Spans of time: The bridges of Glen Ellen
When the first people arrived in this area, they were probably following animal trails. It’s thought that during the last ice age, mammoth herds migrated up and down Sonoma Valley, traveling to and from the coast, which in those days was out past the Farallon Islands. Like most animals, mammoths would have taken the easiest available route. Over time, walking the same way again and again, they created trails as they picked their way through the landscape. Where the mammoths walked, the First Peoples probably followed, finding these wide paths especially convenient for traveling.
Two hundred years ago, from the best we can tell, several trails passed through Glen Ellen. One ran up the west side of the valley, from villages like hut’ci (at modern-day Sonoma) and wukiliwa (“hot water”) to wilok (modern-day Rincon Valley). Another more or less followed Arnold Drive, then turned west toward lumentakala in Bennett Valley. Perpendicular to these was a route that followed Nunn’s Canyon up over the Mayacamas and down into Napa Valley.
By the early 19th century, Spanish and Mexican explorers were following native guides over these same trails. As that century progressed, those trails became rudimentary roads, capable of accommodating wagon wheels. In the 20th century, they became paved roads, like Highway 12. But up until 1856, crossing Sonoma Creek meant getting your feet wet, or at least getting your horse’s feet wet. In that year, the first bridge over Sonoma Creek was built by a Scotsman named James Cooper, where Leveroni Road runs now. By modern standards it was a crude wooden structure, but at the time, its timber truss construction was considered a local wonder of engineering. The wood for it was probably cut on Sonoma Mountain and milled at Vallejo’s mill on Asbury Creek (now the Glen Ellen Grist Mill).
In Glen Ellen, the earliest bridge may have been the one at Glen Oaks Ranch which crosses Stuart Creek. Built around 1870, it has a wood deck supported by stone work on either bank. Around that time, a bridge was also constructed across Sonoma Creek, in what is now downtown Glen Ellen. No pictures survive – all we know for certain is that it was made of wood and probably had several triangular trusses to provide support and rigidity. An idea of what this looked like can be seen on Bennett Valley Road where it crosses Yulupa Creek about a half mile from the intersection with Warm Springs Road. The redwood timbers of the original truss design were preserved when the main bridge structure was replaced with a modern concrete span.
When the railroads arrived in the 1880s, tourists, land speculators and more roads followed in their wake. Some of the new roads required bridges. The materials slowly changed over the years, from wood and stone to steel and concrete. A winter storm in 1890 knocked out Glen Ellen’s main bridge, taking the life of blacksmith Timothy Sullivan with it, who was trying to warn people off the failing structure. Less than a year later, a new steel bridge was up. It stood for nearly fifty years. That bridge was replaced in 1939 by a concrete one – the bridge we use today. But if you look under that bridge from the parking lot by the post office, you can still see the steel cylinders that served as the piers for that 1890 bridge, set in the original concrete foundation.
Just upstream from Glen Ellen’s main bridge, on Calabazas Creek, is the brick bridge on O’Donnell Lane. Constructed of yellow brick from the Glen Ellen brickyard around 1900, it also replaced a wooden truss structure. Its narrow width is a reminder of horse and buggy days and a slower time, when no one pictured two autos passing abreast. Rather than using trusses, the O’Donnell bridge relies on an arch to support its weight.
Perhaps the most impressive bridge in Glen Ellen is the one on Arnold Drive over Sonoma Creek at the north end of the Sonoma Developmental Center. Constructed in the early 1930s to replace a collapsed concrete span, it is a steel truss bridge with some resemblance to the 1890 downtown bridge. If it weren’t for Jim Berkland, a longtime resident who recently passed away, it might have eventually succumbed to neglect. Jim collected signatures and petitioned the county to give it a long overdue coat of paint and maintain it.
Perhaps the quirkiest bridge in Glen Ellen is one along Dunbar Road that crosses a small channel. My kids dubbed it the “Stegosaurus Bridge” because the rocks set along the top resemble the plates on a dinosaur’s back and neck. It may be a century old.
Bridges are also places where the human and natural worlds intersect. Keep your eyes open if you’re crossing a bridge on foot. Families of otters are sometimes seen swimming, playing and hunting for fish under Glen Ellen’s main bridge. If there’s a ripple in the water, keep watching and you’ll see a head pop up when they surface to breathe. Salmon were spotted there last fall, also making big ripples in the creek. You may see an egret fishing where Calabazas Creek meets Sonoma Creek; ducks and green herons; and enjoy the smell of willow. Even from inside a car it’s possible to see something really surprising – not too long ago a local resident spotted a mountain lion on the Glen Ellen bridge at two o’clock in the morning.
Our bridges are deeply woven into the character of our community and add much charm to the daily life of our town. Spanning creeks and long stretches of time, they are crossings to get where we want to go, and sometimes, unexpectedly, into other realms.