Friday, January 31, 2014

The Mystery of the Swastika Bridge

The U.S. government has engaged in numerous civil engineering projects along the nation's waterways. The Colorado River has been the object of these projects almost continuously for more than 120 years.

We're camped now on Mittry Lake, one of the wetland ecosystems created by the damming of the Colorado River near Yuma, AZ. This project has allowed the desert around Yuma to be irrigated extensively creating an agricultural oasis that grows various crops including 90% of the country's leafy green vegetables during the winter months each year.

Civil engineering projects are old around here. So we were a little taken aback one day while exploring when we ran into this bridge adorned with swastikas cast into the concrete rails.

The bridge has the acronym USRS cast in concrete as well. That would be the US Reclamation Service. It was established in 1902 as part of the US Geological Survey. By 1927 the USRS had been split out of the USGS and renamed the Bureau of Reclamation. During this 25 year period, the USRS had developed more than 30 projects in the Western US. This bridge and the irrigation canal it crosses were part of one of those early projects back in 1907.

So now we know this bridge was built more than a 100 years ago, but what's up with all of the swastikas?

It turns out that the swastika has a history that pre-dates Nazi Germany by about 5,000 yearsThe word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being." The motif (a hooked cross) appears to have first been used in Neolithic Eurasia, and is thought to possibly represent the movement of the sun through the sky. To this day it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism. It is a common sight on temples or houses in India or Indonesia. Swastikas also have an ancient history in Europe, appearing on many artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures.

The symbol experienced a resurgence in the late nineteenth century, following extensive archeological work such as that of the famous archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann discovered the hooked cross on the site of ancient Troy. He connected it with similar shapes found on pottery in Germany and speculated that it was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors.” In the beginning of the twentieth century the swastika was widely used in Europe. It had numerous meanings, the most common being a symbol of good luck and auspiciousness. However, the work of Schliemann soon was taken up by völkisch movements, for whom the swastika was a symbol of “Aryan identity” and German nationalist pride.
So this bridge was adorned with a popular symbol long before Hitler's Nazi party made it a symbol of hate and genocide. The Yuma Proving grounds are located a few miles north of this bridge. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were trained on that site from 1942 through 1945. I wonder if any of them came across this bridge during training and were curious about the forty swastikas cast in concrete across its length.


  1. That's interesting, but I'd rather just look at pretty pictures;)

    1. We'll do a posting of 100% postcard pictures and dedicate to you and Boonie!

  2. Do all swastikas hook to the right? Why?

    1. Maybe they hook to the right because they're left handed? :-)

  3. I learned something reading this one... very interesting information. Thanks for sharing.