Seattle Now & Then: the 45th Street Viaduct

(click photos to enlarge)

THEN: On June 8, 1939 a photographer from the city’s public works department looked east over the work-in-progress on the 45th Street viaduct and the nurtured wet lands of Union Bay to Laurelhurst. What since the mid 1950s has been the University Village was then still acreage given for the most part to nurseries. (Municipal Archive.)
NOW: Jean visited the viaduct a few days before the “tools” of its reconstruction were removed for an opening to traffic. (Jean Sherrard)

When the bright voters of Seattle agreed to the $365 million “Bridging The Gap” levy in 2006 some of them would have known that the nearly 500 foot long west approach of the 45th Street Viaduct, which also marked the north border of the University of Washington Campus, was a gap in dire straits.  It was made of wood.  Twenty thousand vehicles gave it and the rest of this steep link between the University District and the neighborhoods to the east a daily pounding.

Construction on the viaduct began in 1938 and it opened Sept 28, of the following year.  In his “now” repeat Jean Sherrard chose a prospect several yards west of the historic photographer’s position in order to show the work-in-progress a few days before the viaduct was reopened on Sept. 10 last.  For this the city hosted a street party on the viaduct.  As every paper and street department spokesperson made sure to make note, the opening was in time for the Huskies game against Syracuse, which the Huskies won handily, no doubt in celebration of the department’s finishing on time.

While the University District merchants of 1939 were happy with their new bridge to neighbors in the east, they were yet anxious that another bridge then still under construction, the Mercer Island floating bridge, would divert from their University Way, AKA “The Ave,” much of the traffic and business that came to it around the north end of Lake Washington. The greater surprises to U. District culture came in 1950 and 1956 when, respectively the shopping malls at Northgate and University Village opened.  Because of the latter the 45th St. Viaduct began siphoning perhaps more business off “the Ave” than to it.  Village parking was so easy and at least seemed free.

The location of 45th Street – and so also both its viaduct and campus border – is an accident of the Willamette Meridian: the marked stone near Portland from which Federal surveyors began charting Washington and Oregon in 1851. When with their solar compasses and Gunter chains the surveyors at last reached Seattle and its hinterlands in the mid-1850s, the future 45th Street became a major section line. And as topographical fate would have it, 45th also marked how far north Lake Washington’s Union Bay reached before it was lowered 9 feet in 1916 for the ship canal.  Once securely high and dry, 45th Street could be developed as an arterial for the three-plus miles from Stone Way to Laurelhurst. The viaduct completed that.


It was an early September evening, just a few days before the viaduct re-opened, that I paid the work site a visit.  Here are a few more shots using a longer lens:

Sand Point Way
Calvary Cemetery - dedicated in 1889 - floats above U Village
Finishing touches

Anything to add, Paul?  As the late hours allow – I’ll restrain myself to a few additions.

First we are all invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Seattle Municipal Archives and a workshop on basic research tools for using the Archives.  Both events are on Tuesday October 26 in celebration of Archives Month. There will be two tours, at 11 and 3; the workshop is at 1:30.  Please RSVP to if you are interested!   We will note that the principal historical photos shown above and below were obtained through the Municipal Archive.  This visit is also a fine chance to see – if you have not as yet – the inside of the relatively new City Hall.

NEXT some more from the MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES on 45th Street Viaduct history interspersed with the city’s own history of the viaduct’s several public works between 1939 and now.

It is a helpful habit for Municipal photographers to date their negatives. Here's a view looking east from the original trestle extending from the University District into the farmland that would in time become the University Village.


Seattle’s topography has always been a challenge to transportation, especially along west to east routes. A concerted effort in the 1930s to ease automobile traffic led to a series of bridge projects including construction of the NE 45th St Viaduct that would provide a direct route from Sand Point Way and Laurelhurst to Highway 99. At that time, the land at the base was mostly farmland. The project was approved in 1935 by Ordinance 65629 with major community support from the University Commercial Club. Construction did not begin until 1938. (The street designation was E 45th Street until 1961 when the directional designation was changed to NE.)

The viaduct was funded with a combination of federal Public Works Administration (PWA) dollars ($103,550), state gasoline tax revenue ($200,000), and a small appropriation in 1939 from the City Street Fund ($8,000). Other PWA-funded projects in 1938 included the Montlake Boulevard pedestrian overcrossing, 24th Avenue Southwest paving, East Madison Street repaving, and the Ballard Bridge.

The project was completed in September 1939 with great fanfare. A celebration luncheon was held at the Edmond Meany Hotel on September 28, followed by a parade that included the Husky Marching Band. The procession made its way from the Meany to the dedication ceremonies where Mayor Langlie cut the ribbon in front of several thousand spectators.

In 1955, funds were approved to widen the viaduct from two to three lanes; construction took place in 1956-1957. The construction was estimated to cost $192,000 and the funds were approved as part of a $10 million traffic improvement bond issue approved by Seattle voters in 1954. Additional funds for this project were approved in 1956, increasing the appropriation from $218,000 to $248,000. A 1956 scale of wages shows that carpenters earned $2.80 per hour in that year. The additional funds in 1956 were for a bus stop and for approaches to University Village. During the construction, traffic was limited to one lane eastbound. Westbound traffic was asked to detour to Blakely Avenue and Ravenna Place. Once the construction was finished, two lanes were designated for westbound traffic and one for eastbound. By the mid-1950s, the farmland was gone, but a Carnation plant and Shell station could be seen on NE 45th.

The protected Seafair Queen - or princess - awaits the moment of ribbon cutting. Does any reader know this queen - or princess?
The ribbon has been severed. Does anyone know the names of these Queen's helpers - or princess?

During a 1972 Engineering Department survey of bridge needs, it became evident that the wooden trestles on the east end of the viaduct were compromised by a 1966 fire and needed to be replaced. After two public hearings, it was determined that there would be no big changes to the viaduct. Work began in January 1976. Federal funds were used to help fund the project, and additional funds were approved in 1976 for rail replacement. In 1976, carpenters earned $8.90 per hour. For various reasons, mostly related to the pilings used and the noise of the pile-driving machine, the work took longer than expected. Neighborhood groups and businesses, as well as the University of Washington, made their concerns about the delay known to the City. The viaduct was closed from January to October 17th, 1976.

In 1983, City funds were approved for deck rehabilitation on the viaduct. Adverse weather and an initial unavailability of specialized equipment needed for the project required the completion date to be postponed until the spring of 1984. A temporary asphalt overlay was installed to enable the viaduct to be used during the time construction was stopped and restarted.

After a fire in January 1996, the viaduct was briefly closed so an inspection could be made of the supports on the west end.

In 2010, the viaduct was closed again for several months for a major project to replace the west approach. Portions of the approach dated back to 1938 and needed to be replaced for safety reasons. The project was budgeted at $30 million and was expected to last about six months.

An aerial from June 1939 showing work in progress on the viaduct - running here across the top.
World War Two aerial looking southwest to the University of Washington across Union Bay. Part of the new viaduct enters (and leaves) the scene on the right. Well-ordered and temporary wartime housing is the photo's centerpiece.
45th Street is blocked off just east of University Way with a stage meant to resemble a war ship for this WW2 Bond Rally. Note that the nifty band is - at least it seems to be - a segregated ensemble of Afro-Americans. And the comely bond-pushers (or sales persons) are a contrast. World War 2 eventually wrought a great break in military segregation. Meanwhile on this day there will be no direct route on 45th - from Brooklyn, for instance - east to the relatively new viaduct.
"Ave" traffic was sufficiently congested by this post-war summer of 1946 to spur a district-wide survey of parking and delays. The view looks south on University Way from a second floor window in the University Book Store.


(Click to Enlarge)

Looking north-northeast over the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad tracts to the town of Ravenna, ca. 1895. The Burke Gilman recreation trail now follows this curve.

Soon after the Burke-Gilman Trail leaves the University of Washington campus it passes north below the ’45th Street viaduct, it begins a gentle but steady curving to the east between the Ravenna neighborhood on the north and University Village on the south.  Although this trail for cyclists and joggers can be vaguely seen in the center of the contemporary photograph (It is not so contemporary, for it dates from 1982), its curving original ‘line of use” is very evident in the historical panorama. Both views look northeast from Ravenna Avenue near Northeast 50th Street.

