At one time, Napa County was, almost, better known for its stone bridges than its wine. In fact, this area was often referred to as “the county of stone bridges.” This distinction came about as the number of Napa County masonry crossings exceeded the 100 mark.
While the majority of the Napa County stone bridges were constructed between 1894 and 1918, the two oldest masonry spans have recently experienced different fates. One was once and the other still is located in the City of Napa.
The Napa Creek at Main Street bridge, according to official historical evaluation documents, was built in 1860. And, it is one of the two oldest extant California bridges. As part of the recent Flood Control Project slight alterations were made to it. However, the 1860 bridge is still intact.
The second Napa City stone bridge was built in 1862. It had crossed Napa Creek at First Street. This National Register of Historic Places eligible structure was one of the five oldest extant California bridges. However, it was dismantled in 2004 as part of the Flood Control Project. Its stones are currently in storage.
This pair of 1860s stone bridges were the exception for their time. During that era, most of the various Napa County waterways were spanned by wooden bridges. Being battered constantly by storm-fed torrents of water, those crossing were in constant need of repair or replacement.
They also received considerable wear and tear from the burden of heavy-load apparatus and vehicles. In fact, several local bridges collapsed under the weight of over-sized farming equipment and burgeoning freight wagons.
A discussion about repairing one of those wooden bridges by the St. Helena Town Trustees in 1893 marked the beginning of the Napa County stone bridge era. During that discussion R. H. Pithie, a Scottish stonemason, presented his concept of constructing a new bridge of stone rather than mending the wooden Pope Street span.
Pithie had already convinced William and James Rennie of the viability of a stone bridge. The Rennies were so impressed with Pithie’s concept they presented a construction bid to the county supervisors who, in turn, promised to assume half of the construction costs.
Pithie backed up his proposal by securing the remaining funds needed for the project. His ingenuity, perseverance and initiative impressed the St. Helena Town Trustees. As a result, Pithie and his backers were awarded the contract to build a new Pope Street bridge with stone. This project was begun in late 1894 and was completed just before the river flooded in early 1895.
Pithie and his stone bridges became quite prolific throughout Napa County. With the continued financial backing of the Rennies, Pithie received the construction contracts for many more local stone bridges. They were the Chiles Valley, Pope Valley, Soda Canyon, Atlas Peak Road, Wooden Valley Road, Redwood Road and Mt. Veeder Road bridges.
Then in 1896, Pithie constructed “The Queen of Stone Bridges” – the Putah Creek crossing. According to numerous sources, this bridge was “the longest stone structure (bridge) west of the Rocky Mountains.” It was 298 feet long and cost $19,980 to build. Although spoken of in the past tense, “The Queen” still exists. However, it rests well below the surface of Lake Berryessa. Although submerged for over a half century, a pair of scuba divers recently found “The Queen” to be in good condition.
In addition to Pithie, there were several other local stone bridge builders. They were, in part: James B. Newman; H. W. Wing; Berryman & Anderson; Martini; Porto & Magetti; Harvey Thorson, and Angelo Borelli.
Regardless of the contractor, the stone bridge construction was fairly universal. The following is a simplified description of that process.
After the Napa County engineers selected the bridge site, the contractor scouted that site and adjacent areas for a source of stone. Then the laborers began excavating and rough cutting the stone at that quarry. The large three to four foot in length stone slabs weighing 800 pounds or more were then moved from the quarry to the construction site.
To create the proper shape for the bridge arch or arches, a framework of heavy timbers was set up. Then each stone for the bridge was cut to fit an exact spot. As for each arch, it was built from the footings on each side of its center and to its center. A carefully hewn keystone was the last piece put in place to complete the arch.
The bridge then grew vertically from the footings up as the sides were built stone by stone. The sides were finished with stone railings or parapets and capstones. The final phases of construction adding the fill, packing it down and creating the deck – or road surface.
Although the remaining stone bridges are often romanticized by present-day residents and visitors, the primary reason for choosing stone over other building materials was costs. Napa County had abundant sources of stone and skilled labor which made the masonry spans extremely economical.
While the exact number of stone bridges built in Napa County is not known, their numbers have dwindled over time. However, of the Napa County stone bridges that have successfully withstood the challenges of time, nature, vehicles and man, seven are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They and the other surviving Napa County stone bridges remain spans from the past that still provide safe passage today and into the future.
Written by Rebecca Yerger.
Please note the York Creek Bridge & Sulphur Creek Bridge in St. Helena are in jeopardy by Caltrans. Go to this link for more information.