Most people know that the Town of Monticello is submerged beneath Lake
Berryessa. They’ve also seen the photos of the old town and the famous Putah
Creek Bridge. An engineering marvel in its day, it was titled the “Queen
of the Stone Bridges”. Constructed in 1896, it would become the largest stone
bridge west of the Rocky Mountains. Few people living today have ever seen it
or crossed over it.
It had 3 arches, each spanning 70
feet and extending down to bedrock. The bridge totaled 298 feet in length, and
it rose 42 feet above the low water at the center of the span. The bridge
stones were set into a cement mortar. The sandstone blocks used withstood
testing of 8,000 to 12,000 pounds per square inch. They used 675 barrels of
cement, 380 barrels of lime, 55,000 feet of lumber for false work, as well
as tons of iron. The arch stones were 3 feet 6 inches deep; 12 3/16 inches
at the crown and 11 inches at the base. They used 2,600 loads of rock. Each load
comprised 5 to 10 cubic yards of material. The total cost of the bridge was
There are many types of scuba divers. Some like me want clear warm
water so we can feel like birds flying freely through the clear air. Jacques
Cousteau said, “From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders.
He is bolted to the earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he
Some adventurous souls like to cave dive and wreck dive – a much more
technically demanding type of diving. And then there’s Sharon Eckroth and her
colleagues from the East Bay.
Sharon and her friends are trimix
and tech divers. According to the Advanced Diving Technologies Dive Team,
TDI/SDI, which has a tech diving training and gear center in Antioch, “For the
extreme diver ready to further explore the world of technical deep diving, the
gas of choice is trimix – a blend of oxygen, helium and nitrogen.” Trimix is
used in very deep dives instead of air to reduce the partial pressure of oxygen
(to avoid oxygen toxicity) and nitrogen (to avoid nitrogen narcosis).
Sharon and her friends (six
Northern California divers) have set a goal to scuba dive to the bottom of Lake
Berryessa and will document and photograph the Putah Creek Bridge and possibly
the remains of the old Town of Monticello. They would also like to find and
dive the newer 1941 Capell Creek Bridge near the Capell Public Launch Ramp,
which actually was above water in the early 1990’s drought.
Sharon told the Lake Berryessa
News, “We have been working the project from several angles for about 5 years
now. Done a few dives in the dark, cold, 3 feet visibility water and yet to
find something. We have been on
the lake with depth and fish finders looking for obstacles, depressions,
debris, etc. We have performed a few
dives. But with the poor visibility, one could be 10 feet from the target and
swim right by it. We have been calculating lake levels then and now to
determine depths. After runs over the area with fish and depth finders and a
tow fish, we found some interesting spikes that are out of place along the
In recent months we have located
several folks, descendants of Monticello residents who have offered exciting
new insight to our effort. We are engaged in this project as a means to help
preserve the colorful history of the area, feed our love for adventure and most
importantly give back to the families to let them know this wonderful community
is not forgotten! We have searched current and historical maps, lake maps,
Bureau of Reclamation records, USGS data, bridge experts, lake levels over the
years, depth readings, media articles, local people and their memories, and
historical records, to list a few. This has been an exciting escapade and
enhanced with every new detail we uncover!”
See a short 8 minute version of the 1 hour dvd video of the dive to the bridge here.
Scuba Diving Lake Berryessa’s Putah Creek Stone Bridge
Local fisherman, Sam Boucher, provided
some topo maps with GPS coordinates for the Town of Monticello and the old
Putah Creek Stone Bridge. He also sent in a photo for the Capell Creek Bridge
near the launch ramp when it came out of the water during the big drought of
The Capell Creek Bridge (one of
several with the same name) was located just east of the public ramp near the 5
mile an hour buoys. A short video of it is available on You Tube at:
Fascinating helicopter video of the Town of Monticello during a low water mark in 1990 here:
Town of Monticello
122º 12.25’W, 38º 34.47’N
Putah Creek stone bridge:
122º 12.59’ W, 38º 33.59’
The Search for the Drowned Putah Creek Stone Bridge
As adventures go, this is quite a
story – and an interesting coincidence!
On June 25, 2011, John Daniels of
St. Helena found the Putah Creek Stone Bridge. On October 8, 2011 he
was the first human being to see the famous bridge since Putah Creek was
harnessed by Monticello Dam to form Lake Berryessa in 1958.
On November 26, 2011, Les
Wilkinson and Chris Hanson, members of
the Berryessa Bridges Project, were the first human beings to see it with their
own eyes and touch it with their own hands.
John’s eyes were channeled
through a 160-foot cable connected to an underwater video camera. The amazing
video of this first sighting is available on You Tube at:
Les and Chris, members of the
Berryessa Bridges Project, were actually floating next to the bridge in 150
feet of cold, dark water.
John is a Napa County native who
has been coming to Lake Berryessa since he was a child. He’s also an avid
fisherman who combined his love of being on the water with an interest in the
history of the Berryessa Valley and the Town of Monticello. Since the Putah
Creek Stone Bridge is a major historical artifact he decided to try to find and
video record it.
thousands of hours with my family on Lake Berryessa, mostly waterskiing, but
more recently, fishing. I’ve also wanted to see below the surface of the lake,
to see large fish that I frequently mark on my sonar. Back in early June of
this year I purchased a small underwater camera. I first tried to find any
signs of Monticello, but without any success.
I then started to
search for the Putah Creek Bridge. After several weekends of attempts I finally
found it on June 25th, about 1,200 feet south of where I first thought it was,
in 160ft. of water. I marked and saved it on the sonar.I spent numerous times
crossing back and forth over it to verify it’s center until I felt that I might
be able to secure my boat over that spot.
I lowered a bow
anchor line down with the boat perpendicular to the bridge and secured it to
the North face of the bridge wall. I then cast a stern anchor and secured it to
the opposite wall. I lowered the camera down on a 160ft cable with small LED
To finally send the
camera down I needed a perfectly calm day on the water. There was very little
control of the camera, with it being so small and trying to sendit straight
down on a line that was half the length of a football field.
I was thrilled to
see this beautiful front face of the bridge wall with mortar joints still
looking as if they were just placed yesterday. The top outer edge had a
perfectly shaped stone cap and reveal, typical of stone bridges for that time
in Napa County. The key stones that formed the arches were massive and appeared
gigantic in relation to others I’ve seen.”
Putah Creek Stone
Bridge on sonar
Coincidentally, during that same
period another group of explorers was looking for the same bridge, as well as
several other bridges, that are below the surface of Lake Berryessa. The group
of technical scuba divers, led by
Dave VanValkenburg and Sharon Eckroth,
had formed the Berryessa Bridges Project to find and document the historical
bridges with still photography and video recordings. They’ve designated the
Putah Creek Stone Bridge as the BSB, Berryessa Stone Bridge.
The Lake Berryessa News did its small part in this adventure by
bringing John, Dave, Sharon, and Les together to share notes over pizza in
October. I was amazed at the research that had been done by the Berryessa
Bridges Project group, especially the computer graphics magic of Dave Van
Valkenburg. Dave had superimposed a view from Google Earth, an old aerial
photograph, and the plot map from Carol Fitzpatrick’s Monticello History
Exhibit to pinpoint the location of the bridge.
Left to right: John, Les, Dave, Sharon
On November 26, the Berryessa
Bridges Project team geared up, rented a patio boat from Pleasure Cove Marina,
and sailed out on an exceptionally beautiful day – warm, sunny, and flat as
“Les Wilkinson, Sharon Eckroth , Gary
Callihan, Chris Hanson, and I rented a patio boat from Pleasure Cove Marina and
set out about 9:30 AM Saturday morning. We are all technical divers, and have
been diving together for quite a while. To be honest, although we were
prepared, we were not really planning on getting any diving done Saturday, but
things moved along well, and the conditions were ideal, so we went for it.
Using a chartplotter GPS with sonar we
grappled near the bridge. Next we placed a commercial grade color television
camera on a shackle to the grapple line and lowered it on its 300 foot cable
along the line. With Les monitoring and maintaining the grapple line and
directing boat movements, me driving, and Sharon and Chris handling the
electronics, we confirmed that what we were seeing was the bridge. Gary handled
the camera cable and with Chris giving him directions like « down one foot
– back a little », we were able to get close enough to see the stonework of
Our formal plan called for more TV camera
work, but we were all thinking the same thing – it was dead, flat clam, and
sunny, and we were over the bridge – maybe we should send divers down to
verify. A quick check of the sixteen scuba tanks aboard reflected that we had
some gas appropriate for the depth. So we devised a dive plan for Les to
bring an anchor down on a lift bag slowly so as not to hurt the bridge.
However, due to some software problems, video
recording didn’t start until about one minute before Les left the bottom for
his ascent. Les reports about eight inches of powdery silt on the roadway,
midnight black without lighting, and roughly six feet of visibility with the
lights on. He says the bridge is covered with virgin, undisturbed silt, a
likeness to a fresh snowfall.
We really enjoyed ourselves that day and felt
a profound satisfaction in getting someone down there. We celebrated our
success by donning our new yellow « Berryessa Bridges Project » tee
The photo below is of our best diver, Les
Wilkinson, hitting the water for what is the very first dive in history to the
bridge – as far as we know. Photos courtesy of David VanValkenburg.
Gary with TV camera
line to the BSB
Scuba Diving To
and Through the Putah Creek Stone Bridge
By Sharon Eckroth,
Berryessa Bridges Project
Our team has made yet another
terrific SCUBA dive to the Big Stone Bridge. My partner and I performed the
dive on May 12. It was in a word; amazing. The day offered the best
in-water visibility we’ve had in the lake to date. The surface conditions were
fabulous with the warm, nearly tropical sun falling on the placid teal
water. A refreshing northerly breeze kept the boat deck conditions
comfortable. We quickly descended to the bridge carefully arresting our
decent above the road bed at about 120 feet so as not to disturb 55 years of
baby powder fine silt. I tied off a safety line and we swam over the side
of the BSB to locate an arch. This was truly a sight to behold, the BSB in all
of her architectural splendor. The beautiful soft hues of the stone had an
almost calming effect.
With lights ablaze and video
camera rolling, we collected ourselves and executed the dive plan, a swim
through the arch to the other side. The roadbed is roughly 27 feet in width so
it was a short jaunt as underwater swims go. Although the visibility was an
amazing twenty feet, the water was dark akin to a coal mine after midnight.
Without artificial light the conditions could rapidly turn into one’s worst
nightmare. The water temperature was a comfortable 52 degrees, if you’re an
We proved the arch is clear to a
depth of 144 feet void of debris that may have submerged over several decades
or washed down originally with the inundating waters. Now 27 feet doesn’t seem
like far until you consider the darkness, limited visibility, and potential for
disorientation in an overhead environment. Suffice to say this is where
specialized training comes into play and is crucial to diver safety. We
documented the condition of the arch as best possible ultimately emerging on
the North side. We were promptly greeted again by the beautiful golden taupe
and brown hues of the masterfully lain stone. I’m having second thoughts about
which rocks are a girl’s best friend!
Our time beneath the BSB arch was
limited to 15 minutes. A diver’s time at depth is brief due to the bodies’
inert gas absorption from respiration. With that, the decompression obligation
grows exponentially each passing moment so we wrapped up the video
documentation and made for our first of many decompression stops. However as
short-lived the time at depth was, coupled with the pending slow monotonous
ascent to the surface, it was well worth the effort to visit the beautiful
Monticello Stone Bridge.
It is beyond words and humbling
to have had the opportunity to dive this wonderful historical site. To know the
story behind this lovely productive valley and the lives of those that called
Monticello home, most crossing the BSB as part of their daily routine, makes
for one fabulous and enriching experience. It’s saddening that the BSB is so
far out of reach for the majority. Regal in its grandeur this magnificent
architectural work, with its perfectly preserved golden stones and graceful
lines, now lies alone, hidden and unappreciated.
Our team is thrilled, extremely
proud and thankful to have been the first to touch the BSB since 1957. A
special note of thanks to everyone in the community for supporting our efforts
to document the BSB’s condition and help preserve its memory. We look forward
to sharing our experiences with the folks that remember the bridge from back in
the day and hearing their stories and sharing in their memories.
By Sharon Eckroth,
Berryessa Bridges Project
Once again, I questioned my
sanity rising at this hour of the day, carefully tiptoeing past the chicken
coop so as not to disturb the rooster, and load the remaining pieces of gear.
I’m sure it’s the thrill of yet another unexplored locality that drives one to
the adrenaline-filled serenity that is the abyss. I scarcely noticed the crisp
and cold early morning air with the majority of my focus on the task at hand,
loading the last of the SCUBA gear and double-checking support equipment.
It was near mid-day when we
anchored over the dive site. Berryessa greeted us with the serenity of a
sleeping child. With the surface conditions as tranquil as any that could be
mail-ordered from Mother Nature, as if it were possible, the equipment was
readied and a dive plan formulated. A lone osprey screeched overhead, a very
good sign. I geared up methodically in the warm noonday sun, smugly confident
in the solid professionalism of the surface support team, my ever-energetic
safety diver, and the overall plan. This wasn’t going to be a relaxing dive in
pristine waters. The BSB (the historic Putah Creek Stone Bridge built in 1893)
lies 125 feet below the inviting surface in a cold, dark grave. After several
thousand dives you know when it’s right and when its time to walk away. Today
it’s right to go to BSB.
I stepped from the boat into the
azure waters replete with equipment fit for a moon landing. One more check.
