Tacoma Narrows Bridge Funsite

Feature Story

The Frances (Borgen) Carlson Story

Mrs. Carlson passed away on Friday, April 16, 2010

"Frances Carlson, The Last Driver to Successfully Cross the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge"
Courtesy of Kathy Rizer, Kaye & Mick O’Neil, and the Peninsula Gateway

Much has been made note of in the history of the famous Galloping Gertie Tacoma Narrows bridge, which collapsed on a fateful November day in 1940. The common image in people’s minds is the scene of the man running off the bridge; in fear of his life- as the main span behind him tore violently into pieces, and fell into the cold waters below.

Many men have been placed into the journals of the media; the bridge engineer Clark Eldridge, the man running off the bridge, the Tacoma News Tribune editor Leonard Coatsworth, the Tacoma News Tribune photographer Howard Clifford, the bridge designer Leon Moisseiff, and the photographer who shot the famous footage of the collapse Barney Elliott, among others. But few have mentioned one of the most important people involved with the tragic event- a woman named Frances Carlson.

Frances Carlson was the last driver to successfully venture out & onto the Narrows bridge that morning, the 7th day of November; make the trip all the way across the swaying roadway, and pay the toll. A feat that even the most experienced men drivers could not accomplish at the worst moments of Gertie‘s short life. It was with great determination and skill at the wheel of her Model A Ford that she managed to get across.

Richard Hobbs’ book “Catastrophe To Triumph” describes the following drivers attempting the bridge crossing before and after Frances on the morning of Nov. 7:

A Golden Rule Bakery truck with Elbert Swinney & his family made it across going westbound. Behind them was Dr. Jesse Read in his car. Dr Read was the last person to make it across going westward- but he had paid his toll at the start of his trip, as the toll booths were on the east side of the bridge.

Frances Carlson went onto the bridge from the west side going eastbound, but she had not yet paid her toll. A logging truck started onto the bridge also from the west side going east, but the driver stopped near the west tower as the truck lost it’s load of logs, and the driver retreated & got off the bridge on foot. A Rapid Transit delivery van paid the toll & started onto the bridge from the east side, but the driver & passenger (Walter Hagen and Ruby Cox) jumped out of the van just before it was tipped over near the west tower. They were rescued by Robert Hall and March Wilson; who had backed their truck partly onto the bridge to save Walter & Ruby. Leonard Coatsworth was behind the van, also driving from the east side going westbound. Frances Carlson passed Coatsworth’s car near the east tower, as they drove by each other going opposite directions. Coatsworth only made it to just short of mid-span as his car got slammed against the curb & stopped. Frances Carlson made it across, and paid her toll. Coatsworth crawled off the bridge back in the direction he entered from.

There were a few pedestrians on the bridge before it collapsed: a college student Winfield Brown, employees of a paint company working on the bridge J.K. Smith and W.H. Kreiger, Professor F. Burt Farquharson, engineer Clark Eldridge, photographers Howard Clifford, Barney Elliott, and James Bashford, and a reporter Bert Brintnall.

Frances Carlson was born Frances Borgen in 1916, and lived in Tacoma until she was 12 years old. Her family moved to Gig Harbor, and away from Tacoma’s electricity & running water- to a small town atmosphere where there were no such “amenities”. Her father, Alfred Borgen had a contract to deliver mail to & from Gig Harbor. In her teen years she occasionally helped with her Dad’s work; sometimes even getting to drive. Frances said “I was his substitute...and liked to drive rather than staying at home...”.

Frances met Morris (Morrie) Carlson, who worked on the local ferry; the “Skansonia” which ran between Gig Harbor, Point Defiance, and Vashon Island. They married in 1937. Morrie would later run the ferry, and Frances continued her father’s tradition of being a mail carrier to and from Gig Harbor. She drove a Model “A” Ford, which had two doors and a top speed of about 30 miles per hour. This was by no means, in 1940, a modern car. It was a dated automobile that was not necessarily easy to drive. Frances was loyal to her work, and she felt fortunate to have that job.

The morning of November 7, 1940 Frances recalled that the Gig Harbor/Bremerton bus was usually traveling right behind her- but that day it stayed behind on the Gig Harbor side of the “new” Narrows bridge. She started across the bridge, and noticed that the bridge was not only doing it’s usual up and down movements- but also that it was twisting in the strong winds. By the time she reached mid-span she was fighting to keep control of the car as it veered from side to side of the road. She said she didn’t fear the up & down movements the bridge usually had as much as car accidents, and she never thought the bridge would collapse. “I was holding onto my steering wheel very tight” she said. But the twisting it did this day was something else. “My wheels were hitting the guardrail”. She had little control of her car, and she stopped using the brakes in order to get across as quickly as possible. Which meant no more than 30 m.p.h. for her Model A.

Frances made it across by sheer determination, and paid her toll. The last person to do so. She told the toll booth operator that “the bridge is acting weird..”, and she stopped for a moment on the Tacoma side. She recalled watching Leonard Coatsworth crawling to safety, but she also had her job to do. So, she drove on to the downtown Tacoma Post Office to drop off the Gig Harbor mail. After she met her mother, who was already in Tacoma at that moment, she heard the boys on the streets shouting & carrying the extra edition of the newspaper declaring that the “new” bridge had collapsed. The only way for her to get back home was to drive down to Olympia, and then take the ferry to Longbranch.

Frances Carlson is a remarkable person, and a brave woman. To do what many people would not, to perform her job without hesitation, and to face enormous odds of risk of injury or even death at the hands of a known dangerous bridge crossing when it was obvious that others around her were failing, is to be commended & honored. A dedication that sets an example for all of us, even today.

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