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Nov. 4, 1988: Traffic streams across the Vincent Thomas Bridge at dusk. This photo was published in the Nov. 6, 1988 Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Alan Hagman / Los Angeles Times

Nov. 11, 1978: California Assemblyman Vincent Thomas and bridge that bears his name.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

Nov. 6, 1988: Party-goers crowd the Vincent Thomas Bridge during its silver anniversary celebration. This photo was published in the Nov. 7, 1988, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jose Galvez / Los Angeles Times

July 1962: Workmen attach the first catwalk cable for the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Another cable was strung later. The two cables were used to support a catwalk for workers. This photo was published in the July 4, 1962, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bruce Cox / Los Angeles Times

Aug. 20, 1962: The arrow points to workers during construction of the Vincent Thomas Bridge to Terminal Island. This photo was published in the Aug. 21, 1962, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Judd Gunderson / Los Angeles Times

September 1962: With catwalks in place, workers begin spinning cables for the 1,500-foot span of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. This photo was published in the Sept. 20, 1962, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Fichera Studio / Library file photo

Aug. 22, 1963: The Vincent Thomas Bridge nears completion between San Pedro and Terminal Island. This photo was published in the Sept. 1, 1963, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Sept. 29, 1963: The 1 1/7-mile-long Vincent Thomas suspension bridge, spanning the channel between San Pedro and Terminal Island, is pictured a month and a half before its opening.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times Archive/UCLA

Jan. 17, 1979: Vincent Thomas Bridge toll collector Tom. B. Hawkins collects 25 cents from a motorist. Hawkins was the last of the original crew of collectors who opened the bridge in 1963. This photo was published in the Jan. 18, 1979, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Mally / Los Angeles Times

Jan. 11, 1983: Caltrans painter Bob Lalonde of Norwalk sets up his loft before spray painting the main cables on the Vincent Thomas Bridge. This photo was published in the Jan.15, 1983, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rick Corrales / Los Angeles Times

January 1983: The toll on the westbound Vincent Thomas Bridge is increased to 50 cents. Eastbound traffic is free. The toll for both directions had been 25 cents. This photo was published in the Jan. 6, 1983, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Harry Chase / Los Angeles Times

July 7, 1987: The view while heading west on the Vincent Thomas Bridge. This photo was published in the July 11, 1987, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Randy Leffingwell / Los Angeles Times

Sept. 3, 2012: Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino waves to encourage other runners as they and about 3,000 runners and walkers cross the Vincent Thomas Bridge twice during the fourth annual 5.3-€“mile Conquer the Bridge race, starting and ending at Harbor Boulevard and 5th Street in San Pedro on Labor Day. The course takes participants across the bridge to Terminal Island and then back across the span.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

Oct. 2, 2012: Seth DeDoes of Long Beach takes a photograph of the sun rising over the Vincent Thomas bridge in San Pedro.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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The Vincent Thomas Bridge turns 50

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The Vincent Thomas Bridge turns 50

Fifty years ago on Friday, the Vincent Thomas Bridge opened to traffic. The span, between San Pedro and Terminal Island, replaced ferry boat service.

Staff writer Sheryl Stolberg, in the Nov. 7, 1988, Los Angeles Times, reported on the bridge’s 25th anniversary:

They called it “the bridge to nowhere.”

They said no one would use it.

And after it was built, they said it wasn’t proper for it to bear the name of a man not yet dead — Vincent Thomas, the scrappy veteran legislator who spent half his 38-year career in the California Assembly fighting for a bridge that would connect San Pedro to Terminal Island. Thomas died in 1980.

It took 16 pieces of legislation and three governors before Thomas’ pet project won approval. And though it may not be as grand as the Golden Gate in San Francisco or as fabled as the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, the Vincent Thomas Bridge proved the naysayers wrong.

The bridge, which now carries 26,500 vehicles a day, is widely credited with providing a crucial transportation link to the Port of Los Angeles, and thus aiding the port’s phenomenal growth. Had it not been built, port spokesman Mike Levitt said, “there would be no way to successfully move a lot of cargo quickly, and that would mean the difference between success and failure at the port.”

Yet aside from economics, folks in San Pedro just plain like the mile-long span, with its 365-foot-tall towers and striking iridescent green. So on Sunday, they got together with the people from Caltrans and threw the bridge a 25th birthday party.
Several thousand people turned out for a day of festivities that marked the silver anniversary of the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which opened on Nov. 15, 1963. At dusk, in a symbolic bridge-lighting ceremony, the crowd walked across the graceful green span, which was decked out with more than 50 American flags. They carried flashlights and at the sound of three cannon blasts, turned them on in unison at 5:30 p.m. and sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The event’s organizers are hoping to use money from the more than 3,000 tickets sold to buy permanent, decorative lights for the bridge’s cables.

Tickets sold for $15, including a T-shirt and flashlight and at $5 for a flashlight only.

“We look at it as if it were our own bridge here in San Pedro,” said Marty Chavez, a local resident who is heading the fund-raising drive for the lights. “It’s a beautiful bridge. . . . I want to dress it up and put those lights on.”

To coincide with the celebration, Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed Sunday “Vincent Thomas Day” in Los Angeles. Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proclaimed it “Vincent Thomas Bridge Day.”

The bridge that Vincent Thomas liked to call “my bridge” is the tallest structure in the South Bay, the only suspension bridge in Los Angeles County and the only toll bridge in the county as well.

It is also the first suspension span ever to be built on steel piles — 990 of them were sunk to hold it up, instead of the more traditional concrete supports. And it is the first to be built entirely without rivets; the steel is welded together.

Before the bridge was built, hundreds of cannery and shipyard workers made their daily passage from San Pedro to Terminal Island aboard ferry boats. Thomas thought the ferry system inadequate, and proposed the bridge to replace it.

The plan was ridiculed for two decades. Even after it got state approval, skeptics predicted it would serve fewer than 2,000 vehicles a day and that it would take taxpayers 40 years to pay for the $21-million structure. In its first month of operation, however, the bridge served a daily average of 9,631 vehicles. And most of the debt was paid off within 20 years.

Over the years, the Vincent Thomas Bridge has had its share of Hollywood roles, most notably in the movie “To Live and Die in L.A.,” in which a stunt man rigged an elaborate system of ropes so that he could dive off the bridge’s highest point. Another stunt man of sorts — tightrope walker Steve McPeak–balanced his way across the bridge’s highest cable in 1976, only to be arrested by highway patrolmen when he got to Terminal Island. (Pedestrians, after all, are not allowed on the bridge.)

But perhaps the most eager visitor was the man who fought to build the Vincent Thomas Bridge and then pushed for special legislation so that it could be named after him.

Mary Thomas, Vincent’s widow, recalls that her husband was fond of taking his grandsons to see the bridge, and once “sold” it to one of the boys for a penny. And toll-taker Tom Hawkins, who has worked at the bridge on and off since it opened, said Thomas often would drive up to the toll booth “and the first thing he’d want to know is, ‘How’s my bridge doing?’ “

Thomas died in 1980, two years after losing a bitter election campaign that cost him his dream of serving 40 years in the Legislature.

By that time, he had become so closely identified with the bridge that a strategist for his Republican opponent, Gerald Felando, said polls showed that “once we got out of San Pedro, . . . people thought Vince Thomas was a bridge. They didn’t even know he was a state legislator.”

Such talk angers Mary Thomas, who was a special guest at Sunday’s ceremonies.

“I’m very proud of the fact that my husband had the foresight and the determination and he didn’t give up,” she said. “People have forgotten that it took a man behind that bridge to make it possible, and that man was Vincent Thomas, my husband.”

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