The Year the Bridges Failed

Like the victims of Thornton Wilder's "Bridge of San Luis Rey," we are trying to forge connections as we stare down the abyss

Golden Gate bridge disappearing into the fog
Photo by Modestas Urbonas

On March 23, 2020, in the midst of a rapidly escalating pandemic, Seattle officials announced the sudden closure of one of the city’s most highly trafficked bridges. In an emergency virtual press conference, the Mayor pronounced the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge cracked, deteriorated, structurally unsound—a road to certain catastrophe. Closure was imminent, and possibly permanent. They gave residents three hours’ notice.

This bridge was the “high road” between West Seattle and Interstate 5, the fastest route between the city’s largest neighborhood and the world beyond. Over 100,000 cars and 25,000 transit passengers crossed it daily. Commuters, cargo, school and metro buses sped high above the shipyards—a land of grain silos and shipping containers, a history of industry at the nation’s northwestern edge, where the shimmering Duwamish Waterway empties into Elliott Bay and flows to the Pacific. Crossing the bridge on a clear day, Mount Rainier rises like a pale god on the southern horizon, foregrounded by a fleet of orange steel cranes.

We took for granted that the bridge would suspend us, that the center would hold.

The moment Seattleites learned of the closure, we made a mental calculation about the last time we’d crossed it, and how soon we’d need to make the trip to West Seattle again. We took for granted that the bridge would suspend us, that the center would hold. And why not? Why not trust the DOT and your own two eyes? On the surface, the bridge looked like a good bridge. But now, we think of all the times we sailed across mindlessly, never questioning the road beneath our tires, not knowing or even seeing the structure that upheld us. 

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below. This bridge was on the highroad between Lima and Cuzco and hundreds of persons passed over it every day…

So begins Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning novella, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a slim moral fable that takes as its central question nothing short of the whole meaning of life. The story, echoed above, is set against a backdrop of colonialism and the Spanish Inquisition; its characters are well acquainted with disaster. Yet, “[t]he moment a Peruvian heard of the accident, he signed himself and made a mental calculation as to how recently he had crossed it.” People “had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf,” and “there was a great searching of hearts in the beautiful city of Lima.”

There’s no formula for moving a person to care. But Wilder, a dramatist at heart, and the only American writer to win Pulitzers for both fiction and playwriting (twice, for “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth”), offers two reasons why this particular breach held sway over the national conscience. 

One is the act of witness. A Franciscan missionary named Brother Juniper “happened to be in Peru converting the Indians” when he saw the bridge snap. Brother Juniper undertakes to learn every detail about the fallen, to document his findings in a book that will prove a divine intention behind the accident, and God’s reason for choosing those five—three adults, two children—whose stories occupy the bulk of the novel.

But Wilder also points to the bridge itself, a man-made construction we imbue with near-invincible properties. It’s a kind of suspension of disbelief, a psychic control we surrender in order to get through our days, a dream of stability we occasionally startle from. “The bridge,” he writes, “seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break.”

Before barricading the bridge, Seattle recruited international “structural experts” to monitor the damage. Interior cracks accelerated two feet in two weeks, an aging process that typically takes years. The Department of Transportation acknowledged mistakes; the media detailed them. How the DOT had defied logic to add a seventh lane in 2013. How band-aids to the problem—increased inspections, fastened gauges, epoxy—failed to stick. 

The metaphor is obvious, but it was the spring of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and closer to home, Manuel Ellis—he, too, could not breathe. It was the spring of Christopher Cooper attempting to birdwatch in Central Park, an otherwise peaceful pastime. It was the spring and then the summer of warlike death tolls, ugly projections, grim facts of Black lives lost at a rate of three to one, a pandemic statistic that mirrored the disproportionate rate of Black death by lethal force at the hands of law enforcement. Protesters and counter-protesters clashed on the Brooklyn Bridge. Chicago drew its bridges as a medieval castle might, “the city of big shoulders” raising its arms. Portland’s historic Burnside Bridge was paved with bodies, thousands of them, on their backs for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It was the summer of George Floyd.

Protesters and counter-protesters clashed on the Brooklyn Bridge. Chicago drew its bridges as a medieval castle might.

Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds were like a reverse moon landing. Months, years, decades led to one fateful film clip; Americans at home, paying attention because the cameras were on and we could not look away, could not make the old excuses, no time, gotta run, not today. The world tuned in with us to witness the man in uniform take the fateful step, an act at once inconceivable and inevitable, fundamental and antithetical to our species—and our nation, as the architects of the Constitution designed us. If the decimation of Native peoples is America’s original sin, a knee on the neck of Black man—more weight than any load-bearing back was built for—is our core wound. The wound cracked open. 

Perhaps it always goes back to the fathers, the founding. 

In recounting the origin story of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder said, “the central idea of the work […] stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist.”

Wilder did not share his father’s faith, or absolutism. (In one of Wilder’s journal entries, he defines an American as “a man who has outgrown his father,” according to Penelope Niven’s biography Thornton Wilder: A Life.) In contrast, The Bridge is riddled with “perhapses.” It boasts no heroes. And much to Brother Juniper’s dismay, the lives lost to the bridge don’t add up to easy answers, not a saint among them: the Marquesa de Montemayor, a wealthy drunk who becomes famous for sentimental letters penned to her estranged daughter; Pepita, an orphan and the Marquesa’s maid; Esteban, a reticent scribe; and Uncle Pio, trainer of Lima’s most famous actress, who crosses the bridge with the actress’s son in his charge. 

The book offers no obvious villain, either—except, perhaps, for the Inquisition itself, a headless horseman stampeding in the background, cowing citizens through a campaign of terror fueled by rumor, suspicion, and dehumanization, both targeted and free-wheeling. Even Brother Juniper isn’t immune; the monk spends his days calculating points of good and evil, only to die quite pointlessly, burning at the stake at the hands of that monstrous outgrowth of Catholicism, his own religious parentage. 

We prefer the safe ground of this side or that, good or evil, with us or against us, lock her up or set her free.

This liminal space between black-and-white binaries is not a comfortable place for humans, or readers, to be. We prefer the safe ground of this side or that, good or evil, with us or against us, lock her up or set her free. Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that Wilder’s novel sold out immediately, went through seventeen printings in its first year, became an American classic and required reading. Why this book?   

In a letter to a former student, Wilder wrote, “People who are full of faith claim that the book is a vindication of this optimism; disillusioned people claim that it is a ‘barely concealed anatomy of despair.’” In other words: literary confirmation bias. In a story of ambiguity, we see what we want to see. 

To the many readers who wrote demanding Wilder choose a side, the author invoked Chekov’s line that “the business of literature is not to answer questions, but to state them fairly.”

The Bridge, Wilder said, was also inspired by a fair question, one that Jesus poses in the Gospel of Luke, which seems as relevant to the events of 2020 as any: “Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?”

It must be said: it was not a beautiful bridge. This was no Golden Gate, no Brooklyn, no London Bridge we’ll sing about. It was not vying for design awards, trading in art or poetics, padlocked hearts and marriage proposals. We’re talking seven lanes and 590 feet of pre-stressed concrete, cement grey and steel, buttressed by concrete box girders. Bridges are inherently vulnerable, at-risk, defying gravity with a sleight of engineering hand. But the West Seattle bridge cried bull. It was a stocky-legged freeway, functional until it was dysfunctional.

We weren’t in the room, but let’s imagine the bridge was built by good engineers with good intentions. Let’s give them that 21st-century benefit of the doubt, assume they were “doing the best they could with the information they had at the time.” Maybe someone phoned it in one day. Maybe they had a colicky newborn, or a dying parent, or the flu. Maybe a bit of ego got in the way, or the pressure of a deadline. We are human. We break down, crack up. Fault lines run through us, run from us, baked into the earth beneath our feet and all our creations.

At any rate, the bridge was fundamentally, categorically unsafe, in a way citizens would never see. The trouble ran below the surface.

The bridge was fundamentally, categorically unsafe, in a way citizens would never see. The trouble ran below the surface.

If the West Seattle Bridge were Wilder’s Marquesa de Montemayor—a woman “who had never brought courage to either life or love”—she might resort to rhetorical flourishes and deflections: sing London Bridge is falling down, or cry, “What about the dams? Nobody’s even talking about the dams!” Then she would pen a gushing, desperate letter: “Cover me in Band-Aids. Patch me over with denial. I was trying. It was the Nisqually Earthquake’s fault, in 2001, remember? Please love me.”  

