Governor Langlie and The Fireman's Insurance Fund

On July 1, 1940, the world's third longest suspension bridge, a delicate arch of steel and concrete spanning the treacherous Tacoma Narrows, opened to traffic. The bridge was a source of considerable pride in the Northwest - a symbol of emergence from the Depression. And to the people of Tacoma it was the fulfillment of an old dream.

Admiration for the graceful approaches and willowy lines soon gave way to consternation, however, when the span proved to be so supple as to yield to moderate winds and move up and down in a wavelike motion. As the wind grew stronger, the bridge not only slowly rippled, but undulated laterally at the same time. Driving across the bridge in a stiff breeze was likened to driving down the deck of a ship in heavy seas.

The Fireman's Fund had written builder's risk insurance for the three firms responsible for construction - the Pacific Bridge Company, Bethlehem Steel, and John A. Roebling's Sons - and when the state of Washington took possession, the Company took $350,000 of the $5,200,000 written to protect the bond-holders.

It soon became obvious that the bridge was going to fall. Engineering studies were ordered, but before they even had a chance to start on an effective cure a 45-mile-per-hour wind lashed the center span into an abandoned dance. Pictures of the collapse are as well known as the fall of the Hindenburg or the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.

Page had been urged by his underwriters and surveyors to cancel the Company's line on the bridge, but he refused to do it. Months before he had been asked by the president of a San Francisco bank if the Fireman's Fund was going to participate in the insurance on the bridge. When Page assured him that the Company would, the banker, at least partly on the basis of their conversation, bought a sizable number of the bonds. Page felt an obligation to stay on the risk.

At the time the bridge fell, Richard T. Saunders and his wife were speeding through the Oregon countryside on their way to San Francisco. Since Saunders had managed a great part of the bridge underwriting for the Company, he had been called to the home office to make a full report on the impending catastrophe. When he arrived the next afternoon, worried that he might no longer be on the payroll, he was called immediately to Page's office.

"Richard," said Page, "I want you to know one thing. If Pacific Bridge or Bethlehem or Roebling ever build another bridge in your territory, make sure we have our line on it. It wasn't their fault the bridge fell any more than it was yours. We lost, so forget it."

Actually, the collapse of the bridge was just the beginning. The Toll Bridge Authority at first agreed that the existing towers and cables should be repaired and a new and rigid deck built immediately. But in the months that followed, the official state position switched around. Contrary to the best engineering opinion available, Governor Arthur Langlie declared the bridge a total loss and demanded the full $5,200,000.

This the companies adamantly refused to pay. In their policy they had promised to pay the amount required to restore the bridge to its original condition in case of direct damage. They did not contract to pay a total loss if the state had no interest in rebuilding the bridge as it once stood. The companies took the stand, rightly, that if the governor wanted to build a four-lane bridge, as one of his advisers publicly announced, all well and good. But they had no obligation to pay more than what it would take to fix the old bridge.

The companies made a final offer in August of 1941, of $4,000,000, which was readily accepted without a word of thanks, even though that amount was at least half a million in excess of what it would have cost to rebuild everything from the piers on up. The companies made the generous settlement not because they agreed with the state's contention but because of the cost and trouble of litigation and the undeserved public criticism which would have resulted.

Governor Langlie said after he had accepted the offer that he had been advised that it was "advantageous to the state at this time." It might appear so. The state collected $4,000,000 from the companies, $250,000 in salvage from the steel removed from the old structure, and owned the piers and anchorages valued at $3,200,000. Added up, the total is $950,000 more than it had cost to build the bridge in the first place.

Langlie thought he had won quite a victory, but nine precious months had been lost. War came before the new bridge could be started. Tacoma and Pierce County, fierce rivals of Seattle and King County to the north, had waited a long time for their bridge, and now they would have to wait longer. Without the bridge, they were cut off from the naval shipyard at Bremerton and took a back seat to Seattle for the duration. Not until 1952 did the new bridge open.

And of Governor Langlie? When the elections of 1944 were over, Langlie found himself no longer in office. And not so strangely, Pierce County appears to have tipped the balance. Langlie had made the insurance companies jump through the hoop in 1941, but his heroics left Tacoma without her bridge. There has been a Democratic governor in Washington ever since.

[From Fireman's Fund Insurance Company ]