Seattle Now & Then: The Bell Street Overpass

Of all the trestles constructed to cross Alaskan Way the longest-lived is the overpass that reaches Colman Dock, the ferry terminal, on Marion Street.  The second oldest is this one on Bell Street. The bridge on Marion was always only for pedestrians.  The bridge on Bell was for many years used also by trucks, cars, and in the beginning wagons as well.

Actually, there have been many other overpasses on our waterfront.  Those at King and Madison were both used for moving coal to ships.  The trestle on Pike was used first for coal and later rebuilt for pedestrians. Bridges at Virginia, Clay and Lenora streets complete the list, but all these are now long gone.

The Bell Street overpass was completed in 1915 soon after the young Port of Seattle’s big Bell Street Terminal opened. The Port was proud of its grand new pier and the bridge helped to safely show it off.  Here was an easy way for produce sellers to move between the Pike Place Market and the Port’s dock with the cold storage it offered.  And the bridge – its sidewalk – encouraged families shopping nearby at the Pike market to also visit the recreation park the Port built on the roof of the Bell Street pier.

There is one concluding note to pull from the “top” of this subject: the Broadway – Empire Laundry.   The name is signed large on the west façade of the four-story red brick power laundry at Bell and Western.  It opened in 1914, a year before the Port got settled one block and one bridge away.  As with other power laundries it was women who did most of the hard work and at measly wages.  Consequently, the women in local laundries went on strike – first in 1917.  Eighteen years later, the organized women of this laundry won the strike of 1935 and the union they formed was for two decades Seattle’s largest organized coalition of women workers.  See for the full story.

[Please Remember to Click the images below to ENLARGE them.)

The bridge reaching Bell Street from the Port of Seattle’s Pier 66 headquarters was a convenient way to move between the pier and the city without facing the railroad and motor traffic on Alaskan Way (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
With the destruction of the Port’s Bell Street terminal for the development of its Bell Harbor center for conferences, cruise ships and waterfront curiosities, a new overpass was built, which to these eyes is comely from every angle and, at least on one map, is named the WTO Walk. (Now photo by Jean Sherrard)
The beach below Denny Hill was an ancient campground for Native Americans. This view looks north sometime after the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad trestle, on the left, was completed in 1887, and before the beach was developed with squatters' sheds, especially following the 1893 depression. (courtesy University of Washington Special Collections)
Looking into the Belltown neighborhood across Elliott Bay. The Elliott Avenue regrade, which joined it to Western Ave. two blocks south of Bell Street, is easily marked or noticed with its fresh fill. The Port of Seattle Bell Street Pier will soon be construction to the left of this scene, which dates from ca. 1913. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry Library)
Construction on the Port of Seattle's Bell Street Terminla, ca. 1914.
When completed the Port's new headquarters showed an impressively long waterside facade to Elliott Bay.
Looking southeast from the roof of the port to the Bell Street Overpass and the Elliott Ave, regrade or connector of Elliott to Western at Lenora. The regrade fill is now secured with a ground cover of low shrubs and grasses to the south of Bell Street. Elliott to the north of Bell is, however, still unprotected. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)
Part of a Post-Intelligencer report on a Port sponsored dance on its roof garden, 7/13/1915.
The Port's promotion flier for a 1923 Exposition that emphasized its uses to waterfront manufacturers and retailers and also what a good neighbor the Bell Street Pier was for the Pike Place Farmers Market. (Courtesy Port of Seattle)
May 10, 1930, looking south on Railroad Avenue from the Bell Street overpass. This section of Railroad Ave. is still a few years from being filled and guarded by a seawall. Note the gaps, or holes down the way. The track on the left leads to the north portal of the RR tunnel that runs beneath the Central Business District.(Courtesy Municipal Archive)
Railroad Avenue looking south from the Bell Street Terminal, 9/22/31. The Armory at Western and Lenora is on the left, and the nearly new Northern Life Tower (1928) now renamed the Seattle Tower, escapes the horizon at the scene's center. The since dismantled Lenora Street Overpass crosses through the scene. (Courtesy Municipal Archive)
A Nov. 32, 2003 repeat of the view above.
Looking south on Railroad Avenue ca. 1937 from the Bell Street Overpass, following the 1934-36 seawall construction and fill (behind it) from Madison Avenue north to Bay Street.
Same uncertain date, ca. 1937, as the above shot only here looking north on the freshly reclaimed Railroad Avenue, also from the Bell Street overpass.
An early aerial showing part of the Bell Street Pier, at the bottom, the Bell Street bridge, the Elliott Avenue fill and the railroad spur to the north portal of the tunnel. The Empire Laundry is upper-left.
Another aerial of the Port headquarters, the overpass and the Elliott fill, c. 1960. The former Empire Laundry, upper-left, is here home to the Arctic Fur Company.

6 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Bell Street Overpass”

  1. Really enjoyed this Paul. Great images. I particularly love the photos — too rare — that show Railroad Ave with the holes in it down to the tides. I’m surprised we don’t see more of such photos, considering that First Avenue used to be the waterfront, so Post Alley, Western Avenue and Railroad Avenue and their buildings are all located where water once flowed beneath.

  2. Such pictures are rare. Once the waterfront began to be hysterically – nearly – planked over in the late 1880s it was hard to see the tides below the warehouses and timber quays quickly constructed. The 1889 fire revealed all, but only for weeks. What followed was an enlarged effort to cover the tides with planks fit snug to pilings. East of Railroad Avenue the tides were hidden beneath buildings. Only a few of these had foundations in partial fill. But on railroad avenue, well into the 1890s – there were gaps where planks were not needed. By 1900 there were very few of these, say, south of Union Street. North of Union these openings survived and were often criticized by the public. For some progressive preachers it was a moral issue, and they sermonized against the holes on railroad avenue as if they were injuries to the civic soul and God’s interest in progress.

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