I had signed up to go out to the old eastern span of the Bay Bridge this morning to witness what Caltrans had advertised as the beginning of the massive structure’s demolition. The agency has said the old bridge, notorious for its failure in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, will be mostly gone within a year; the full demolition project, down to the “mud line” beneath the surface of the bay, will take three years. But last night, Caltrans said the deconstruction project will be delayed for awhile as contractors finish work on measures to prevent debris from falling into the bay waters. It’s likely the taking-apart process will commence by next week.

But the prospect of the eastern span being taken down — without explosives, if you were wondering — got me thinking about major Bay Area demolition events of the past. I don’t want to use the term too broadly in a region where nature has carried out destruction on a grand scale. Exhibits include the 1906 earthquake and fire, Loma Prieta and the Oakland Hills fire, among many others.

Still, there’s something captivating both about seeing what we’ve built get taken down and in viewing others’ fascination with the process. I once went to Las Vegas to witness the destruction of the once-iconic Stardust Hotel, and watching the crowd’s anticipation and reaction was almost as fun as hearing the exploding dynamite and scurrying away from the billowing cloud of concrete dust that rolled down the Strip.

Here’s a brief list — you might have other local demolitions in mind — of great moments in local structure removal:

1. Sea Cliff sinkhole (1995): I put this at the top of my list because it was shown on live TV. And no, it was not a planned demolition. In December 1995, a storm sewer near 25th Avenue and Lake Street broke during a major winter storm. The water rushing from the sewer excavated a giant sinkhole that swallowed a mansion. Here’s how the Associated Press described the scene: “A three-story house in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes toppled into an enormous sinkhole and broke apart in a spray of timbers, walls and ceilings. … A neighbor’s garage also dropped into the hole, and at least seven other houses in San Francisco’s exclusive Sea Cliff neighborhood were evacuated, including the childhood home of photographer Ansel Adams, which was built in 1902.” And here’s video of the collapse:

2. The Embarcadero Freeway (1989): The Loma Prieta earthquake was a disaster and a tragedy, destroying dozens of residences and killing more than 60 people, most of whom perished in the collapse of West Oakland’s Cypress Freeway. But the quake did bestow one long-term gift: It damaged San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway so badly that the city had little choice but to tear down the double-deck structure that had walled off the Ferry Building and the rest of the northeastern waterfront. The demolition led eventually to creation of today’s more welcoming (if often congested) Embarcadero.

3. Cal State East Bay-Warren Hall (2013): Here’s a demolition with a cause. Cal State East Bay decided to bring down a 13-story building on campus, Warren Hall. Because of the structure’s proximity to the Hayward Fault, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey saw an opportunity to study seismic activity in the area when the building was imploded. Here’s a video of the building coming down in August 2013:

4. Old Carquinez Bridge (2006): In 2003, Caltrans completed a striking new suspension bridge to carry southbound Interstate 80 traffic across the Carquinez Strait between Vallejo and Crockett. That meant the old bridge, built in 1927, could go. It was a slow-motion affair, as recounted in the National Geographic documentary, “Break It Down: Bridge.” The San Francisco Chronicle described the process:

People with cameras and binoculars showed up to observe as crews took apart the bridge. Onlookers gathered on the hills overlooking the strait and on the Crockett waterfront beneath the three Carquinez bridges.

But because of the delicate nature of the operation, it was impossible to see any motion and difficult to see any progress unless you stuck around for a couple of hours.

Crews on Monday dislodged a 1.4 million-pound section of the bridge and began to lower it — from its position 130 feet above the strait — toward the waters below. From there, it will be placed on a barge and taken to the Mare Island shipyards nearby, where it will be ripped apart and salvaged. Parts of the old span are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and will be saved.

The chunk of steel was lowered 16 inches at a time. Each 16-inch drop took just 15 seconds, with four cranes working simultaneously, said Peter Strykers, senior bridge engineer for Caltrans. But it can take as long as an hour to recalibrate the cranes and get them ready for the next drop.

5. Golden Gate Bridge torpedo (1946): To be honest, we didn’t know about this one until we started looking into Bay Area demolition history. But a United Press story in June 1946 recounts what happened after a World War II torpedo was discovered near the span:

Normal traffic resumed over and under the Golden Gate Bridge today after navy demolition experts found that a Japanese torpedo was “practically a dud.”

The torpedo was found at the foot of the bridge two days ago by an unidentified person who called police. Navy authorities took over and set an explosive charge on the 27-foot missile yesterday to shatter the casing and ignite the explosive inside.

All traffic over the mile-long bridge was halted during the demolition, but only a relatively light explosion resulted.

  • Frederica Von Mew

    Interesting videos about the demolition of the old Carquinez Bridge. But it’s pretty sad when National GEOGRAPHIC doesn’t apparently realize that the Carquinez Bridge is in Vallejo/Crockett, NOT San Francisco. Sheesh. hahahaha

    • David Rodden

      Not So National after all..

  • Robertjm

    That’s the first I heard of that japanese torpedo incident. Sure would have changed the history books if that had succeeded.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor