Florence Bridge: A Monument of Treachery

By Danelle Weber
Public Information Officer

The bridge crossing the Gila River outside Florence has quite a few distinctions in its history. It was the first bridge to cross a major river in Arizona. It was the only bridge in Arizona to cross the Gila River for much of its early history. It has also been rebuilt three times … talk about high maintenance!

The first try
Before Coolidge Dam was built and before the canal system began siphoning the river’s water supply, Gila River was quite formidable. It ranged from 150 to 1,200 feet wide and from two to 40 feet deep. It could pump 6,070 cubic feet of water per second into the Colorado River.

For a long time, the most popular story to tell about the river included a stagecoach driver, a soldier, two nuns, and a gambler. (We know — it sounds like the start of a bad joke.)

While trying to ford the river, the driver had his passengers hang on the outside of the carriage to keep the current from carrying away the stagecoach. According to the story, while the nuns prayed and the gambler cursed, the soldier was the only one to encourage to the driver.

Needless to say, it used to be a bit of a problem to cross Gila River, especially when it was flooding.

By 1885, Florence residents, miners and business owners were hungry for the means to cross the river safely and regularly. The price tag was well over $15,000, which would be nearly $20 million by today’s standards. It was 965 feet long and 16 feet wide. It had redwood piles, pine decking and a 30-ton iron truss. Just about everyone couldn’t be happier about the bridge. Everyone, that is, except for Territorial Gov. Conrad Zulick, who felt the bridge was “a wanton misappropriation of public funds.”

It was to everyone’s surprise and chagrin that a wooden bridge would suffer serious damage from swiftly running water and seasonal fires.

Once more, with feeling
By 1905, it was obvious that the bridge would need to be redone. In 1910, the first territorial engineer, James B. Girand, took on Florence Bridge and rebuilt it — this time with concrete and steel. Despite his best efforts to make the bridge as formidable as the river, however, a severe winter storm in 1914 washed away both approaches.

The newly minted concrete bridge was now a concrete island.

It was repaired, of course. Then, another storm in 1915 badly damaged it again. And again in 1916.

And again in 1917.

Senator Marcus Smith, one of Arizona’s first two, said the bridge had become a “monument to the treachery of the river.”

The feds step up to the plate
In 1916, Congress passed and President Wilson signed the Federal Road Aid Act. Is it any wonder that Arizona would try to get its hands on the very first federal monies it could to solve that thorn in its side, Florence Bridge? Because of Gila River’s treachery, Florence Bridge holds the distinction of being the first transportation project in Arizona to receive federal funds.

Federal Aid Project No. 1, as the rebuilding project was called, dug in its heels and attempted to fix Florence Bridge once and for all. The project extended the bridge by 750 feet. They were confident this extension would do the trick.

Well, the river saw our mere human attempts to tame it and raised us a raging current and another four decades of near-constant damage. Touché, river.

Starting from scratch … again
By the 1950s, the Arizona Highway Department had had enough of the money pit that was Florence Bridge and made plans to redesign and replace it entirely. The new structure was higher, wider, and longer than the 1910 version. At 1,507 feet long, it was made of 30 50-foot spans. The new bridge had a steel I-beam stringer superstructure and concrete substructure and piers. The deck was 35 feet wide and featured steel balustrade guardrails.

Since its completion in 1957, the bridge has only required two alterations: one in 1995 to replace the guardrails, and one in 2000 to repair the superstructure. Both seem fairly minor when you consider the continual repairs that used to be necessary. It seems that we have finally built a bridge worthy of crossing Gila River.

This article is part of ADOT’s Transportation History series in honor of Arizona’s centennial. The source for the information in this article comes from the ADOT-researched text “Arizona Transportation History” and the Arizona Historic Bridge Inventory.