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The Tale of the Bay Bridge Troll

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A light-colored metal figurine with two arms and two legs, holding a very long wrench to turn a bolt.
The original Bay Bridge troll guarded over the bridge for 24 years. When the new eastern span was completed, he was retired and now lives at the Caltrans office at 111 Grand Ave. in Oakland. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

Every month, about 4 million trips are made across the San Francisco Bay Bridge — making it the busiest bridge in the Bay Area.

It’s a beautiful bridge with sweeping views, but driving across it can be harrowing. All those drivers, rushing to their busy lives. It can get a little dicey out there! So you might be relieved to hear this bridge has a secret guardian lurking under the eastern span, keeping us all safe: the Bay Bridge troll.

There have been a few trolls on the bridge over the years, but the legend of the first Bay Bridge troll begins in 1989.

The Loma Prieta earthquake — a magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale — collapsed a large section of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge, “and honestly, if the earthquake would have continued for a few more seconds, the entire Eastern span would have collapsed,” said Bart Ney of Caltrans.

The repair work was done in about a month.

Sponsored

“The contractors and the state were working together out there around the clock, seven days a week,” said Ney. Crews on the bridge worked to install steel pieces fabricated, in part, at a shop in Oakland.

Workers from the Oakland shop contacted a local blacksmith and artist named Bill Roan with an idea — to build a gargoyle to protect the repaired bridge section.

Roan did his research and found that gargoyles are not typically bridge guardians, so he proposed something a little more useful.

The troll is born

“Who’s that tripping over my bridge?” roared the troll … “Now, I’m coming to gobble you up.” — from “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”

The connection between trolls and bridges reaches back to the Norwegian fairy tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” published in the 1840s. The tale finds three billy goats trying to cross a bridge under which lives a scary troll. The three goats outsmart the troll to pass. The story was translated into English in the 1850s, and since then, trolls and bridges became inextricably linked in pop culture. As for what a troll actually looks like or does, that changes from culture to culture, bridge to bridge.

Roan decided a troll was what the repaired Bay Bridge needed to ward off evil spirits — seismic or supernatural. The result, said Ney, was, “particularly special. It was crafted out of a piece of metal that was from the [collapsed] bridge. Bill said he was trying to make a particularly fierce troll.”

Ney said the troll has webbed feet and hands, for swimming. He’s holding “a giant wrench welded into a bolt. And, he has a really long tongue, I mean his tongue is almost as long as half of his body.”

One night, under the cover of darkness, “[the troll] was placed on the bridge segment, facing the outside so no one else would really see it,” said Ney. After the retrofit was completed, the troll stayed on the bridge.

“Ultimately (the troll) did a good job out there for 24 years because we had no further, bigger earthquakes that impacted the structure,” said Ney.

When Caltrans began construction on the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2002, the troll’s artist, Bill Roan, offered to make a new troll for the new bridge. Ney said they turned him down: “You can’t bring that sort of thing in the front door! This is where we talk about science and technology. That’s magic. The original troll came to Caltrans, we didn’t ask for him, and a new troll would need to be of the same ilk.”

No formal plans were made for a new troll. In fact, Caltrans’s official policy was “benign noninterference.” But when the new eastern span opened in 2013, a new, slightly taller troll was unveiled one night. Perched high atop a pier, the 2-foot troll is made of solid steel. He’s got a beard and tools in his hands.

Finding the troll

 

A view of painted white iron beams, with one metal figurine of a troll on a lower level in shadow, and a white-painted one in the light.
When searching for the Bay Bridge troll, you’ll find that there are at least two on the bridge. The lower troll is considered “the” troll. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

Head out onto the Bay Bridge Trail, a few miles in, where the cable connects to the bridge deck, look down under the roadway, and you’ll spot the modern Bay Bridge troll in the shadows, spinning magic to this day.

An angular dark metal figurine with legs and arms, holding tools, its feet affixed to the cement below it.
The troll is always in shadow. Apparently trolls don’t like the sun. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

The original troll, from the old bridge, now lives in retirement at the Caltrans office in Oakland, where Ney said the troll never allows himself to be forgotten.

“I’ll be dead and gone and people will still be talking about the troll,” Ney said. “Every time I get off the elevator and I see him there, I just have to give him a wink. I never miss him.”

If you’d like to visit the original troll, visit him at the Caltrans office at 111 Grand Ave. in Oakland, California.

A smiling man in a black jacket and black pants poses in front of a glass case that hold a metal figurine of a fairly human-looking troll.
Talking about the troll can be a bit of an annoyance for Bart Ney, the chief of public affairs at Caltrans District 4. But he admits that he gives the troll a wink every time he gets off the elevator. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

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