Journey into the Seventh Street Bridge

April 8, 2010 § 9 Comments

My drawing of the double-deck Seventh Street Bridge from my 2005 book Down by the Los Angeles River

My friend Jason Neville was asking me some questions about possibly accessing the interior space of the Seventh Street Bridge… so I responded that we should just go and explore.

I’d never actually been inside the Seventh Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River in downtown Los Angeles. Many bridges don’t actually have an inside, but 7th does.

The concrete bridge was orginally built a hundred years ago – in 1910 – as an at-grade three-arched bridge. One way to tell that it’s a very old bridge is that it has solid arches. The North Broadway Bridge (1911) was the first example in the western United States of a new bridge technology: the concrete compound arch. Broadway, and most of the downtown bridges that followed it, have large arches that contain smaller arches within them. These compound arches are also called “open spandrels.” Compound arches were invented by the Chinese around 600AD, but weren’t done in L.A. in concrete until 1911. The compound arch / open spandrel makes for a lighter bridge, hence less materials required and less expensive.

The Seventh Street Bridge doesn’t have compound arches; it has solid arches – not surprisingly also called “closed spandrels.” There are only a few other bridges like this still around locally. The other ones that come to mind for me are: York Boulevard Bridge (1912) and San Fernando Road Bridge (1913) both over the Arroyo Seco, and the Cesar Chavez Bridge over the 10 Freeway (1906). Generally these solid arches are filled with dirt.

Back to the Seventh Street Bridge… which has two decks. The original from 1910 was built on top of in 1927 to create the Seventh Street Viaduct. A viaduct being a long bridge that crosses multiple spans – in this case, both the river and the railroad tracks on both sides of it. The second deck was added in the heyday of city Bridge Engineer Merrill Butler’s extensive bridge-building spree from the mid-1920’s to the late 1930’s (though, in my opinion, the spectacular bridges taper off after the 1932 Sixth Street Viaduct.) Merrill Butler served as the city Bureau of Engineering’s lead engineer for bridges and structures from 1923 until 1961. He came on board to oversee the implementation of the city’s 1924 $2 million Viaduct Bond Act, and continued building bridges with bonds and federal public works funding. (For more on Butler and L.A.’s historic bridges, see my book Down by the Los Angeles River, Wilderness Press, 2005.)  

Seventh Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River - note the upper and lower decks

From this photo you can see that there’s a space between the lower 1910 deck and the upper deck built in 1927. I’d been aware of this space for a long time; it’s been talked about as a space that might be used for some sort of riverview restaurant or club. Jason had heard that there was a manhole cover that allowed access into the lower deck space… I was curious.

We bicycled out to the site and had a look from a few angles. The manhole covers are there, but didn’t look too promising. The ends of the lower deck are sealed off, and abut active rail lines. Suffice it to say that we did find a way in… and that I am not going to give away my new secret (which was clearly already known by plenty of graffiti artists and homeless persons.)  Any creek freak readers who want to try it should be really careful about any activity like this and should sign something saying that you won’t sue us – especially around fast-moving active rail lines.

Here are some photos I took using my cell phone… which is not the ideal device for capturing neither the impressive interior space, nor the phenomenal views.

Jason standing on a large concrete beam inside the bridge. Below the beam appeared to be dirt fill, with lots of trash apparently from the homeless, and plenty of discarded spray cans.

The long interior space is broken up by structural walls and pillars. Jason is standing in front of an open doorway cut into one of two walls breaking the space into thirds.

Excellent views out into the vast concrete Los Angeles River channel

There are quite a few old pipelines in the interior, though the one on the right in this photo is clearly cut and not in use

This shot was intended to capture the great view of the Sixth Street Bridge, but the interior/exterior light levels were too much for my meager cell phone camera

Thanks, Jason, for getting me into an L.A. River space where I’d never been before. That doesn’t happen every day.

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§ 9 Responses to Journey into the Seventh Street Bridge

  • Bob Hunt says:

    Riverview Restaurant, now there is a great idea! If only there was a river filled with water, not with concrete, and trash.

  • Sue in Los Angeles says:

    Oooooh, i wish I was twenty years younger and could creepy crawl around all these cool places with you guys! Hey, have you been to the graffiti caves at the Arroyo end of the river bike path? Easy to get to, unless they’ve fixed the gate since the paving.

  • Joe Linton says:

    You could crawl around, too. I think that the graffiti caves you mentioned – which I’ve heard called “the catacombs” – are the ones below where Riverside Drive ramps up before crossing the river (technically called the Riverside Drive “sidehill viaduct.”) I explored down there many years ago, but haven’t explored too much since the area was gated off.

    One interesting thing about that site is that the original sidehill viaduct built in the late 1920s was damaged by a landslide, I think in the 1940s… and was later rebuilt, without its original series of arches. I’ll have to dig up the arches photo and run it here. Supposedly, the city will be tearing out that whole L-shaped bridge including the graffiti caves) later this year. I mentioned the project here.

  • Joe,

    This was a fun piece. It may turn out that the 7th Street Viaduct’s “primitive” construction has saved it. Many of the older bridges in Los Angeles are scheduled for either demolition with a replacement with a new bridge (6th Street & Riverside Drive), partial demolition with reconstruction of (Foothill Blvd. over Big Tujunga [this was the bridge featured prominently in the movie “Chinatown”]), or other major retrofits (North Main). The City of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Works – Bureau of Bridges has an aggressive “Bridge Improvement Program” but 7th Street Bridge is not on its list. While the 6th Street bridge is a bigger and prettier (no really it is), its days are numbered. The use of corrosive aggregate means that the concrete is actually cannibalizing itself so poor old 6th Street bridge cannot repaired. 7th Street bridge may be the toughest bridge out there.

  • Georgia says:

    Great post — never thought of “entering” a bridge before.

    By the way, thought you’d be interested in the Greenaid project by Fletcher Studio and Common Studio — its seedbombs for the L.A. River. I blogged about it here:

  • Awesome post! I’ve long and curiously wondered from afar how accessible that space might be. Thanks for showing me what’s inside.

  • Ro says:

    What an amazing find! I’ve been wanting to explore the bridges – there’s so much overlooked beauty in them.

  • Joe Walker says:

    Speaking of “catacombs”..there are several large drainage tunnels near the York Blvd bridge in the Arroyo Seco that my friends and I used to explore as kids. You can go several miles in them. Would love to be a part of a future journey to map and explore them!

  • enough says:

    so during the summer of 2005 i actually fortlocked the main entrance to the interior,
    which was a gate accessed by climbing up a 15 ft pipe .so i moved into this bridge.
    i wasnt homeless and had afalling out with my roomates in west la, i decided to just grab all my stuff n move in.
    i was working blowing glass in a wherehouse several blocks from 7th st. bridge.
    so i would shower n cook there,but lived in the bridge.
    actually it was my art studio…
    i created some art there……did i mention im a graffiti artist….one of the great views pinnacle to the locations sacred status was Sabers world record breaking piece ,
    1st to be seen by satelite,it was my backyard
    .la river is a mecca for graff culture and im honored to have called it home.
    i fully furnished a comfortable sleeping and living space on the western most chamber.
    bed n wardrobe space niched out with sheets ,comforter all my clothes
    .firepit .tons of bottled water,mini kitchen with a table to eat,battery powered boombox for music,my art supplies and portfolio.
    i ended up getting an apt in lil tokyo n moved mostly out.but had to leave la unexpectantly and ended up leaving some valuble items behind…so if u manage to get in there im curious if theres any remenants like a suitcase full of art books and my library of personal poetry and pictures…

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