Back-Seat Driver

San Francisco-sized population at Tahoe? Bridge could have changed lake forever

Hear the story of the Emerald Bay Bridge

When a rock slide closed the road to Emerald Bay in 1955, Tahoe business leaders pushed for a new bridge over the mouth of Emerald Bay. It came close to being built but was shelved under Gov. Ronald Reagan.
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When a rock slide closed the road to Emerald Bay in 1955, Tahoe business leaders pushed for a new bridge over the mouth of Emerald Bay. It came close to being built but was shelved under Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay is perhaps the most spectacular nook in one of the world’s beautiful alpine basins. But it can be an elusive nook. This winter, avalanches closed the highway above the bay for weeks, severing the loop road around the lake.

What if the highway didn’t have to make that tightrope walk across the steep mountainside behind the bay? What if it simply ran straight and low along the lakeshore instead, like it does elsewhere in the basin? Of course, that would mean a bridge across the mouth of Emerald Bay.

The idea seems heresy, like putting braces on the Mona Lisa.

It almost happened.

The fight over the Emerald Bay Bridge, little remembered today, represents a pivotal moment in Tahoe history. It took place as California’s relationship to its natural environment was undergoing a seismic shift.

It began during a heavy winter like the one California just experienced. In late 1955, a massive rock and earth slide engulfed Highway 89 and tumbled all the way down to Emerald Bay, forcing an 11-month road closure.

The route there is listed as a state highway, but that’s misleading. It’s a winding, two-lane mountain road built in the 1920s with stone wall buttresses. Most winters it would be closed for months, buried in snow. That winter of 1955-56, Tahoe business leaders had enough. They wanted to expand the Tahoe year-round economy. Some talked of a San Francisco-sized population in the basin.

“It became evident,” a state Division of Highways analyst wrote, “that a better route would have to be found to get past Emerald Bay. The present road is narrow and crooked and impossible to keep open during the winter.”

The bridge was an idea for its time. The post-World War II economy was booming and the country was in full construction mode. President Dwight Eisenhower was launching construction of the massive interstate freeway system. Portions of Interstate 80 were being built ahead of the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.

The state Division of Highways, the precursor to today’s Caltrans, hired geologists, studied alignments, drew up engineering plans, and built a scale model of an arched bridge, low to the water, to show at community meetings. Officials even commissioned a serene watercolor artwork of the bay fronted by a bridge that looked almost dainty on the landscape.

The debate was instantaneous. Proponents had precedent to point to. The Golden Gate Bridge had settled in just fine at the entrance to another famous bay, they said. People called that bridge beautiful and tourists flocked to it.

A Sacramento resident, Ed White, who summered in Tahoe, wrote to The Sacramento Bee in 1956 saying a bridge at Emerald Bay would provide drivers with great views and “could carry much more traffic with the result that the grandeur of Emerald Bay and the Rubicon area would become accessible to many, many more people than those who enjoy it now.”

The Sacramento Bee and others were aghast. In a 1956 editorial, The Bee called the bridge “a tragic mistake bordering on a crime.” State parks officials said the bridge express road would mar not only Emerald Bay State Park but also would slice through nearby D.L. Bliss State Park.

Emerald Bay is regal, its protectors said. Its shore is largely pristine and not easy to get to. Either you hike a mile down a steep hill or slide in between Emerald Point and Eagle Point on a boat. Lora Josephine Knight, who in 1929 built the stone and timber Vikingsholm castle at the base of the bay, said Emerald Bay reminded her of a Scandinavian fjord.

The bridge was not the only major road change officials considered at the time. The state also proposed a wider and straighter mountain road above the bay that would run through a long mountain tunnel.

Some thought the tunnel proposal was a trick. A Sierra Club representative suggested state highways drawings made the scarring on the mountain route look worse, while making the bridge appear “toothpick size.”

The debate – and the planning – continued into the mid-1960s. But the idea was beginning to lose its footing.

Bridge opponents appear to have gotten an assist from an unlikely source, new Gov. Ronald Reagan. Reagan appointed William Penn Mott Jr. as state parks chief. Mott came out against the bridge.

Reagan had achieved notoriety among conservationists with his comment to a wood products group in 1966: “You know, a tree is a tree; how many more do you need to look at?”

Reagan would claim some credit for the bridge’s demise, pointing out in a 1970 re-election campaign ad that the bridge plan was dropped on his watch.

He may have seen that a muscular environmental movement in California was arriving. In the Tahoe Basin, concern was rising about the effects of traffic and development on the lake’s greatest attribute, its water clarity. The League to Save Lake Tahoe crystallized the issue with a slogan that has since become iconic: “Keep Tahoe Blue.”

But how exactly did the bridge plan die? Two events that appear to be pivotal occurred in 1968. A regional planning group formed by California and later joined by Nevada, now called the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, put together its first Tahoe growth plan that year and declined to include the state’s Emerald Bay Bridge project in it.

Soon after that, a state committee assembled by Reagan with Mott as a key member shelved the plan. The following year, Emerald Bay was designated a National Natural Landmark.

Today, the little highway above the bay remains much as it was in the winter of 1955-56. Caltrans puts considerably more effort into clearing it. But it still closes some winters. And in summer traffic can slow to a crawl as visitors wait for a parking spot in the small lot there.

The Tahoe Basin never grew in the way some thought it would, and planners no longer focus on widening roads. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s new basin plan searches for ways to make it easier for more people in the coming years to park their cars, even outside the basin, and take buses, hike, bike and boat.

The fight over the Emerald Bay Bridge could be called a “saga” without overstatement.

“That was a fork in the road for Tahoe,” says Tom Lotshaw of the planning agency. “That is why we have the Tahoe we have today.”

Story sources include: The Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, Caltrans, State Parks Department, California State Archives, State Public Works, The League to Save Lake Tahoe, Snopes,