The historic Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge, known locally as “No Hands Bridge,” has been saved from destruction by many hands, including the hand of fate. On March 23, its 102nd birthday, the bridge became an official California historical landmark.
The bridge, located at the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the American River, with footings in both El Dorado and Placer County, was completed in 1912 at a cost of $300,000. Part of a 7-mile standard gauge railroad built by Pacific Portland Cement Company, it connected the company’s limestone quarry operation in Cool with the Southern Pacific Railroad main line in Auburn. At the time of its completion, the bridge, designed by innovative structural engineer and architect John B. Leonard, was the longest concrete arch bridge in the world.
Leonard fought to have the bridge built of reinforced concrete, arguing that unlike steel or wooden bridges, the concrete would increase in strength as it aged. “The concrete of the bridge today is still very strong,” said Neil Moore, structural engineer.
The 482-foot-long bridge was built to carry some of the largest locomotives of the day and heavily laden railroad cars carried limestone to Auburn over it daily until 1940. The rails and trestles of the railroad were removed to support the war effort during WWII and the bridge was no longer used.
The bridge is used today by pedestrians and equestrians and is the last part of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Tevis Cup 100 Miles Day Trail Ride. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and has survived flood, damage and politics.
The bridge’s nickname reportedly came from equestrian Ina Robinson, who often deliberately dropped her reins while crossing the bridge on horseback. Most riders dismounted and walked their mounts across the bridge. Not Robinson.
“No Hands Bridge” stood firm on its footings when Hell Hole Dam burst in 1964, taking out two modern bridges upstream. While the other bridges were repaired, it was used for vehicle traffic between El Dorado and Placer County. In 1967, the Bureau of Reclamation performed a condition survey of the bridge and determined that part of the pier footings in the river bed had been undermined by the water flow. The damage wasn’t considered a problem, however, because the bridge was slated to be submerged and abandoned when the new reservoir for the proposed Auburn Dam filled in.
The Auburn Dam project went on temporary hold after an earthquake in 1975 and the bridge remained. “No Hands Bridge” was submerged during the 1986 Valentine’s Day flood, but again it stood firm, while a 250-foot coffer dam two miles downstream was destroyed.
In 1990 and 1995, with the Auburn Dam project now permanently on hold, “No Hands Bridge” was inspected again. The damage had increased and the Bureau of Reclamation placed gates at each end of the bridge to stop all traffic across it.
Protestors demonstrated at the newly installed gates. The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Tevis Cup routes were imperiled by the bridge closure. “Save No Hands Bridge” became the slogan on bumper stickers and t-shirts, the sale of which established a fund to help save the little bridge. Donations began arriving from around the world.
“We actually held the Endurance Run and the Tevis Cup twice while it was closed with the permission of the Bureau of Reclamation, ” said Moore, who is a member of the Western States Endurance Run bridge committee. “We opened the gates and had an engineer with a laptop monitoring the bridge for tilt. We had an airhorn to warn people off the bridge in the event of an earthquake and we limited the number of people and horses that could be on it at one time.”
Collaboration between the Bureau of Reclamation, the California State Parks Department, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and Western States Trail Foundation began. Studies performed by a number of groups helped to develop a plan to remove the big concrete block in the river and install a new foundation under the front of the damaged pier.
Funding to do the repairs was another major obstacle. With the nudging of Larry Suddijen of the Western States Trail Foundation, Congressman John Doolittle was able to loosen $700,000 in federal disaster relief money for the repairs. In 1999, the pier foundation and portions of the pier were repaired and the bridge was reopened to the public where it remains an integral part of the Auburn State Recreation Area, enjoyed by hikers, runners and equestrians.
A year of celebratory events detailing the history of “No Hands Bridge” began in 2012, the bridge’s centennial year. The Auburn State Recreation Area and historical societies from both El Dorado and Placer County hosted presentations to recognize the contribution the bridge had made to history.
Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge became a California Historical Landmark in 2014 and the dedication ceremony for the plaque was held on the El Dorado County side of the bridge on Sunday.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.