All Over The Map: ‘Galloping Gertie’ name is shrouded in mystery

May 17, 2019, 7:57 AM | Updated: 8:11 am

It might seem odd to write a story about the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge in May. However, it’s actually a perfect time to explore a mystery surrounding the nickname of that infamous long-ago span connecting Tacoma and the other side of Puget Sound.

The original bridge was unofficially dubbed “Galloping Gertie” because it was so flexible and so sensitive to wind, that it really did bounce up and down and twist and roll from side to side to a dramatic and alarming degree. Since “Galloping Gertie” was a clever and spot-on nickname, it really stuck.

Traffic first crossed the bridge in July 1940. Then, just four months later, on November 7, 1940, the span famously disintegrated in a windstorm, and debris tumbled into the Narrows below.

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Fortunately, no human lives were lost, though a three-legged cocker spaniel named Tubby was. Tubby was in a car abandoned on the bridge deck by a newspaper reporter. Footage of the collapse is one of the most iconic pieces of 20th century media. For those of a certain age, watching it over and over again on a film loop viewer in junior high was a kind of analog precursor to YouTube.

And while the cause of the collapse was ultimately determined by forensic engineers to be “aeroelastic flutter,” the “mystery” part of this story that still remains to be solved is where the “Galloping Gertie” nickname came from.

Galloping Gertie

Earlier this week, Scott Williams, Cultural Resources Program Manager for WSDOT, checked with retired WSDOT historian, and bridge expert and author, Craig Holstine. Holstine reported back that Rick Hobbs, who authored a book about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, believes the nickname probably originated with the workers building the bridge.

A search of online newspapers prior to 1940 turns up several examples of many non-bridge things called “Galloping Gertie” long before the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built, including:

  • A toy mechanical goose in the 1930s
  • An Australian racehorse in the 1930s
  • A Seattle speedboat raced by Arthur Low in 1930 in the “Olympia to Seattle 60-mile outboard marathon”
  • An amusement park funhouse near Rochester, New York that could date to as early as the 1920s
  • A teenager’s jalopy in Decatur, Illinois in 1926

One theory about the origin of “Galloping Gertie” also turns up on two fairly trustworthy websites, including an old WSDOT “Weird Facts” page and something called “Today In History.” A long entry on “Today In History” claims that the “Galloping Gertie” nickname was first applied to an earlier suspension bridge that also bounced up and down way back in the 1840s and 1850s.

This earlier putative “Gertie” is the iconic Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which still crosses the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia. And it was on this very day 165 years ago, May 17, 1854, when the original version of that bridge was also destroyed in a wind storm (actually, a tornado).

But this theory of the earlier “Galloping Gertie” serving an eponymous role for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 proved difficult to confirm.

Laura Carroll is an archivist with the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, West Virginia. In an email last week, she wrote “Several of my colleagues here at the library have done some digging … the general consensus is that the assertion that the Wheeling Suspension Bridge ever had the nickname ‘Galloping Gertie’ is not accurate.”

Carroll also suggested reaching out to Dr. Emory L. Kemp, a retired professor at West Virginia University. Dr. Kemp is the preeminent expert on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, and has written the definitive book about it.

Reached at his home earlier this week and asked if he’s ever run across any connection between Tacoma’s “Galloping Gertie” and the bridge in West Virginia, Dr. Kemp was unequivocal.

“I’ve been working on that bridge for more than 20 years,” Kemp said. “There is no evidence – I have file boxes full – of that term ever being used for the Wheeling Bridge.”

It seems that much like other persistent Pacific Northwest legends such as Sasquatch or D.B. Cooper, the origins of “Galloping Gertie” will also likely remain shrouded in mystery.

After “Galloping Gertie” collapsed, it took nearly a decade to replace it. But, by the time that the new bridge opened to traffic on October 13, 1950, it had already earned a nickname of its own.

Trouble is, that 1950 replacement bridge has long outlasted the original, but “Sturdy Gertie” just didn’t stick.

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All Over The Map: ‘Galloping Gertie’ name is shrouded in mystery