Creaky, narrow and a bit scary to those with wide-body vehicles, the Mosquito Bridge is a bridge that tests driving skill and the ability to maintain a straight line.
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“You’ve got to get square with this bridge,” said Gino Klare, El Dorado County Department of Transportation bridge maintenance supervisor.
Veer too close to either side and the railings will scrape a line of paint right off your car. The swinging wooden suspension bridge was built in 1939 and spans the American River. Once across the bridge, a series of switchbacks with hairpin turns await the traveler going north, and a climb out of the canyon greets the southbound traveler.
Bridge maintenance is an ongoing job, especially for this bridge, one of only three wooden suspension bridges west of the Mississippi.
“Every year we close the bridge for a few weeks for repairs,” said Klare. “We try to close it at the same time every year so that the public can plan their commute around it.”
The bridge closed to traffic from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursdays, July 8-25, and the Mountain Democrat met with Highway Superintendent Brian Mullens of West Slope Maintenance and the four-man crew that maintains the bridges of El Dorado County.
Some years, like this year, repairs are minor and completed quickly; other years, like 2010, the bridge was closed for a major overhaul for a month. In 2007, after a mudslide took out one of the switchbacks on the north side of the canyon, the bridge was closed for seven months.
On July 17, the four-man EDC DOT crew was working in the middle of the suspension bridge and in the spider basket hanging under the bridge. It was 90 degrees at 11:30 a.m., but closer to 110 degrees on the wooden deck.
Bob Richardson, Mark Peterson, Dennis Davis and Klare are a tight-knit crew with members who watch out for each other.
“We maintain all the bridges, guard rails, retaining walls, curbs and gutters in El Dorado County,” said Klare, who has been with DOT for 20 years. “We’ll clean the top and underneath of the bridge, clear debris that’s accumulated out of the decking, paint all of the metal with Black-Max to preserve it and keep it from rusting, tighten all the nuts and bolts, check the joists, the beams and the cables and paint the bridge.”
“It’s a fascinating, unique bridge we get to work on,” said Mullens. “It’s like working on a piece of history.”
Both sides of the bridge will have the tire guards replaced, the cable pole straightened and the beams replaced.
“We’ll also change the design here a little so that it doesn’t take such a beating,” said Klare. “People hitting the bridge and oversized loads are the biggest problem for this bridge. One day, we painted the bridge and by the next day there was a black streak on the tire guards where someone had hit it. Another time, we were still working on the bridge and we let a Forest Service van come across. It got too close to the edge and one of the doors was sheared clear off.”
“Everything’s got to move on this type of bridge,” said Klare. “There is a lot of give and take. If we take a piece off to repair it, we’ve got to preload the bridge by the same amount or it will move and we’ll never get everything to line up again.” Think Indiana Jones swapping out an equal weight bag of sand for a golden statue.
Expansion and contraction of the wood need to be figured in before the wood is cut. “If you cut a piece of wood in the summer when it’s dry to replace something, that same piece will swell in the winter when it’s wet and you need to allow for that before you put things back together,” said Klare.
Working on a wooden deck suspended above a rushing river in July makes for hot and humid work. The crew watches each other for signs of heat exhaustion. All of them are trained in fall protection, but the harnesses and protective gear they wear also add to the heat. The spider basket that workers lie in to work on the underside of the bridge moves constantly with the motion of the bridge.
“When you get home at night and climb into bed,” said Klare, “the whole room will keep moving for hours.”
The saddles and brackets on the bridge are all cast iron. “They are unique and hard to replace, so we try not to drop them,” said Klare. “It takes forever to get new ones cast after you find someone who can do that kind of work.”
Klare and Mullens are already planning for next year’s bridge maintenance.
“We have to schedule crews and equipment like the spider basket months ahead of time,” said Mullens. “Sometimes other projects, like the Caltrans Highway 193 project, come into play as well. People often call us and want us to fix their road, but it’s hard to pull a crew off schedule to do it, especially since we’ve had budget cuts.”
After July 25, the bridge crew will be off to cooler altitudes to work on the Rubicon as its next maintenance project and the Mosquito Bridge will be clean, safe and ready for traffic once more.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.