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Literary Corner

Cold Spring Bridge – A span of space and history | Judith Dale

  • 4 min to read

During the Alisal fire, my neighbor, who recently moved to the Santa Ynez Valley, traveled over San Marcos Pass (Highway 154) to get to and from Santa Barbara while Highway 101 was closed. Due to slow-moving, stop-and-go traffic, she realized that she was traveling on a bridge spanning a canyon for the first time. She asked if I knew anything about it.

The Cold Spring Bridge is special to me for two reasons: I remember driving the Pass before it was built and how dangerous the road was. Secondly, I witnessed the bridge being constructed during the summer of 1963. I was taking a class at Santa Barbara City College and traveling the pass five days a week for six weeks. The construction was something to behold.


Before the bridge was built, the road wound down through Cold Spring Canyon and was steep, curvy, narrow, slow and dangerous. The bridge made the road much safer. The bridge was bid at $2 million to build ($1.7 billion in today's dollars). U.S. Steel Corp. and Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Missouri, were the builders.

Several factors went into the choice of the steel arch design, such as cost, maintenance, span and designated design loads. Reinforced concrete and prestressed concrete designs were not seriously considered because they would have been much heavier. The two footings would not have supported the weight.

Construction began in June 1962 and was finished in late 1963. It opened to traffic in February 1964. The bridge was completed in four phases: foundation, building of the approach spans, building of the arch span and deck construction over the arch. The steel arch ribs were prebuilt in Gary, Indiana, and shipped to the site. The arch spans had to be lifted into place by a crane from trucks situated on the road below the new bridge. Work had to happen on both sides of the canyon to balance the loads on the arches and tiebacks. The construction had to follow a specific sequence, and each step had to be finished before the next phase could begin.

The bridge contains 5 million, 94,000 pounds of steel and is as tall as a 36-story building. At its highest point, the bridge deck is 400 feet above the canyon floor. It is the highest arch bridge in California and is the fifth-highest in the country. The bridge is 1,217 feet long, and the largest single-span is 700 feet. Currently, it is the fifth-longest span arch bridge of the "supported deck" type in the world.

When it was built, it was the longest bridge of its kind in the world.


The bridge has been maintained and repaired over the years. In the early 1990s, Caltrans inspections revealed that the reinforced concrete base of the two supporting towers had deteriorated and had wide cracks. The cracks were sealed in both 1990 and 1995. Caltrans also made sure that vegetation adjacent to the bridge towers was reduced to protect against fire. In 1997-98, the bridge was seismically retrofitted to protect the deck from any uplifting by the support towers and arch ribs during an earthquake. This was a significant retrofit that included the installation of steel reinforcing plates, new bolts and new anchors.

110221 Cold Springs Bridge 1

The Cold Spring Bridge contains 5 million, 94,000 pounds of steel and is as tall as a 36-story building. 

In March 2012, the California Department of Transportation installed a 9.5-foot-tall barrier in the form of an inwardly curved, finely gridded mesh fence to prevent people from jumping off the bridge. The fence cost $3.2 million and was controversial as some said the fence ruined the view, which of course, it did. However, what is more important — a view or a life? There have been suicides since the fence was built, but many fewer than before its construction.

In March of this year, the bridge was inspected and received a fresh coat of green paint for the first time in 50 years. Also, a catwalk is due to be added underneath the bridge. This would make it easier for crews to perform future inspections. This project is expected to be finished by the spring of 2023 and will cost $7 million. The bridge is routinely inspected every two years to make sure it is safe.


The Cold Spring Arch Bridge won an award for outstanding ironworks shortly after it was constructed in 1963. The American Society of Civil Engineers designated the structure as Historic Civil Engineering Landmark #44 in October 1976. ASCE emphasized this recognition in 2004 by mounting a plaque on a monument located on Old San Marcos Pass Road, northeast of the bridge. In addition, Buckland & Taylor, Ltd. was given two awards in 1999 for its work on the seismic retrofit of the bridge. The two awards were the CELSOC Engineering Excellence Award of Merit and the ACEC Engineering Excellence Honor Award.

In 2007, the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. According to the Historic American Engineering Record, “The structure is significant as an important example of bridge design and engineering that demonstrates a maturation of steel arch bridge design and welded steel technology in California, and it represents a high aesthetic quality of contemporary design from its period. It is also an important work of the Division of Highways Bridge Department, considered a ‘master’ engineer of the period. Finally, it is an important work of the American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel which is considered a ‘master’ builder of the period. Cold Spring Canyon Bridge possesses enduring value as an engineering accomplishment and one that design professionals and the public continue to appreciate for its engineering and aesthetic qualities.” Wow, and it’s in our own backyard!

View the Bridge

If you have not already done so, I highly recommend taking Old San Marcos Road (Stagecoach Road) off Highway 154 to drop down to view the bridge from below. It is a magnificent sight, and you can get some appreciation of its design and structural beauty. Also, the old road will give you an appreciation of why the bridge was needed in the first place.

While you are down there, stop by for a drink and meal at the historic Cold Spring Tavern, which has been in business since the stagecoach days of the 1860s. (It was built to give the stagecoach horses and passengers a rest after coming down the steep, dangerous slope of Cold Spring Canyon and before having to face a steep, dangerous slope going back up the other side.) The tavern is open Thursday through Sunday, so enjoy the travel back in time underneath an engineering marvel of the present.

Learn more about Santa Barbara County's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale with these 26 stories

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

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We often overlook and take for granted the importance of the river to our past development and more importantly to our future development and quality of life.

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The area around Guadalupe has evolved through many stages — from Chumash villages, to Spanish rule under Mission La Purisima, to a Mexican land grant, an immigrant farming community, a railroad town, and a modern agricultural city.

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We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at