Of the 32 bridges along Highway One between Cambria and Carmel, the largest, most famous, and certainly most photographed is the Bixby Bridge, about 18 miles south of Carmel. This was also the most difficult bridge to build. The bridge is an open spandrel arch design which means it has an open space between the deck and the arch members. The deck of the bridge is 356 feet long and rises about 260 feet above the creek below. The arch is supported by two concrete abutments 330 feet apart which are anchored to the sheer rock walls 140 feet above the creek bed. The south end of the arch has three 40 foot reinforced concrete approach spans and the north end has six, bringing the total length of the bridge to 716 feet. The arch alone required 6,600 cubic yards of concrete and 600,000 pounds of reinforcing steel and, when completed, on November 23, 1932, the Bixby Bridge became the largest arched highway structure in the western states. It is also unusual because it is built on a curve.
The California Department of Public Works, anticipating the difficulty of constructing the Bixby Bridge, came up with an alternate plan which involved an 890 foot long tunnel and a bridge across Bixby Creek only 250 feet long which crossed the creek some distance upstream from the mouth. This plan was abandoned because it was felt that the longer bridge would result in a safer road as well as a more scenic view. The Bixby Bridge was built by the Ward Engineering Company of San Francisco for $203,334 under the supervision of California Public Works resident engineer I. O. Jahlstrom.
The magnificent Bixby Bridge was completed only fourteen years after the California Division of Highways had finished its first concrete arch bridge in 1918. This was the bridge on Highway 101 across Arroyo Hondo, about half way between Gaviota and Refugio State Beaches. Although no longer used, the old Arroyo Hondo bridge still stands and can be easily seen from a viewpoint about seven miles south of the Gaviota rest area.
On November 28, 1932, more than one thousand people gathered to witness the dedication of the Bixby Bridge. The ceremony was held at noon in the center of the bridge and among the dignitaries participating was F. W. Panhorst who directed the bridge design and L. H. Gibson, State Highway District Engineer.
Bixby Creek, originally called Mill Creek for Bixby’s sawmill, was renamed for Charles Bixby, one of the pioneers of the Big Sur area. Born in New York State, Bixby traveled by wagon train to California at the age of 15 in 1852. Five years later he returned to New York State via the Isthmus of Panama. After spending some time in the army, he went to Sonoma County where he engaged in stock raising. In 1868 he filed for a homestead on Mill Creek about 18 miles south of Carmel. Here he began cutting oak tanbark which he shipped to San Francisco. The tannin from this bark was used in the tanning of cattle hides. He discovered lime deposits in the area and began hauling the stuff to the coast by mule.
In 1875, Bixby married Barbara Sammons of Alisal and built a house in Big Sur for them and for his parents, William and Lavina Bixby. Charles and Barbara had two children, George and Alta who married Charles Gregg. William Bixby sold a textile manufacturing business in New York State and came to California by wagon train. They settled in Placerville where they operated a grocery store and hotel until they moved to Big Sur to join their son.
In 1906, Charles Bixby sold his lime business to the Monterey Lime Company and retired to Monterey. His parents died at the ranch in Big Sur.
At the time of its construction, Bixby Bridge was called Rainbow Bridge but this appellation had nothing to do with the arch’s resemblance to a rainbow. Howard G. Sharpe purchased a ranch on the Old Coast Road in Bixby Canyon in 1919 which included several cabins which could be rented to tourists. He renamed the ranch Rainbow Lodge. When Highway One was opened, tourists no longer used the Old Coast Road so Sharpe built a new “Rainbow Lodge” at the north end of the Bixby Bridge.