Aerial view of Port - Note bridge in background
prior to construction of the adjacent Schuyler Heim Bridge
The earliest train crossing to Rattlesnake Island was a fixed-in-place trestle bridge, constructed in 1891 by the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad Company. The bridge crossed the channel at Long Beach approximately where the Gerald Desmond Bridge now stands. At that time, the Terminal Land Company purchased Rattlesnake Island and renamed it Terminal Island with the idea that it would be the ultimate destination (or terminal) for a rail route from Utah to Los Angeles. In 1906, the U.S. military ordered the removal of the fixed bridge and plans soon began for the construction of a movable bridge at the same location to allow the passage of ships through the channel between Terminal Island and Long Beach. In 1909, the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad (the successor to the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad Company) replaced the fixed bridge with a bascule bridge across the entrance to Long Beach Harbor. (See "People" for more information on the bascule design.)
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Eventually, the Union Pacific Railroad acquired the rail alignment from Long Beach and constructed a second movable, wooden trestle bridge to Terminal Island. This second bridge, completed sometime between 1910 and 1921, crossed Cerritos Channel at a point approximately three-quarters of a mile east of the future site of the Henry Ford Bridge.
Street-level view of bridge looking north
With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the Port of Los Angeles found itself in a geographically strategic location as a port of entry for world trade. This, coupled with the ending of World War I in 1918, had a great impact on the Port. General exports, primarily oil and oil product (see California Petroleum Company and Union Oil Company modules), and imports increased dramatically as the end of the war generally meant the end of trade restrictions worldwide. Port officials recognized the immediate need to improve the roads, rails, wharves, and other infrastructure in order to move commodities efficiently throughout the area. Each of the existing movable bridges across the Cerritos Channel featured a single set of tracks. Following WWI, Port officials and Union Pacific wanted to provide access for a greater numbers of trains, trucks, cars, and pedestrians passing to and from Terminal Island. This meant a larger, bridge that could accommodate the greater level and different types of traffic. Their answer was to construct the Henry Ford Bascule Bridge.