The Drawbridges of San Francisco

I’ve been putting this off for years, but here it finally is:  a guide to all the bascule bridges (drawbridges) of San Francisco, every last one of ’em, so it’s unabridged.  And OK, this is not Amsterdam, so there are only four.  But still….



Our youngest bridge  is the Illinois Street Bridge over the Islais Creek Channel, completed in 2006 and primarily serving to provide a railroad/heavy truck route to Piers 90-96.  To get to this one just head east on Cesar Chavez, which in our hearts is really still Army Street even though they renamed it twenty-something years ago and we do love Cesar.

Keep going until you are way the hell over near our east coast,  cross Third Street, turn right at the next corner, and you’re on Illinois Street.  The bridge is two blocks ahead of you.  Just before you get onto the bridge, you can go right  into a little parking lot and then, if you’re on your Segway, bump carefully along a vertiginous and highly irregular little dirt trail to the channel edge and then, with even more care owing to the dropoff into the drink, follow the narrow path along the brink three-quarters the way to Third Street, where you can look back and get this photo of the bridge, somewhat outshone by that spectacular artwork on the side of an abandoned grain silo (titled “Bay Rise” and by Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan).

Illinois Street drawbridge

Here it is shot from the Levon Hagop Nishkian Bridge.


Well no, the bridge doesn’t look like much since there’s no great tower of counterweights for drama.  Still, it boasts bike/pedestrian lanes and two 11 ft wide traffic lanes with a shared centerline railroad track. The bridge has an 85 ft long movable span (properly called a bascule and popularly called a leaf) that provides a 65 foot wide navigable channel for boat traffic. Bascule bridges typically use a counterweight to help lift the leaf, but this bridge uses a lift assembly operated by hydraulic cylinders that provide 600 tons of pulling force to raise the leaf 84 degrees.  With 600 tons of pull, you don’t need no steenkeng counterweight.

The trunnion on which it pivots is at the base of the black vertical structure.  I’d love to see this thing in operation, but one clue that the bridge opens very rarely is that they demand 72 hours notice if you want it opened.  Hmmmm, to get some photos i may have to rent a boat with a tall mast…or better yet, get the maintenance schedule from the kindly Port Authority and lie in wait for the opening.  Stay tuned…but don’t hold your breath.  Click here for a superb animation of the construction of the bridge, provided by Creegan and D’Angelo, the engineers who built it.  Here’s a shot of what you can see of the mechanism, which is damn little.  What i need is my own personal drone that will lift me twenty feet into the air so i can get better pics of this sort of thing.  Hmmm, if i did that i could just ditch the Segway and use the drone as a handicap transportation device.  Naw, i’d probably get shot down…by one side or the other.

Illinois Street Bridge mechanism

Here are some interesting construction photos taken by a team of UC Berkeley engineering students.


Second, the Third Street Bridge over the Islais Creek Channel.  Dating from 1945, it’s a double leaf bascule bridge  just a block west of the Illinois Street Bridge and has an interesting Deco tender tower (as opposed to the innocuous little tin shack at the Illinois Street Bridge) and Deco covers over the rack mechanisms that extend ten feet above the bridge deck at both ends.    Its proper name is the Levon Hagop Nishkian Bridge, which gets a little complicated since the bridge was designed and built by Leon Hagop Nishkian and i’d assumed “Levon” was a typo until further research revealed that his father’s name was Levon.  The son, Leon, was a major figure in early twentieth-century engineering in the Bay Area, and is perhaps best known as the engineer behind the Castro Theater.  But i digress.

Here it is, shot from the Illinois Street Bridge.

Levon Hagop Nishkian Bridge

Here’s a view from the south end showing one of the rack covers.  The Segway is in there for scale.

3rd Street Bridge over Islais Creek Channel

 A closeup of the tender tower from the north bank pathway.

Levon Hagop Nishkian Bridge tender tower

And finally, from the west.

Levon Hagop Nishkian Bridge



First, the 1932 Pratt through truss variant single-leaf Strauss trunnion bascule bridge on Third Street, gasp, now known more simply as the Lefty O’Doul Bridge.  Well, yes, the engineer was Joseph Strauss, better known for the far lovelier Golden Gate Bridge although we now know that he got way too much credit for that one since he did not do the design for the bridge that was built and his proposed design was described by a contemporary critic as looking like “an upside-down rat trap”.

My Dutch friend Rina is from Amsterdam, where there are literally hundreds of handsome drawbridges in various styles going back centuries.  She’s fluent in English, but she was grasping around desperately trying to find a word to describe the Lefty O’Doul bridge until i finally had pity on her and suggested, “ugly?” and she giggled.   Ummm, maybe a rightside-up rat trap.  Ain’t nobody never called this thing beautiful, but oh my goodness, what magnificent brute force!

Furthermore, as best i can determine, the original design of this bridge has not been tampered with, so what you see is totally real – a fine drawbridge in the same perfect working order as when it was built.  When i was digging for data, i found this discussion of the bridge.  Damn shame i could find nothing near as good on the other three.

