As we hurtle down Highway 154 and fly across the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge, we should remember that before this engineering marvel was created, drivers slowly wound their way down Stagecoach Road past the historic Cold Springs Tavern when they entered the Valley over San Marcos Pass.
The 1,217-foot-long steel arch bridge completed in 1963 was part of a new seven-mile road realignment that dramatically reduced driving times across the pass. Eighty-eight curves in an 11-mile section of the old road were eliminated.
A newspaper article from 1964 noted community concern engendered by the sudden change in accessibility:
“When the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge chopped about 15 minutes off the time between the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara this spring, it touched off a lot of conjecture as to the possible future of the area.”
Prior to then, regular commuting between the Valley and Santa Barbara was not feasible, and San Marcos Pass was not a shortcut for through traffic on Highway 101.
A history of the bridge, compiled for the current suicide-barrier environmental impact report, adds to our appreciation of what we take for granted.
When the bridge was constructed, it was one of the 10 longest steel bridges in the nation, and the 700-foot-long main span was twice as long as any other constructed in California up to that time.
Widely acclaimed at the time of its construction, it remains the longest steel arch bridge of its type in California. Engineer Marvin A. Schulman, who was largely responsible for the design of the bridge, maintained, “the magnitude of the site, including its picturesque location, demanded a structure to complement the setting.”
The choice of a steel arch was influenced by a number of criteria, including the steep canyon, the risk of fire, and limited access to the floor of the canyon. A concrete structure would have required extensive combustible lumber formwork and mammoth footings.
The relatively lightweight steel components of the arches, girders, columns, towers and floor beam system were welded together in place. During construction, two 117-foot-tall temporary towers were erected to suspend cantilevered sections of the arch from both sides of the canyon until they met in the center.
The design and construction of the bridge cost “over $2 million,” but were “calculated as saving at least $400,000” compared to alternative designs, and the bridge took only 18 months to construct. California highway publications at the time reveal the “views of the canyon from the bridge, and surrounding countryside were considered to be among the most beautiful and impressive in California.”
Although the bridge is slightly less than 50 years of age, because of its unique character, the historical resources evaluation report has found it to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places at the state level of significance.
The bridge was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to rapid growth the Valley experienced in the 1960s and ’70s. It certainly encouraged increased commuting and the Valley’s development as a bedroom community. Few of the major subdivisions, and virtually none of the large rural ones, predate the bridge. Both the tourism and wine industries have benefited greatly from the ease of access provided by the bridge.
Homeward-bound Valley residents and first-time visitors know they have entered a special place when they experience the unique thrill of crossing the Valley’s most exciting and aesthetically pleasing shortcut, 400 feet above the canyon floor below. Few actually pause, perhaps fortunately, to consider how they got there.
Lansing Duncan is a former Santa Barbara County planning commissioner and former chairman of the General Plan Advisory Committee.