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Old Sweetwater Bridge
Old Sweetwater Bridge

Historic Steel Bridge in San Diego County

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Tip of the Week: August 30, 2008


Crossing over rivers, crossing over streams
Concrete blocks and cables, bolts and iron beams
Some are very big, some are very small
Some are very wide and some are very tall. - James Coffey

With gas prices down, we thought we'd offer up a "'Tip" about a a neat historic place in San Diego's rural parts with a zany story sprinkled in.

Once upon a time, in a town called Jamul, there used to be the Old Sweetwater Bridge near where Highway 94 and Highway 53 come together at what is known as "Jamacha Junction." The Sweetwater River is part of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge.

Now, this might get a little dry, but soak it up if you can. It is a tale about how a city got soaked by some drip who made vaudevillian claims.

The San Diego region has always been subject to drought, as it has been in recent years. In the early 1900's, San Diego was deluged with periods of historic rains. Rains that washed out everything in their path. Rains that washed out the Old Sweetwater Bridge.

Ironically, the forefathers of San Diego were in the same pickle as those in power now. How do they get water to serve the people of San Diego? It is déjà vu all over again.

The City Council, at that time, got to thinkin' about hiring a self-professed rainmaker named Hatfield to produce rain to fill the local reservoir. Yikes, they paid a big price for that decision.

The guy said he'd create rain for free, but charge per $1,000 per inch between forty and fifty inches. The council took him up on the offer and planned to pay 'Rainman' $10,000 when the raineth cometh. Hatfield built a 20-foot tower from which he could distribute his rain-making magic potion.

Shazaam! Believe it or not, the rains came. On January 16, 1916, with Hatfield's magic, the rain came down in torrential buckets for days and days. By January 28th, 1916, homes, farms, dams, bridges, everything was flooded and destroyed. By February, Hatfield said it wasn't his fault; he had lived up to his end of the bargain. The City Council wanted Hatfield to accept responsibility despite there being no contract. The legal fight went on and the courts concluded that the rains were an Act of God. Offers to settle came and went. The damage was done. Hatfield got the publicity he cherished. San Diego got all wet. (And for all San Diego residents-- isn't this oddly familiar sounding??)

This guy had such a thirst for publicity and gained such a reputation that his story inspired the 1956 film, "The Rainmaker" with Burt Lancaster.

Parker Truss
Parker Truss

Long story short, eventually, a new bridge was needed and it was to be regarded as the "Steel Girder Gateway to Jamul." A new steel bridge was designed in 1928 by Pacific Steel Co. and it was built in 1929. It is one of the three state highway " truss " bridges in the county. It is the only Parker truss. A Parker truss has an arch with a triangular framework of metal beams. This particular bridge has three spans, each 150' long, making the bridge 460' long. These old steel bridges provide a romance that modern concrete bridges can't hold a candle to. This bridge, by the way, is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

It isn't used for cars anymore. It still bridges one side of the Sweetwater River to the other with or without water running under it. Trails run beneath it varying between easy and more difficult. It is in rural San Diego, and just a drive, a stop and a look-see is worth the trip. If you want to piggyback with another stop, you can always drive further to the Barrett Junction Cafe.

If you like bridges, trails and the stuff of legends, you can make the drive to the bridge, meander down the trailhead at the south end of the bridge and imagine all the history that took place.

Take Hwy. 94 east past Jamacha Blvd. where Hwy. 94 turns right onto Campo Rd. Turn right at Campo Rd. Very quickly you'll come up on Singer Lane, which will be on your right. Park along Singer Lane or in the parking area at the steel bridge. Map

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