Here it is from the west.

Lefty O'Doul Bridge

A shot into its mouth.

Lefty O'Doul Bridge

From the east.

Lefty O'Doul Bridge

 Another from the east.

 Lefty O'Doul Bridge


And the obligatory shot of the counterweights.

Lefty O'Doul Bridge


And finally, our oldest bridge, the 1916 Warren truss bascule bridge on Fourth Street, also by Joseph Strauss and known as the Peter R. Maloney Bridge.  It enjoys what has got to be the largest counterweight on the planet (48 x 22 x 12 feet), so my first pic of this one is from the butt end.

Peter R. Maloney bridge

The counterweight from high in the UCSF building, where i breached security and got a photograph from a window.

Peter R. Maloney bridge

Once you start savoring that counterweight, though, you learn that it’s a fiberglass fake meticulously designed at a cost of $400,ooo to imitate the look of the original.  Well, see, since the bridge is a historic landmark, when it was rebuilt it had to look exactly like the original, but since strengthening the span significantly increased its weight, the cheapest engineering solution was to use a new hidden counterweight below the bridge while replacing the original counterweight with a fake.

That $400,000 was only a pittance because by the time the rebuild was complete in 2007, it had taken twice the money and thrice the time originally set.  Click here for the full story.  It’s worse than you imagined, but yes, i still love the bridge.

Here it is from the east.

Peter R. Maloney bridge

A shot into its mouth.

Peter R. Maloney bridge

And a shot of the works.

Peter R. Maloney bridge


Look, i love bridges, and i especially love drawbridges, but i can’t help noticing that the two over Islais Creek do not seem to meet any current need since there is no longer anything on the creek channel west of the bridges for vessels to serve other than a pitiful little new landing too small for anything but pedestrians that i cannot imagine any sailboat actually using since, except for a pocket-size plaza, there’s no place to go once you climb the bank from the landing.  In the entire inner channel there are no houseboats, no businesses with docks, no nothing.  Here’s what’s left of the north pier.


Islais Creek Channel pier

The south pier is in worse shape.

Islais Creek Channel pier

And yes, the two drawbridges over Mission Creek are clearly necessary because without them the sailboats moored at the houseboats in the interior part of the creek would not be able to enter and depart.  The problem, alas, is that the city spent nearly $40 million on the 2007 restoration of the Maloney Bridge to serve the boats belonging to the inhabitants of twenty houseboats.  Some folks might argue that we could come out way ahead by giving ’em a few million bucks apiece to berth their sailboats and their houseboats elsewhere rather than maintaining two drawbridges to serve them.   As it is, the owners of those houseboats are getting a sweet deal at city expense.  And that said, i do like the idea of having some resident houseboats.  Adds color.

Perhaps the bottom line is that all four drawbridges serve splendidly as civic art, and i think that should be publicly funded, like “Ship Shape Shifting Time” by Nobuho Nagasawa on the Islais Creek Promenade just west of the Levon Hagop Nishkian Bridge.

Ship Shape Shifting Time by Nobuho Nagasawa

I welcome comments on this post and especially hope that readers who spot an error will call it to my attention so i can correct it.  I’ve noticed in my superficial research on these bridges that there sure is a lot of contradictory information about them on the Internet, and i’m not qualified to judge who’s right.  And finally, i’ll have a followup post if i can ever get photos of the bridges with their leaves raised.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. John Wright
    Posted 1 May 2014 at 05:06 | Permalink

    Nice article. Is there a way to get advance notice of bridge operation (Mission Creek)?

    • Matte Gray
      Posted 1 May 2014 at 08:25 | Permalink

      Although i have never seen them open, it will be fairly easy to get photos of the bridges over Mission Creek, as i am informed by a bridge tender that on weekends with nice weather they are opened at least a couple of times every day, but it’s on demand with one hour notice. And no, i suspect that i’d not be able to just roll up on my Segway, dial the number listed on the bridge, tell ’em it was the Good Ship Gray, and get them to open it for me. The master plan is to Segway down there one nice morning with a picnic lunch and lie in wait. The Islais Creek bridges are another matter, since as i noted there does not seem to be a current need for them to open. My hope is to get a contact at the Port Authority to disclose the maintenance schedule. How, i ask, can full maintenance be performed without opening the damn things? At least for some of the maintenances, since you can’t just let them sit there closed forever without opening them occasionally. To get the schedule, i’m dependent on the kindness of strangers, but there has been a good deal of that so far.

  2. Sybil Conn
    Posted 1 May 2014 at 16:57 | Permalink

    You forgot to include the taxing obligation of being a good friend to many!

    • Matte Gray
      Posted 1 May 2014 at 17:00 | Permalink

      I love those bridges so much that i was saddened to realize that their only real justification now is aesthetic. That said, the bottom line for me is that aesthetic is enough.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.