The Marquesa’s story highlights the human tendency toward a shame response in the face of rejection or perceived judgment. In a desire to elicit love from her daughter, the Marquesa resorts to self-pity, blame, and avoidance, behavior which achieves the opposite result. Finally, just before her fateful trip across the bridge, a declaration of bravery by her young maid shocks the woman awake to her own dishonesty. She could not rewrite letters past, “but she could write some new ones, free and generous.” She cleared the table, and “wrote what she called her first letter, her first stumbling misspelled letter in courage.” This letter becomes famous throughout Peru and beyond, a modern Second Corinthians. “No one else has regarded it as stumbling.”

Or take Esteban, the silent scribe, who attempts suicide after his twin brother dies, just before he’s meant to leave on a voyage with Captain Alvarez—a man who is no stranger to loss, and overhears Esteban in his room.

The Captain stood on the stairs, trembling: “Perhaps it’s best,” he said to himself. “Perhaps I should leave him alone. Perhaps it’s the only thing possible for him.” Then on hearing another sound he flung himself against the door, fell into the room and caught the boy. “Go away,” cried Esteban. “Let me be. Don’t come in now.”

Esteban fell face downward upon the floor. “I am alone, alone, alone,” he cried. The Captain stood above him, his great plain face ridged and gray with pain; it was his own old hours he was reliving. He was the awkwardest speaker in the world apart from the lore of the sea, but there are times when it requires a high courage to speak the banal. He could not be sure the figure on the floor was listening, but he said, “We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn’t for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised at the way time passes.”

Love, sometimes, sounds like apology. Stumbling, sometimes, looks like courage. Broad shoulders, sometimes, tremble and bow before the banal.

Maybe the uncertain present has me turning to the past, to Wilder, to a story built on “perhaps.” Maybe the hope I feel is contextual: a higher hope amid the public rallying cry for Walls! Walls! Walls! Is it passé, in 2020, to talk bridges instead?

Now, the conversation turns to a way forward. Uphold and repair the current structure, or dismantle and rebuild with the information we have now. Emphasis on the “R” words. Repair, Rebuild. Without the bridge, we cannot get across, cannot reach the places we want to go. 

We have a history of this in West Seattle. Four failed former structures—three variations on a swinging gate bridge, in 1900, 1910, and 1918—followed by a low-level bascule bridge that eventually caused one of the city’s worst bottlenecks. By mid-century, the West Seattle Bridge was mired in a 20-year replacement saga so replete with political corruption that it landed the Head of the Washington House Transportation Committee (HTC) and his conspirators in prison. The project was dead until an 81-year-old sea captain smashed his cargo ship into the bridge, earning the city federal replacement funds. (In a final twist, the captain retired in disgrace, and fearing bankruptcy, transferred his assets to his much younger wife, who blew through the cash, blew his head off with a shotgun, chopped up his body with a butcher knife and buried him in the backyard. She joined the head of the HTC in prison.) 

It took a century’s drama and a cool $150 million to build this bridge. Initial SDOT estimates put the cost of rebuild between $50 and $150 million. They projected a timeline of one year. In a city notorious for protracted permitting and deliberation—the “Seattle process,” described in a 1983 Seattle Weekly editorial as “seeking consensus through exhaustion”—that date rang like a punchline. The media reported two years, then four, then six.

In the meantime, nearly 80,000 residents are marooned, stuck at home, stuck in traffic, bottlenecked along a snaking two-lane highway known as “the low road.” That’s not including residents of Vashon Island or the Kitsap Peninsula who ferry through West Seattle. Without the bridge, West Seattle is itself a kind of island. One woman I spoke with, whose daily two-hour round-trip commute has more than doubled, was on the verge of tears, unsure how she could keep her job and maintain her family. 

Others, perhaps, have greeted the news of the bridge closure with indifference, even glee. Politicians eager to dethrone the mayor. City councilmembers: same. Developers, contractors chomping at the bid. A group of West Seattleites eager to “free West Seattle” from the city. Loners loathe to venture beyond the neighborhood. The grumblers who grumble, “Why should MY tax dollars pay for it? What about the pothole in MY road? If West Seattleites weren’t so busy complaining, they’d be halfway to work by now.”

This is America; we have our share of conspiracy theorists. Those who believe the city was in on it, the mayor was in on it, the conservatives or the liberals were in on it. Some saw the bridge’s near-collapse as an act of God. Some saw it as an act of Russia. What about the fact that the bridge was built in 1984? Coincidence? 

