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Media Life: A rare ‘now and then’ look at the Foresthill Bridge

Safety netting was a key component in giant span’s construction
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at

or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.      

 

Perhaps it’s the Foresthill Bridge version of the iconic photo of workers lunching high up on the girders of the under-construction Empire State building.

The photo, provided back in 1971 or 1972 during Foresthill Bridge construction to the Auburn Journal by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, shows three bridge workers standing on girders.

There are more workers to the right of the girders and the photo may mark an important step in the work to complete the $18 million project.

But, unlike many photos in the Journal archives of photos and materials from years gone by, there is little to indicate what exactly is occurring. On the back, a rubber stamp has been used to print “Special Edition” and there are the markings in pencil of an editor indicating that the photo should be reproduced for printing at 100 percent of its size.

But there’s very little more to go on regarding when the photo was taken and why.

There are more photos in the file, showing a progression of the construction project, with aerial photos providing priceless glimpses of work in progress. This one could be part of a package illustrating how the bridge was built.

This black-and-white photo shows the thick fishnet that was installed below the bridge as a worker safety measure — a rare view of the netting among the many photos of the bridge and Auburn dam construction in the Journal files.

The safety record on Foresthill Bridge construction was indubitably aided by the netting, particularly in light of at least one eye-witness report of a worker falling off the span into the twine.

In the end no worker died from a fall off the span during construction.

No accidents?

But how many workers slipped, fell and were saved by the net? The bureau reported no accidents in that regard — only that some workers had tested out the netting by dropping off the beams and falling into it.

The question of whether those drop-offs were intentional or not is left open to conjecture.

Would a worker who made a misstep want to report that he had made that mistake on the job? A bridge worker would benefit from not reporting a mishap into the netting if he wanted future work with the contractor building the bridge. And if word got out that he was putting himself in a dangerous position while working, wouldn’t that mean future jobs with other employers would be in jeopardy?

And wouldn’t a government agency and contractor wanting a clean accident record want to turn a blind eye? After, all it was a “no harm, no foul” situation.  

Suffice to say, common wisdom is that — accident reports or no accident reports — the netting was a lifesaver.

When the bridge was completed, the netting went away, leaving behind a picturesque span that has also attracted suicidal jumpers. In all 87 people have plummeted off the 730-foot-high bridge since 1973.

Tribute to workers

On the positive side, the bridge has attracted visitors to marvel at a feat of construction that created California’s highest bridge. It’s a tribute to not only some commendable engineering but also to the many workers who labored with precision and a superhuman sense of balance to put the pieces together.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.