The Bridges of West Seattle
Updated: Apr 18
When the West Seattle Bridge, which links the peninsula of West Seattle with mainland Seattle, was closed suddenly in March of 2020, it left residents in shock. Thousands of people used the bridge daily to get to
work, to get to medical appointments, to go shopping, to take in a ball game, or attend an arts event. The bridge is the major highway into and out of the neighborhood.
For those of you who have just tuned in, this is just the latest episode of the West Seattle Bridge drama, a series that has been running for over 130 years. The following is a brief history, drawn largely from History Link, Wikipedia, and the book, West Side Story.
The bridges of West Seattle have carried automobiles, trains, and/or streetcars at different times and in various combinations. The backstories of these structures would seem familiar to anyone living in West Seattle today. There have always been complaints about traffic and a demand for bigger and better infrastructure.
Bridge #1 August 13, 1890, the first bridge across the Duwamish was dedicated. It was a railway trestle built across the tide flats, built by Northern Pacific's Seattle Terminal Railway.
Bridge #2 Another bridge opened in the 1890s, located at Oxbow Bend, roughly where the 1st Ave. Bridge is today.
Bridge #3 In 1902 or 1903, bridge #1 was torn down and a new one, a drawbridge, was built at Spokane Street, roughly where the current bridge is located.
Bridge #4 In 1911, bridge #3 was replaced with another bridge, built just to the north of the original Spokane Street site. This one was built with a clearance of 10 feet above high tide to accommodate shipping traffic.
Bridge #5 Also in 1911, a new bridge was built near the site of bridge #2.
Bridge #6 In 1917, construction began on another temporary, wooden street car bridge at the Spokane Street site. It was expected to have a lifespan of 10 years.
Bridge #7 The West Spokane Street Bridge No. 1 was dedicated on December 21, 1924, with hopes that it would be a permanent structure. Unlike its predecessors, it was built of concrete and steel. It was a bascule bridge, or drawbridge, capable of opening to create a channel for shipping traffic.
In 1927, Councilman William H. Moore, upon hearing the War Department's suggestion that street cars could be run over this bridge, declared the idea unthinkable. "55,000 people live in West Seattle and 19,000 automobiles cross the Spokane Street Bridge every day," he said. Over his objections, street cars eventually did occupy a lane of that bridge.
In January of 1928, bridge #6 was found to be infested with piling worms, and Mayor Bertha K. Landes ordered the bridge closed immediately. As an emergency measure, an S-shaped ramp, called a shoo-fly, was built alongside West Spokane Street Bridge No. 1 to carry the street cars.
Bridge #8 Also in January of 1928, plans for Spokane Street Bridge No. 2 were approved. It was to be identical to Bridge No.1 and to run just south of it. The eastbound lanes of this bridge opened on September 20, 1930. It carried street cars as well as automobiles.
Bridge #9 On September 22,1956, a new First Avenue Bridge opened, replacing Bridge #5.
By the 1960s, Bridges #7 and #8 were showing their age. Traffic congestion made it difficult to get in or out of West Seattle. Plans were being made to build a new bridge, one high enough that it would not need to be a drawbridge.
In the meantime, the spacious, new Fauntleroy Expressway opened to traffic in April of 1965. This stretch is known to drivers today as the road that comes up the hill from the West Seattle Bridge, past the Walking on Logs sculptures, to the Junction.
The West Seattle Community Club was so excited about this new bit of highway that they wanted it and the entire Spokane Street bridge corridor to be declared "The West Seattle Freeway." However, the Washington State Highway Department was having none of it, saying that it "did not conform to the most liberal definition of a freeway." The main reason for that being the old Spokane St. bridge system.
In February 1968, the West Seattle Freeway got another chance, when voters approved Forward Thrust bonds. The bonds would fund a six-lane freeway connecting I-5, the Alaska Way viaduct and the Spokane Street Bridges. However, according to The West Seattle Herald, "By 1972, Spokane Street was the state's second-busiest roadway, handling an average of 75,000 cars daily, but the freeway had not yet materialized."
By then, plans for the current high bridge were underway. This involved considerable political wrangling, design, redesign, and public hearings. Finally in March of 1973, the plan for the cable-stayed bridge we have today was approved. But the project stalled again when wind tunnel tests on bridge models revealed a "tendency for flutter in high winds."
Whether the wind tunnel studies led to a redesign is unclear. What dominated bridge news at the time was a scandal involving the hiring of an engineering firm for the job.
From Wikipedia, "After a long drawn-out process, three companies eventually bid to design the bridge for $1.5 million. However, the city engineer chose a fourth company that was financially connected to the speaker of the state house. The price from this fourth company was triple the cost of the other three.
This was a result of a series of bribes involving the head of the House Transportation Committee, the city engineer and others. Despite the 68 percent support in the 1968 ballot measure, the state withdrew its urban streets money due to the scandal. In 1976 and 1977, the conspirators were placed on trial and imprisoned."
At this point, the new bridge project was considered dead. Even the Feds wouldn't touch it. Federal highway regulator, Norbert Tiemann said, "Short of a tug knocking it down (which could trigger federal special bridge replacement funds), there is nothing else. And you certainly wouldn't want to go that route."
West Seattle residents were told by Mayor Charles Royer that they should lower their expectations and be prepared for a "Chevrolet" bridge. "We can't afford a Cadillac. We're not a two-car family anymore."
This did not go over well. In March of 1978, some West Seattleites launched a petition to secede from Seattle. There was hope that, as an independent city, West Seattle might qualify for federal funds to build the bridge.
But even the drama of a threatened secession was eclipsed by what happened next.
In the middle of the night, June 11, 1978, the Antonio Chavez, a huge, 500-foot long freighter, plowed into Bridge #7, leaving it permanently in the "up" position. The collision damaged the bridge beyond repair.
Local writer Clay Eals says, "The ramming produced the best pun in West Seattle history: “the night the ship hit the span.”
The ship's 80-year-old pilot, Rolf Neslund accomplished, in a few moments of lapsed attention, what local officials and threats of secession could not. Senator Warren Magnuson quickly raised $110 million in Federal emergency money. This, added to Forward Thrust and gas tax money, brought new life to the high bridge project. In response, the secession movement ended. City Councilwoman Jeannette Williams found enough more money to build the bridge and replace Bridge #8.
(In another dramatic twist to the story, Rolf went missing from his Lopez Island home in August of 1980. His wife was found guilty of his murder, which according to The West Seattle Herald, "involved a meat-grinder and her donation of 50 pounds of hamburger to an island group." "Rolfburger" jokes ensued. His wife continued to operate a bed and breakfast while her case was on appeal.)
After this bridge closed, West Seattle residents had to wait six years for a new bridge. (And some of you thought two years was a long time!)
Bridge #10 The West Seattle Bridge, formally known as The Jeanette Williams Memorial Bridge, and sometimes called the West Seattle Freeway by old-timers, opened in 1984. The "freeway" name was dropped, along with speed limits, after a series of fatal car crashes.
An inspection in 2014 revealed cracks in the bridge that might have been caused by the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001. (Or was it from a tendency to flutter in high winds?) The bridge was monitored regularly from then on. It was declared unsafe and closed suddenly on March 23, 2020. As of this writing, it's still closed and undergoing repair. Because of a concrete workers' strike, it is uncertain when repairs will be complete and the bridge reopened.
Bridge #11 The Biggest, Baddest Bridge of them all - Sound Transit's proposed bridge to bring light rail to West Seattle.
What drama will this new bridge project bring to the neighborhood? Here are previews of future episodes.