Media Life: Take a trip back in time to 1971 on Auburn Foresthill Bridge
If you were an Auburn resident or just passing through, the Foresthill Bridge construction project taking place between 1970 and the 730-foot-high span’s opening on Labor Day 1973 was something you would have a hard time passing up the opportunity to check out.
The scale of the bridge was — and is — massive.
And before the 7,750 tons of structural steel were riveted solidly in place, there were two giant support piers to build. In all, the project would use 52,000 cubic yards of concrete, with most of it going into piers 403 feet high.
This trip back in the Media Life time machine zeroes in on a point in January 1971 when the piers were ready to start supporting the steel on the $13.5 million project — built to cross over a reservoir created by the Auburn Dam. The older crossing at the confluence, which still stands, was to be inundated by the filling of the 2.5 million acre-foot reservoir upstream of the dam.
Plans were to open the bridge July 4, 1973, but painting the steel its distinctive pea-green color took the contractor longer than expected, extending it to September.
That gave celebrants more time to plan an opening to end all openings in Auburn — and open the bridge on Labor Day the Bureau of Reclamation certainly did — with a roster of celebrities that included Koley, a locally recruited donkey, and Bertha, a dancing elephant imported for the occasion from Reno’s Nugget casino being the star attractions.
The Foresthill Bridge was a start of bigger things — although not the Auburn dam.
It was not just a major new link between Foresthill and Auburn. It also led to the high-octane development of the Foresthill exit — with Raley’s building its supermarket at Foresthill Road and Lincoln Way in the mid-1970s and many more businesses opening to take advantage of the four-way traffic.
Labor Day 1973 was a day for celebration and more than 1,000 people showed up on the Auburn side. At 12:15 p.m., pedestrians, vehicles and bikes streamed over the bridge after Bertha and Koley snapped the ribbons, donkey and pachyderm representing both Republican and Democratic Party support for the project.
While rumblings of budget and environmental concerns were beginning to dog the Auburn dam project, the bridge opening was a celebration that Placer County Supervisor Robert Mahan said could cut vital minutes off the long drive between Auburn and Foresthill.
“Minutes that might mean the difference between life and death,” he added gravely.
The deaths would soon come from another source — suicides off the bridge.
They started as a trickle. In October 1983, the Journal would report that the Foresthill Bridge had been the site of 12 deaths since its opening 10 years earlier. The mention came as county workers installed warning signs telling people to stay off the open central section.
Over the ensuing years, the death count from plunges off the bridge has failed to subside. The most recent victim, in late 2017, was the bridge’s 79th.
But in 1971, the dark side of the bridge was still hard to fathom.
Instead, the span then called the Auburn Foresthill Bridge, one of the highest bridges in the land, was being built.
And it was in Auburn’s backyard.
Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at email@example.com or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.