Masons restore life to once-buried bridgeBy Kevin Fagan
Every day for a week, Ben Epperly and his two-man crew have been chiseling and cementing together huge granite slabs in a dirt pit in South San Francisco, and from the road it looks like an ordeal in drudgery.
Epperly and his men believe they are hand-crafting a bridge to history. And they are.
The stones the crew is assembling into a 10 1/2-foot-high archway, with a wall jutting out at an angle for 16 feet on either side, were originally put there in 1863 -- when they formed a bridge under one of the first railroad lines on the Peninsula.
Back in 1863, South San Francisco wasn't a city, and there was pretty much nothing around but cattle ranches and farms. The coming of the railroad that year would dramatically change all that. So in recognition of the importance of this, Southern Pacific built everything first class, even the rail bridges.
The granite arch that Epperly Masonry Restoration is restoring along South Spruce Street near El Camino Real was one of those bridges, a chunky sweep of slabs that were each hand-chopped and shaped at a nearby quarry of "blue stone" granite.
It was lost to time for decades, torn apart two years ago, and now is being reborn at 48-year-old Epperly's hands.
"If you're a stonemason, it doesn't get any better than this," said Epperly, putting down his chisel and hammer Monday and surveying the growing walls of stone like a proud papa. "This was a magnificent structure, and being asked to put it together again is like being a concert pianist and being given a grand piano to just play and play."
For decades the bridge stood proudly under a busy rail line, a tributary to Colma Creek coursing beneath it, while a bustling new industrial city sprouted up all around.
By the middle of the 20th century, though, passenger service stopped along that part of the Southern Pacific route, and then the line that went over the bridge was abandoned altogether in the early 1970s. The tracks were paved over as new sewer and water lines went in to serve suburban sprawl, and the once- showpiece granite bridge became a partially buried collection of forgotten rocks that the creek tributary dribbled through.
It would have stayed that way if the new tunnel linking BART to the San Francisco International Airport hadn't cut right through the spot where the bridge sat. Nobody knew quite what to make of the span when surveyors came across it in 1995, but fortunately its builder, O.H. Rand, had carved his name and the 1863 date in it. So local historians got called down to the project.
"Everyone pretty quickly determined it was a historical structure we needed to preserve," said Cam Bauer, BART senior civil engineer. "So we took it apart, stone by stone, and stored it until we finished the BART tunnel and could rebuild the bridge."
In 1999, the bridge was declared a historical structure by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record, and last year the BART tunnel -- part of a 6-mile link to the airport from Colma -- was finished. The tunnel lies 40 feet underground, and once it was fully buried -- with the roof ending just below where the rail stone bridge sat -- Epperly was called in.
"It's one of the only existing examples of the craftsmanship the railroad took back then, building great stuff even for its little bridges spanning creeks," said Frank Vieira Jr., chairman of the South San Francisco Historical Society. "It's very important in the way it shows the different periods and topography of our history."
At 1 1/2 feet high and up to 5 feet long, the 105 stones that make up the bridge are so massive -- up to 1,500 pounds each -- they have to be lowered into the dirt pit one at a time by a huge crane. Then, they must be hand- chiseled to fit back into place, reinforced by steel bands to withstand earthquakes and fitted together with mortar.
The ravages of time rendered the north edge of the bridge unsalvageable, so only the south end is being rehabilitated. When finished, it will help hold up a road going over the buried BART tunnel, and the same old Colma Creek tributary that always gurgled beneath it will be restored to fuller flow.
Epperly and his fellow stonemasons, Steve McLaughlin and Pedro "Tony" Aguilar, have been reconstructing the bridge since April 30, and they reckon they have another week's work ahead of them. BART budgeted the project at $200, 000, but to this crew it's a labor of love.
"Just look at this," Epperly said, waving a hand reverently at the loose stones and wall fragments all around him. "The guys who built this are all dead. They're ghosts, they left all of this behind, and we are honoring their memory."
Copyright ©2002 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 05/07/2002.