For decades, San Pedrans used ferry service to cross the main channel to work in the canneries and naval shipyard on Terminal Island. As the Port grew, the concept of building a bridge was discussed as early as the 1920s. San Pedro’s hometown State Assemblyman Vincent Thomas, the son of Croatian immigrants, would spend much of his career pushing through legislation to win the project’s approval which was initially met with skepticism. It wasn’t until 1958 that a bill calling for the bridge’s construction was finally passed and won the support of the Board of Harbor Commissioners. So began the $21 million San Pedro-Terminal Island Bridge project.
The official groundbreaking took place in May of 1960, but a slow bidding process meant construction wouldn’t begin until a year later, starting with the substructure. Next came the towers, pilings, 1,270 tons of tediously spun suspension cables, a concrete deck that was built from the towers in and paved, and finally the bridge’s signature green paint job.
A resolution was passed to name the bridge after Assemblyman Thomas, who was still in office (he would serve 19 terms totaling 38 years). Designed by the Bridge Department of the California Division of Highways (or what we know today as CalTrans), the Vincent Thomas Bridge was the first and remains the only suspension bridge in the world to be supported entirely on pilings. It was the first suspension bridge in the United States to be welded instead of riveted, and is the fourth longest suspension bridge in California, after the Golden Gate Bridge, Carquinez Bridge, and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Late on the evening of Nov. 14, 1963, the Islander ferry made its final trip across the main channel, and at the stroke of midnight following a ribbon cutting ceremony, the bridge was officially opened to motorists. Assemblyman Thomas paid the first 25-cent toll.
Over the years, the Vincent Thomas Bridge has been a backdrop in a number of films, TV shows and even a Jessica Simpson music video. Scenes from Lethal Weapon 2, To Live and Die in L.A., City of Angels, Charlie’s Angels and Gone in Sixty Seconds were all shot on the bridge.
Bridge Facts & Figures
- The bridge is 6,060 feet long (2.2 miles).
- Tower Height is 365 feet; 185 feet (35 stories) above water.
- Center suspension span is 1,500 feet.
- The road is 52 feet wide.
- The bridge has 19 cables made up of 212 wires each.
- It was built to withstand 90 mph winds.
- The bridge is supported on 990 steel piles each supporting 145 tons.
- 32,000 vehicles cross the bridge on a given weekday.
- The bridge cost $21 million to build.
- It is the fourth largest span bridge in California, and the first and only suspension bridge in the world to be supported entirely on pilings, and the first suspension bridge in the United States to be welded, not riveted.
- The original toll to cross the bridge in either direction was 25 cents. In 2000, the Bridge was considered “paid for” and the toll was repealed.
- High wire artist Steve McPeak was fined $126 for walking the bridge’s cables with his assistant in 1976.
- The bridge is lit by 160 lamps, each composed of 360 LEDs.
- Required 92,000 tons of Portland cement, 13,000 tons of lightweight concrete, 14,100 tons of steel and 1,270 tons of suspension cable to construct.
- Painting the bridge is a routine and continuous maintenance job, handled by Caltrans, which requires 1,500 gallons of zinc, 500 gallons of primer and 1,000 gallons of green paint to cover the span.