carrying away two house trailers, cases of dynamite and empty fuel tanks.
Downstream, the Auburn Journal’s Joe Carroll would later write that a “Journal reporter” had ventured out to the middle of what we now know as the Highway 49 bridge over the American River. It’s likely that the reporter was Carroll himself, as he described an experience that was both “spectacular and frightening.”
It was 1:20 p.m. and the reporter and a TV cameraman also out on the bridge heard the seams of bridge crack below them, Carroll wrote. The two sprinted to safety and within 30 seconds, the structure - with six girders weighing 82,000 pounds each - broke into three sections and disappeared into the murky depths.
The river surged forward toward the Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge - a potential second casualty. But the 52-year-old landmark would stay standing as the high water continued pummeling the span over the next 23 minutes.
While the reporter and TV cameraman scrambled to safety, Journal photographer Merv Doolittle perched above the danger zone on an embankment, shooting a sequence that showed the hellish power of the rampaging American.
With the Mountain Quarries bridge still useable, vehicle traffic would be re-routed across it over the next four months until a new Highway 49 bridge was in place in the spring of 1965.
The legacy of that Wednesday in late-December when the bridge washed out is the rubble that remains - mammoth pieces of broken concrete and mangled metal on the shoreline and riverbed.
The Auburn dam project was authorized by Congress later in 1965 and the rubble was left as it stood because authorities thought the reservoir it would create would cover the fallen bridge for perpetuity.
But to this day, with no dam built and none in the offing, mangled steel can clearly be seen in the river bed when water levels are low. And broken concrete - giant gray chunks weighing several tons - litter the canyon shoreline.
It’s debris that has become part of the landscape for the many who cross the Highway 49 bridge, many never realizing that at one time, the American River roared to monstrous life and took away its predecessor.
Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.