Let’s see, decompression gas bottle – check. Drop camera with umbilical cable –
check. Mushroom anchor with associated line and surface marker – check. Gauges
and verify gas levels, check – check. Lift bag with clamps, carabiners, double
ended bolt snaps, o.k. – o.k. check – check – check! After a quick dive plan
and contingency review, the project manager offered a few cautionary
words…“Don’t shine your light into the camera lens or foul the umbilical with
the buoy line or anchor rope. And get some good shots!”
It was at that moment I confirmed
this was going to be a busy dive. After a quick exchange of O-K signs with the
deck boss, I vented my BC and began the decent towards BSB. The visibility was good for lake diving and
comfortably inviting. Experience told me those conditions are about to change
and not for the better.
With the descent clipping along
at glacial speed I kept wondering if I would reach BSB with enough gas to
complete the tasks and linger for just a moment or maybe a bit of unauthorized
exploration. The suspense was nearly overwhelming but its mission first as
always. So I focused on the increasingly demanding tasks at hand while gliding
weightlessly into the depths. I chose to ignore the growing cold and enveloping
gloom that began to enshroud me as I moved deeper. Progress was fluid and
effortless then almost as if scripted, a show-stopping event.
There it was, as big as a bull
elephant in a burlesque show, a knot in the anchor rope that brought the
descent to an abrupt halt. Now if the umbilical handler had been aware of that
fact he would have likely ceased paying out cable. With the topside crew
unaware of the situation, several pounds of cable were now pulling me towards
the depths, proof-positive that you can never over-plan a dive or its details.
Now generally this would be a non-issue except for the fact my thumb had
somehow become firmly wedged into the slide of an attached fifteen pound
mushroom anchor that I was supposed to “gently” set onto the roadbed.
A neophyte or the uninitiated
would likely succumb to the task-loading in the cold and gloom and immediately
free themselves to find their way posthaste back to the safety of the surface,
sunlight, and abundant air. I had that fleeting thought, but facing the project
manger after dropping his camera was just too much to bear. I quickly fastened
the equipment load below the offending knot and began the process of
extricating my now numb digit from the line’s embrace. I recovered the
equipment and the descent continued uneventfully.
Another seven minutes dragged
past like pouring molasses in a snowstorm. Then, suddenly, it loomed massively
from the icy blackness revealed by the beam of my primary light, the BSB. I was
impressed to the point that I cleanly forgot about the feeling returning to my
thumb and the associated throbbing. Though not necessarily intimidating, BSB
demanded respect and waited patiently for me to oblige. Awe struck, I had to
repeat the first rule of SCUBA diving; inhale, exhale, repeat as necessary and
After a quick survey of the area
around the anchor rope it was obvious there was nowhere available to set the
surface marker anchor without disturbing the inches deep silt. While continually wrestling with the
increasingly annoying camera umbilical, I carefully lowered the mushroom anchor
to the deck like a bomb squad technician so as not to agitate the baby powder
fine sediment. With that wasted effort the silt erupted like Mount St. Helens,
I was instantly enveloped in a cloud of what’s best described as chocolate
milk. Reading gauges or seeing beyond my nose was well out of the question. I
moved carefully to the south towards the bridge rail and into what could be
perceived as clear water and that’s when it happened – I touched it. BSB had
welcomed me or so it felt.
With that touch I could feel its
loneliness reverberate through me like a wave. At first barely perceptible, but
then it grew rapidly to a crescendo. I was feeling the weight of emotion
pressing on me. It was as if BSB was thankful to no longer be alone. Through
the frigid ink black water, I delivered a ray of warm soothing light that BSB has
waited a lifetime for. It was then I, a stranger by any definition, was
instantly transformed into a long awaited friend. It’s been a long time since
I’ve been touched emotionally by an inanimate object.
The feeling was very much akin to
when I first made contact with the grand dame of the sea, the Mount Everest of
technical diving, Andria Doria. SCUBA divers are a strange lot and I’m guilty
as charged, superstitious, adventurous, emotional and passionate. I could go on
but will reserve.
Every diver with at least a few
dives under their belt has experienced that feeling of near despair when their
bottom time has been exhausted on a fulfilling and enriching dive. Just as this
time it has come to depart, I remember the project manager’s admonition and quickly
panned with the camera for any footage possible. I touched the taupe brown
stone gleaming in the soft glow of my primary light again to say goodbye. After
a quick scan with the camera for any footage possible I must depart. I long to
linger but my safety diver is waiting patiently and with extensive
decompression remaining to be performed, I take one last look at my friend,
secure the site and initiate an ascent.
The sorrow of leaving my new
friend, I feel, is equal to that of a loved one’s departure after an extended
stay. As the Big Stone Bridge faded into the black I bid her farewell. Let not
your soul be troubled, my friend, I murmured while turning towards the surface.
I’ll see you again.