Mystery Bridge Update: The US 101 Bridges in California

Nelson (CSAH F-14) Bridge over Willow Creek west of Dunlap, Iowa. Photo taken by Craig Guttau

In the June 7th edition of the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, I profiled the four bridges in Harrison County, Iowa that were part of a larger bridge imported all the way from California. Two of these bridges have been torn down, one is scheduled to be replaced next year, and the last of the bridges (as seen in the picture above) appears to be safe for now. Over a month and a half has passed and a round of inquiries to agencies in California have presented some new light on the history of the structure, even though there are still some questions that have yet to be answered. Some of the answers have brought some dismay on the part of the researchers who documented the four bridges in the 1990s and left many loopholes open, which through further research and dedication, these mistakes would have been avoided. Here is an update on the bridges from California, which will provide people with an insight on the bridge’s history and serve as an incentive to put the final pieces of the mystery puzzle together.

According to information provided by locals at the historical society, the origins of the four Harrison County spans came from a bridge that spanned the Santa Ynez River in the town of Buellton, a community of 4,900 residents located 25 miles west- northwest of Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara County. It is located just north of Gaviota State Park and the Santa Ynez Mountains and is the first town after passing through mountains and forest and leaving the Pacific coast heading north. The report indicated that the bridge was located near Bakersfield, but the community of 200,000 is located 70 miles northeast of Buellton. The four spans were part of a bridge that featured seven identical Pratt through truss spans and concrete beam approach spans. Construction was completed in 1917-18 at the cost of approximately $182,000. It became part of the original US Highway 101 in 1926 as the highway extended from Los Angeles through San Francisco and ending in Washington State. Interesting enough, that bridge and another arch bridge spanning a small creek, were close together and when plans were in the making to build a wider and longer structure in 1948, the creek was re-channeled so that the bridge crossed both streams. The new bridge was built to the east of the truss bridge and upon completion, the original bridge was dismantled with the spans carried away to different locations. Western Steel Cutting Company undertook this task in 1949 but later sold at least four of the spans to Highway Bridge Company in Lincoln Nebraska.

Here are some images of the Buellton US 101 Bridge both when it was being built in 1917 and when it was in use:

The following images are courtesy of Curt Cragg and the Buellton Historical Society, used with permission.


Transversal view of the bridge while under construction.
Oblique view of the bridge during construction.

This is where the story of the bridge stops. However, despite getting some answers to my quest for truth about the bridge, there are some questions out there that are still in need of some answering. We do know that the bridge was built much closer to the Pacific Coast and further away from Bakersfield than stated in the report in the 1990s. Judging by the information and the photos provided by the locals, the bridge was built in 1917 but most likely opened to traffic at the end of that year or the beginning of the next. It is unknown how the errors occurred in the report, but they are not unusual, as some surveys of historic bridges in the US conducted either by state agencies or the private sector have presented assumptions and theories, which after doing an even more thorough investigation, have been proven to be further off than expected. An example of such an error is the historical survey conducted on a bridge over the Des Moines River in Jackson, Minnesota, the Petersburg Road Bridge.  Assumptions were made during the surveys in the 1980s that the bridge, built using the same truss design and similar portal bracings, was built in the 1930s, yet further research indicated that Joliet Bridge Company constructed this bridge in 1907 and there were no further records of bridge construction at that site. The bridge was removed in 1995.

The case of mistaken identity: The Petersburg Road Bridge in Jackson, Minnesota. Photo taken in 1992 after the bridge was condemned to all traffic.









With the advancement of technology and more availability of information, researching bridges, like the US 101 Buellton Bridge has become more transparent and thorough, which serves as a blessing for many who are interested in their history, and in more cases than none, preserving them.

But time is running out for two of the remaining four US 101 spans that exist in Harrison County, and as mentioned earlier, there are still more questions to be answered which will not only round off the story of the original bridge, but in the cases of these two and perhaps the other three that were relocated somewhere else, one can prove the case and take action in listing them onto the National Register of Historic Places and preserving them for future recreational use. There have been some talks of keeping the Nelson Bridge in service while trying to salvage the East Kelley Lane Bridge (or at least parts of them), but these plans lie on the will of the locals in Harrison County, many of whom would like to see some history saved.

So here are some additional questions which might be of interest to not only the pontists and historians, but also to the locals of Harrison County, Iowa and Santa Barbara County, California. Some will require researching through the newspaper articles and records. Others will require some interviews. Here they are:

1. It is mentioned in the sources (from California) that the county either built the state structures or had signed an agreement to build them. How was it with the Buellton Bridge when it was built in 1917? Who oversaw the construction of the bridge and where did the trusses come from (bridge company and steel manufacturer)?

2. While it is confirmed that all seven truss spans were dismantled and four were sent to Iowa, what happened to the remaining seven spans? Were all seven spans sold to Highway Bridge Company, which then dispersed them to different locations, or were the three spans kept in California and erected elsewhere in the state? Who was in charge of dismantling the bridge to begin with?

3. Who were the Western Steel Cutting Company and the Highway Bridge Company and what were their roles in bridge building in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

Any leads can be sent to the author, Jason Smith at the following e-mail address: As soon as some leads show up, a follow-up report will follow.




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