The Warner Files: Ancient Bridge Demolition Scandal Exposed!

1942 photo of former Supervisor Thomas Talbert: Orange County Archives/Flickr

It’s really something seeing all those demolished bridges along the 405 freeway in Fountain Valley. For decades they stood there, then in just a couple weekends they’re gone–knocked down to make way for freeway widening.

One of those bridges, the Talbert Bridge (which was knocked down earlier this month) is named for former 2nd District Supervisor Thomas Talbert, who served on the Orange County Board of Supervisors from 1911 to 1926. This is ironic because it was during Talbert’s time on the Board that a crime related to bridge demolition occurred that was kept secret from county officials for more than a quarter century, and from the general public until, well, now I guess.

The only reason I know about it is because after then-county Road Commissioner Harold Sprenger discovered the crime in late 1949, he wrote a letter to then Board Chairman Willis Warner. The letter, which is preserved today in Warner’s papers, tells a curious tale of deceit and cover-up. What’s more, Sprenger told Warner he was informing him and him alone of the matter, and did not want the rest of the Board to find out what had happened.

“The report is not made to the Board as a whole, because nothing appears to be involved except a man’s conscience,” Sprenger told Warner. “The publicity accompanying official action could only result in embarrassment or humiliation.”

According to Sprenger, two days prior to his letter, a man named W. M. Ward visited him, and made the following confession: that sometime during Talbert’s term on the Board (the precise year isn’t given), Ward was employed by the County of Orange as a road worker in the 2nd District. It was during this time, Ward apparently told Sprenger, that he “sold lumber salvaged from a dismantled timber bridge over the Santa Ana River at Fifth Street for $18.00, and also sold a surplus scraper for $12.00.”

But, and here’s the thing, Ward told Sprenger that the proceeds of those two sales “for some reason, were not deposited in the County Treasury.”

“For some reason.”

Apparently Ward resigned sometime after and moved away from the county for 25 years. Upon return, and seemingly wracked with guilt, Ward showed up at Sprenger’s office and gave him the $30 he’d failed to deposit decades earlier (accounting for inflation, that $30 would be worth more than $430 today).

“We have assumed the foregoing to be true and have deposited the $30.00 tendered by Ward in the Highway Fund,” Sprenger told Warner. And that was apparently that.

I couldn’t locate a response from Warner to Sprenger, but here’s Sprenger’s Nov. 9, 1949 letter spelling out the whole affair:

The Warner Files is an occasional history feature based on the papers of former Orange County Supervisor Willis Warner, which are currently housed at UC Irvine’s Department of Special Collections and Archives

Previous Warner Files installments:

Fortune Tellers Banned!

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