Dumbarton rail bridge destroyed

Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 7, 1998

FIREFIGHTERS: Dumbarton rail bridge destroyed

Suspicious fire consumes 88-year-old wooden span

by Don Kazak

It was part of the oldest bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay. Completed in 1910, it has been unused for the last 16 years. But when the Dumbarton rail bridge burned last weekend, a bit of history went up in flames.

The fire on the 1,750-foot-long wooden western section of the span linking East Palo Alto and Newark was reported at 7 p.m. Saturday night by several callers. And the first fire crews on the scene minutes later reported that the bridge was engulfed in flames. Firefighters suspect the blaze was deliberately set.

"It was very, very suspicious," Menlo Park Fire Protection District Division Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

The stubborn fire, fueled by the creosote-treated railroad ties and bridge supports, burned through a rainstorm and was not declared under control until 12:27 p.m. Sunday, almost 18 hours after it started.

Because of the potentially toxic smoke from the fire, which blew northward up the bay, the Dumbarton auto bridge was closed to traffic for nearly six hours.

Firefighters were hampered by a low tide, which kept the district's air boat from pumping water onto the blaze until 3 a.m. Sunday, so firefighters had to fight the fire from the shore end of the bridge while the end toward the revolving trestle in the middle of the bridge burned unimpeded.

Schapelhouman said the blaze burned right through driving rainstorms, with the blowing rain actually hampering firefighting efforts and forcing crew rotations every five hours.

By Monday morning, the bridge was largely destroyed, but firefighters were still dealing with a smoldering underground fire, as part of the trestle on the East Palo Alto shore was covered by an earthern berm. "It will smolder and smoke for quite a while," Schapelhouman said.

The fire district was also in the process of calling in engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deal with floating debris in the bay. Caltrain officials also were called about removing what's left of the smoldering underground part of the trestle.

The bridge had been owned by SamTrans for Caltrain, which is operated by Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. Caltrain officials had once identified the Dumbarton rail bridge as a possible commuter rail line, although the rail structure would have needed substantial renovation work before it could be used again.

Caltrain did a study of the rail bridge and the feasibility of a commuter rail line in 1995, said Rita Haskin, spokesperson for Caltrain. The study showed that there would be a market, although a small one, for the rail line. But the study also showed that it "would have cost millions of dollars to rehab the line, not just the trestle," she said.

Southern Pacific sold the bridge to Caltrain for $7.1 million in 1994. The bridge consisted of a western portion (the part that burned), a center trestle, and an eastern portion.

"There were no current plans for the bridge," Haskin said.

The bridge was built from 1908-10 and opened to rail traffic in 1910.

While firefighters strongly believe that the fire was deliberately set because of the way the entire span was burning from the start, they are handcuffed in the fire investigation. "Most of the evidence floated away," Schapelhouman said. "It will be really difficult to figure out how it started." 

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