On a clear spring 1970s morning by dawn’s early light one Mr. Thomas J. Armstrong of Des Moines, Iowa peered from the cab of his 18-wheeler truck at the sign “Load Limit 5 Tons” on the one-lane steel-girder bridge spanning the Truckee River. Mr. Armstrong was the sole occupant of a vehicle whose estimated weight that morning was 35 tons, which consisted of a semi-trailer, the tractor pulling it and the 20 tons of strawberries in the trailer. He might have noted the five-ton limit sign, done the math, then employed some aberrated logic and decided that if perhaps he went fast enough he could make it across the stream without incident. He couldn’t. Several fisherman were wetting their lines near the bridge on that peaceful morning just west of the present Mayberry Drive span, and looked up to see the truck moving at a high rate of speed to the south. They witnessed the front axle, followed by the rear axles of the tractor splinter the wooden deck of the bridge as it approached the south landing. They dove for cover as the iron trusses on either side of the bridge ripped the trailer open, the momentum from the weight of the cases of strawberries pushing the front axle of the truck to the south landing, and the axles of the trailer then falling through the deck to dangle above the Truckee’s channel.
The fishermen on that morning saw case after case of strawberries break open, and the berries, which do in fact float, start their journey downstream, reaching by some disputed accounts all the way to Pyramid Lake. And the fishermen noted Mr. Armstrong of Des Moines, Iowa climb out of the cab of the truck, shake his head and utter the words, “Well, son-of-a-gun,” or an epithet something to that effect. Mr. Armstrong a few minutes later would be escorted by the responding Washoe County Sheriff’s deputies to the county hoosegow, for the initial infraction of driving under the influence of something better than strawberry Coca-Cola, with additional transgressions like destruction of property, failure to heed, misdemeanor general stupidity and a bunch more being added as his journey progressed to his cell awaiting in the old sheriff’s office on South Sierra and Court Streets. Needless to say, his life changed dramatically in a heartbeat that early morning of May 20, 1974.
So now, what needs to be done? Strawberries were there for the grabbing in the Truckee, and were being grabbed with great glee downstream, later that morning and in days to follow, with the reports of waders entering the river near the California Building in Idlewild Park and from the Dickerson Road shore, and nearer to downtown Reno in the Riverside Drive area. Every eddy, rock pile and tiny oxbow contained two or three of the edible little treats swirling around it. But most of the cargo remained in the carcass of the trailer, which continued to hang precipitously from what was left of the bridge. Salvors were called, I think but can’t confirm as being from one or two of the local produce companies, who off-loaded the strawberries into refrigerated trucks.
As memory serves, they later had to be destroyed per the decree of the health department and I’ll take help from a reader on that [help never came]. Mayberry Drive, which had long been called the Old Verdi Road in years preceding 1974, was then closed at Fenno Lane west of the later McCarran Loop and at old Highway 40 on the west end, and would stay closed for quite a while. The trailer was hauled off and that remnant of the bridge – the part that Mr. Armstrong didn’t beat the county to – was disassembled. Curiously, a contract had already been let to Holcomb Construction for $1.479 million for a vehicular undercrossing and a railroad bridge. The 1907 Mayberry Bridge, a twin to a railroad bridge upstream, was already destined for removal, a fact probably used to no avail in the defense of Mr. Armstrong for his litany of offenses. In a perfect world, the bridge he demolished would have well served the community until the new structure was completed. And that’s the story of the Strawberry Truck vs. the Mayberry Bridge – Truck 1, Bridge 0. I’ve started to weave this tale a dozen times but it took a similar crash, not involving a bridge, of a trucker dumping 7,000 pounds of watermelons into the Truckee River a couple of weeks ago to shake this long-overdue strawberry column loose.
A final note on hauling strawberries: In the golden age of railroading, a passenger train had priority over all freight trains, except for a train hauling strawberries, for which the passenger trains would take to a siding while the strawberry train passed.
A column inch remains, so for this week of May 1974 let’s speak of Governor “Big Mike” O’Callaghan who is scheduled to cut a ribbon opening the last leg to the new I-80 freeway from Keystone Avenue to Center Street in a few days. Meanwhile, Sandler & Young are playing at Harrah’s downtown, every cop and G-Man on the West Coast is looking for heiress Patty Hearst who was abducted a couple of days ago, and finally Vario’s on South Virginia will be open for Mother’s Day.
Personalized license plate of the week is on a Camry, KSRASRA, driven by a woman who quite resembles Doris Day.
Thanks for reading, and God bless America.
Photo credit and text clip © RGJ