More than 50 years ago, the Putah Creek Bridge — believed to be the longest stone bridge west of the Rocky Mountains when it was built in 1896 — disappeared under the waters of Lake Berryessa after the completion of the Monticello Dam.
Over the past few months, a group of divers based in the East Bay have been visiting the bridge that now sits more than 120 feet underwater. Their watery videos show the masonry of the 300-foot-long bridge frozen in time.
The bridge carried horse-drawn traffic to the bucolic town of Monticello in the Berryessa Valley. The village was razed in the 1950s to make way for Lake Berryessa, a federal irrigation project serving Solano County.
Harold Moskowite, a former Napa County supervisor who ranched alfalfa and beef cattle at Monticello between 1946 and 1955 before the waters filled the valley, said he wishes he could have attended.
“It was a beautiful valley,” Moskowite, 86, said.
John Daniels, a 58-year-old St. Helena man who grew up water-skiing at Lake Berryessa, set out last year to find the Putah Creek Bridge after reading a story about it in the Napa Valley Register.
A former mason, Daniels was fascinated by the workers who had hauled large rocks with mules and wagons from a nearby quarry to build the bridge, which features three arches.
“It’s just amazing what they had accomplished,” Daniels said.
After studying historical documents and scouring the Internet for information, Daniels figured out the approximate coordinates of the Putah Creek Bridge. He plugged the data into the GPS on his fishing boat and headed out on the lake.
Last June, after several attempts, a series of dots forming arches appeared on the sonar on his boat. “These dots,” he said, “represented the bridge.”
The top of the bridge was under 120 feet of water, his sonar indicated. Daniels lowered an anchor. As he did, he felt the line rub on something. That was the bridge.
“I knew that was it,” Daniels said. “I couldn’t believe what I had done.”
A few months later, in October, Daniels returned to the same spot on a calm day when there was little boat activity on the lake. This time, he lowered a Sony video camera with lights attached straight down.
The camera, which he had purchased to look at fish during his fishing outings, captured the first modern-day images of the bridge’s stonework. For Daniels, the moment was as exciting as finding the Titanic.
Thrilled, he uploaded the photos to the Web for family and friends to see.
At the same time, a diving group based in the East Bay was discovering the history of Monticello and the old Putah Creek Bridge, always looking for new, interesting spots to dive. Members understood the town had been leveled but that the bridge remained.
After meeting Daniels in October, the divers decided to join forces with him.
“We decided to try to find it,” said Sharon Eckroth of Pittsburg, who runs a dive shop with her husband, Les Wilkinson.
In late November, Wilkinson dove, becoming the first person to see the bridge in decades, he believes. Over the next few months, other divers from the team followed.
David VanValkenburg, a diver from Fremont who was drawn to the story of the people of Monticello who had fought for their town’s survival but lost, found the bridge impressive.
“It’s a huge structure,” said VanValkenburg, a Silicon Valley systems engineer. “You don’t know where you are on the bridge.”
In May, Eckroth swam under an arch with Wilkinson. The divers said they have to be careful about not disturbing the fine silt that has accumulated on the bridge, so as to not cloud their visibility.
After the first 100 feet down, there is no light. Divers carry lamps and follow a line to make sure they don’t go off track.
While she could not see the entire structure, her dive to the bridge in May was “awesome,” Eckroth said. “It’s like it reached you and hugged you.”
On Memorial Day weekend, the divers showed a video of their dives at Spanish Flat Village at Lake Berryessa.
“It was our way to give (the community) something back,” said Eckroth, 55.
“It’s exactly the way it looks in the pictures,” said Lake Berryessa resident Carol Fitzpatrick, who saw the video. She grew up at Spanish Flat after her family was forced to leave Monticello in the mid-1950s to make way for the lake.
Fitzpatrick maintains an exhibit of photographs and artifacts from Monticello at the Spanish Flat Village grocery to keep the story of the town alive.
Born three years after her family left Monticello, she was eager to know if the 1896 Putah Creek Bridge was intact after so many years.
“I was hoping it still was,” said Fitzpatrick, 52. “It makes me happy that it was.”
This story has been altered since first posting.