Rengstorff House

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS

"Damn the bridge." That might have been the slogan of a group of activists in 1906 who opposed the building of a railroad bridge over the southern part of San Francisco Bay. The headline in The Evening News of San Jose: "MANY ARRAYED FOR AND AGAINST PROPOSED DUMBARTON [RAIL] BRIDGE."

It wasn't exactly a war, but the War Department was the final authority.

The Southern Pacific Railroad and various commercial interests who would benefit from east-west rail commerce were in favor. Ship captains and others who benefited from north-south shipping on Bay waters were opposed on the grounds that shipping would be inconvenienced and rates charged to shippers would increase. At a hearing in August 1906, conducted by the War Department's Army Corps of Engineers, affidavits from various parties were read, including the protest of Henry A. Rengstorff, the son of Henry Rengstorff who had died a few months before the hearing. For decades the Rengstorffs had been operating a landing in Mountain View south of the proposed bridge, which, if constructed, would disrupt the busy traffic of freight-carrying scow schooners headed to and from Rengstorff's Landing. In addition to delays, one or more protesters pointed out the hazards of rough seasonal waters ("waves 10-15 feet high") particularly perilous for sailing vessels tacking through the narrow opening.

The proposed structure was called a "swing bridge," due to its mid section that pivoted 90 degrees to allow vessels to transit. (See photo) In practice, on boaters' signal the bridge operator would start a diesel engine and rotate the bridge to the open position on a large gear.

That same year, 1906, some of the protesters, trying to make waves, sent a petition to William Howard Taft, Secretary of War. Since the previous year Taft had been campaigning for the 1908 presidential election. It is not known whether he took into account the position of the protesters and he approved its construction. He was elected president and served one term. In 1921 he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, retiring in 1930 just before his death.

Mr. Taft had the distinction of being the heaviest man ever to occupy the position of president. In a bit of irony when he moved into the White House he found his own troubled waters. In the bathtub, that is. Unable to fit into it, let alone pivot, he had a special tub built to accommodate his girth. Nearby is a photo of the tub and the workmen who installed it - with his image superimposed.

The bridge opened in 1910 and operated until 1982, when its swing section was welded into a permanently open position. In its heyday, as many as 50 freight trains a week transited the span. It is not clear whether the difficulties predicted by the protesters came to pass. In any event, over the years land-based motor freight came to supplant the use of schooners and other commercial vessels; and Rengstorff's Landings became a popular bathing place for local residents.