Some saw the bridge’s near-collapse as an act of God. Some saw it as an act of Russia.

You could trace a line from these voices to the London Bridge of antiquity, where a prevailing conspiracy theory held that the bridge would fall unless a child sacrifice was captured and cemented in the foundation. It sounds preposterous today, but history lives like song inside us. “Lock her up” is catching because it’s an echo—take the keys and lock her up—so familiar we forget we committed that verse to memory before we left the nursery.

You could trace a line from Manuel Ellis to Chief Seattle, from Seattle’s racist redlining to Ordinance No. 5, which passed easily among white settlers, and called for the removal of all Indians. They were already removed onto reservations, but the law would keep them from coming back for work. The view from the West Seattle Bridge could serve as a retrospect. The Duwamish River was once home to the Duwamish First Nations tribe, led by Chief Seattle, for whom our progressive city is named. Today, the Duwamish Longhouse sits amid shipping containers. Tribal lands run beneath Amazon’s headquarters. In 2001, the glimmering Duwamish River, a repository for 150 years of toxic industrial waste, was declared a Superfund site. Cleanup is like the democratic process: slow, messy, and if you believe in it, worth every effort. 

For years, scientists have predicted impending doom for Seattle in the form of the really big one, a tectonic clash that would rattle our homes and infrastructures, turn whole swaths of apparent solid ground to liquid beneath us. I almost never think of this unless I see a headline or pass tsunami warning signs at the beach—human stick figures scrambling for higher ground, the Sound a roaring monster at their heels—or until I am inching in traffic across a bridge. Suddenly, I’m reminded of my precarious place on the planet. Suddenly, I wonder if the Department of Transportation is paying attention, if the center can hold us all. I imagine myself a victim, like one of Thornton Wilder’s random chosen, who according to a Brother Juniper looked like “gesticulating ants” flung into the rift.

Some days, it feels as if the Big One is upon us. Some days, it feels as if we are peering over some dark edge, gesticulating ants flung about by fate and folly as we march the earth together for the briefest while: a colony. In the canyon of my mind, I hear the echo of my public schoolteachers across decades and miles. “Mira, mira—” says my Spanish teacher, a former priest who taught me about the Inquisition. Look, pay attention. “If we’re not careful, history repeats.” 

Like a chorus. Like a bridge.

In the midst of a public health crisis, a reckoning on race in America, and partisanship that threatens to snap us in two, the West Seattle bridge fractures. A fateful reminder or a meaningless coincidence that we were founded upon lofty ideals but inherently flawed designs. The Duwamish Waterway. The Dred Scott decision. Selma: a peaceful march met with state-sanctioned violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. These failings are our past and future, no matter how sound they seem on the surface, or in name, no matter how wishful our thinking or willful our forgetting. Like the Marquesa, we cannot revoke those pages from our history. But she could write some new ones, free and generous…

These failings are our past and future, no matter how sound they seem on the surface, no matter how wishful our thinking or willful our forgetting.

At the time of this writing, a petition is underway to change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the John Lewis, after the U.S. representative and Civil Rights leader who led the march across it. The current structure is named for a U.S. Senator, a general of the Confederate Army and a “grand dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan. 

In Seattle, the Mayor has convened a task force, and for the second time in the bridge’s forty-year history, issued a request for federal funds. The West Seattle Chamber of Commerce has started its own committee. At least one new community coalition has formed, its name full of optimism: West Seattle Bridge Now

Story is, as the writer Brian McDonald calls it, “survival information.” Life or death. If we are to look to literature for insight, then—in this case, a classic novel about a bridge collapse—we might turn to The End, to Wilder’s famous final lines: “[S]oon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough….” 

The tense—future perfectwas no accident on the author’s part. But as the story of The Bridge makes excruciatingly clear, love alone will not cure our suffering. We get closer through the operative “be,” love as transitive verb, in direct relationship to others, activated and made known through courage, no act too small. Call it connection. Call it common humanity, or beloved community, this invisible structure we spend our lives working and mending on our way to a more perfect union. We know this: how love degenerates along the low road of shame, greed and fear. We know this: the restorative power of apology, humility, and grace. We forget this: we have always known the way across. 

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