When we think of shocking events in history there’s usually one photo or video clip that comes to mind—The Hindenburg going up in flames behind the airfield tower, the USS Arizona billowing smoke while it sinks into Pearl Harbor, or in our case, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge twisting itself to death, as seen from the toll booth on the eastern side. Every once in a while, though, a little piece of forgotten history resurfaces and provides us with a new perspective.
This is what happened in 2022 when Spencer Ries told us about a reel of 8mm film he found at an estate sale six years prior. We published a story about his remarkable find in Hard Copy 17 then partnered up with The Meraki Agency, Chris Staudinger of Pretty Gritty Tours, and Travel Tacoma – Mt. Rainier to produce an in-depth documentary about the film and its historical significance.
The following is an excerpt from the article and the full documentary can be viewed below.
In 2022 we met a guy named Spencer Ries who told us about an 8mm film reel he found at an estate sale back in 2016. “I went to the sale late in the day so it was pretty picked through already. I always buy home movies when I find them and this one was sitting on a shelf with a few other movies and books. So I bought them and brought them out to the car and I was looking at them in the light. It’s 8mm film so it’s really small but I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘OK, it’s black and white and it’s a bridge.’ My immediate thought was that it could be the Narrows Bridge but I thought, ‘Well who’s going to film the Narrows Bridge, you know?’ So I took it home and ran it through a projector and went, ‘Holy shit. This is footage of the bridge collapsing.’”
I knew the story well and was generally familiar with the footage that was already publicly available. But it wasn’t until I compared Spencer’s new-found footage to the well-known footage that I realized just how remarkable this was. After digging through every newspaper, library, archive, historical record, and book that talked about that day at The Narrows in 1940, I couldn’t find so much as a reference to this footage.
[Above photos courtesy of Library of Congress]
The most significant difference between this footage and other currently-known footage is the angle from which it was filmed. It was most likely shot from what is now Jackson Ave. near 13th. All the known footage (both from the Tacoma side and the Gig Harbor side) was shot either close to the bridge or directly on it, often with telephoto lenses. Because of that, the mile-long span appears much more compressed. Even when we see Leonard Coatsworth’s car riding the waves of concrete, it’s hard to tell just how far away it was. From this new angle, you get a better feeling of the scale of the whole thing, especially when the main span collapses.
The second new thing we see is a more complete look at the collapse—at least the second part. The bridge came down in two sections. First was about a quarter of the bridge, just west of the center. This is the big crash that we see in most of the popular footage and a lot of still photos. The much larger eastern portion came down about 15 minutes later. At both points, the cameras only start recording when the bridge has already begun to fall so we don’t see any of the buildup.
The new footage shows a few seconds leading up to the collapse of the eastern half. You can see how the northern edge of the road slowly begins to sag as the cables snap off the roadway, eventually tearing off completely and crashing down into the water.