The 151-year-old Main Street bridge over Napa Creek is about to get some respect.
Built in 1860, a year before the Civil War when Napa was still a pioneer town, the bridge is not only the oldest span in Napa County, but the oldest stone bridge in the entire state, according to historians.
Yet, until now, the bridge has been practically invisible. Few have been aware of its history or even realized it was in the heart of downtown.
The stone arch is buried under a modern roadway with cantilevered sidewalks, with no easy vantage point for viewing, said Sarah Van Giesen, chair of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.
“People driving over it don’t have any opportunity to see the underside,” Van Giesen said. “There are no nice trails for anyone to see how beautiful it is underneath.”
Last week the Cultural Heritage Commission recommended that the bridge be designated a city landmark. If the City Council goes along, expect a plaque calling people’s attention to the architectural and historical gem hiding in plain sight, Van Giesen said.
This week the bridge is even more hidden than usual, with flood control construction shutting down Main Street next to the bridge for another couple of weeks.
This flood work and the planned 9/11 Memorial just upstream, near Kohl’s department store, could end up improving the public’s view of the bridge, Van Giesen said.
Both projects will remove vegetation that has blocked view of the bridge in recent decades, she said.
Van Giesen said she hopes that visitors to the 9/11 Memorial will have an unobstructed view of the historic structure, with its “1860” birth date carved in stone at the top of the arch.
Napa County Landmarks, a nonprofit historical preservation organization, is behind the effort to designate the Main Street bridge as a city landmark, having failed to get it on the National Register of Historic Places.
The feds rejected Landmarks’ nomination, saying that the character of the bridge had been significantly altered by the modern sidewalks and railing added by the city in 1985, Van Giesen said.
Mary Ellen Boyet, co-chair of Landmarks’ Preservation Action Committee, said her group would likely renominate the Main Street bridge for the National Register.
The new application will cite the bridge’s status as a city landmark and provide more historical context for how the bridge enabled the fledgling city of Napa to grow northward, Boyet said.
Napa needs to celebrate something as special as the Main Street bridge, particularly when hundreds of Napa County’s 19th-century stone bridges have disappeared, Boyet said.
“I still grieve over our 1862 bridge,” said Boyet, referring to the loss of another masonry bridge just downstream where Napa Creek flows under First Street.
That structure was removed in the last decade as part of the Napa flood control project, whose engineers considered it an obstruction to flood waters.
The 1860 Main Street bridge is also a flood obstruction, unable to handle flood flows on Napa Creek. But rather than remove it, the Army Corps of Engineers is installing dual culverts parallel to the creek to handle high velocities.
For much of the Main Street bridge’s life, it was even more hidden than today. From the late 1800s until the mid-1970s, the creek was covered with commercial buildings on both sides of the span.
The city’s redevelopment project uncovered the waterway as part of plans to make Napa Creek an aesthetic centerpiece of the new downtown.
The bridge, with a span of 40 feet, was built at a cost of $5,397, records show.
There is one other bridge in California that is equally old: a covered timber bridge over Oregon Creek in Yuba County. All the other surviving California bridges built between 1860 and 1888 are also of timber.
Napa’s Main Street bridge is the only surviving masonry span built in California before 1890, according to Caltrans records.
“It’s right there in downtown on historic Main Street, which has become quite fashionable and trendy,” Boyet said. Spotlighting the 1860 bridge is not only good for locals, but “something we can do for the tourists,” she said.