Recently, we drove south of Carmel 18 miles to Big Sur in search of adventure and four-wheel drive dirt roads. Our adventure took us to Coast Road and Bixby Creek Road, which forks off from Highway 1.
Bixby Creek Bridge, also known as Bixby Bridge or in earlier years, is known as Mill Creek Bridge or Rainbow Bridge. Bixby Bridge, often referred to as the gateway to Big Sur, is one of the most photographed bridges in California and possibly the world. Designed by F.W. Panhorst, engineered by C.H. Purcell, and built by Ward Engineering Company, construction began in August 1931 and wasn’t completed until October 1932, even though the highway was not finished for five more years in 1937. Originally, plans were considered to connect Big Sur with an inland route. However, when engineers realized 890 feet of tunnel cutting into the Santa Lucia Mountains would have been required, that idea was scrapped and a bridge construction plan was put into place.
The bridge was built with concrete vs steel because it would reduce construction and maintenance costs as well as blend with the natural rock cliffs surrounding it. The amount of materials used in the construction was enormous: 300,000 feet of timber for falsework(before the concrete could be poured, crews had to build an entire bridge from timber), 600,000 pounds of steel, excavation of 4,700 cubic yards of earth, and 45,000 sacks of cement(6,600 cubic yards) were used. At completion, it was a total length of 714 feet from tip to tip, with a 360-foot span and 260 feet clearance below. At the time, it was the longest concrete single-span bridge in the world, costing $199,861 to build. This was nothing compared to the $20 million earthquake retrofit California did later in 1998 to make sure the bridge was equipped to handle seismic loads.
The bridge was originally named after a pioneer New Yorker, Charles H. Bixby, who traveled by wagon train to California in 1852 and was a cousin of President James Polk. Years later in 1889, Bixby filed for a homestead of 160 acres south of Bixby Creek and later purchased additional land to the north. Here he built Mill Creek Sawmill, which produced timber shakes, shingles, railroad ties, trench posts andtan bark. Lime deposits were discovered years later above Mill Creek, which he sold for use in cement, mortar, and other building products. In 1870, he hired crews to construct the first wagon road from Carmel Mission to Bixby Creek. Later he extended Old Coast Road to his property; 11 miles had to be carved inland to bypass Bixby Creek canyon and wind to Post Ranch (what is now Andrew Molera State Park). This 30-mile trek could take 3 days by wagon and had to be closed in winter. Bixby’s improvements gave him the legacy of being the most instrumental in the development of the Big Sur area. In 1906, after he had exhausted the supply of timber, he sold to the Monterey Lime Company – there was a great demand for lime after the San Franciso earthquake for rebuilding materials.
In 1919, Captain Howard Sharpe purchased the Bixby Creek Canyon Ranch and built a dirt road from Rainbow Lodge which he owned to Bixby Landing and the mouth of Bixby Creek. Rainbow Lodge included several cabins which could be rented to tourists and he wanted better access for them. In 1930, part of Bixby landing was sold to the State of California for Highway 1 and bridge construction.
Years later, the California Coastal Conservancy sought the purchase of Bixby Ranch, with the intention to protect its sweeping views, rocky shoreline, and rolling hills for public enjoyment and critical wildlife habitat.
For old photos of the Bixby Bridge Construction and building of highway one, see this link.