The Seattle Lake Shore & Easterb Railroad (SLSER) was begun in 1885 by Judge Thomas Burke and entrepreneur Daniel Gilman (hence the trail) and a few eastern capitalists (hence the rails). It was intended to go north around Lake Washington and east over Snoqualmie Pass to Spokane and a probable hook-up with the transcontinental railroads that paused there or promised to. By 1887 it got as far as Union Bay.

One of the SLSER’s most pleased passengers was the Rev. William W. Beck, who besides his spiritual offerings, advertised himself as a “wholesale dealer in gold, silver, iron, coal, timber, and granites.”  But it was with other of his enterprising interests, “parks and townsites,” that the energetic Presbyterian pastor was thinking in 1887 when he stepped off at the railroad’s Union Bay Station, the white structure just right of center.

William Beck bought 300 acres. He would clear much of it to stumps for his townsite, but sixty lush acres he would keep and protect as a park. Both were named Ravenna.  Beck’s lightly settled Ravenna town runs through the center of the old panorama. The southeastern end of his park is evident on the far left. The photograph was taken sometime in the mid 1890s. The park still had a virgin forest of giant cedars and firs, and would remain so until 1911 when Beck sold it to the city.

By Thanksgiving 1887 the railroad reached Bothell, 20 miles out. All along the line the road’s construction brought with it logging camps, mills, mines and towns. It fed mill workers and their families in the new towns of Ballard, Ross, Fremont, Edgemont, Latona, Brooklyn (now the University District) and a milltown on Union Bay named Yesler after the Seattle pioneer.  It is now-part of Laurelhurst.

In 1888 Gilman’s railroad reached the coal miles of Gilman (now Issaquah), and on July 4, 1889, the first of many packed and popular excursion trains left the Seattle waterfront for Snoqualmie Falls.

Preacher Beck had the right stuff: start a town by the railroad only a short ride from the city’s center, promote an industry like the flour mill on the right of our panorama, preserve a park for communing with nature and start a finishing school for Girls. The Seattle Female College is the churchy structure upper center in the panorama.

Seattle Female College in an 1890s snow. Photo by Conn. Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

But the school closed in 1895, a lingering effect of the 1893 economic crash, the arrival that year of the University of Washington at its new campus nearby and the failure of Beck’s township to develop anything like Ballard, Fremont or Latona.  The Park, however, did well.

On April 1, 1902, .Leon Burley, 10, and his family left their farm near Fullerton, Nebraska, and headed west in a wagon. They reached Ravenna in the fall and rented the then vacant Female College for a temporary winter home. Now (in 1982 still) this Ravenna panorama is filled with loving memories for Leon Burley. He played in the abandoned flour mill, fished for suckers and trout in Ravenna Creek, which transects this view, delivered supplies by wheelbarrow to Roper’s Grocery on 24th Street, the storefront just left of the tree trunk, and with the Beck boys explored their parent’s park.

Burley also remembers attending, in 1912 or 13, a youth Christian Endeavor meeting at the old Female College and hearing his future fiancee, Marie Phillips and her friend Fay Bayley, sing in duet “Saved by Grace.” The meeting was interrupted by fire, and that night Beck’s old school burned down.  All were saved by getting out of there.

Marie Phillips lived in the home which can be faintly seen halfway between the college and the left border of the photograph. It is still there, and is the home of Marie’s sister, Constance Palmerlee, who is writing a history of the Ravenna neighborhood.  (Or was in 1982)

Actually, those trees, that old house and much else in the contemporary view of the Ravenna neighborhood might have been filled with the R.H. Thomson Expressway had not Constance Palmerlee and many other activists in the Ravenna Community Association victoriously fight and beat the freeway.

Ravenna Park ca. 1911. Courtesy Jim Westall
Ravenna Park falls, ca. 1910


(First appeared in Pacific Oct 9, 1988)

In 1888, the Rev. William Beck and his wife bought a wooded ravine just north of town. A creek flowed through it from Green Lake to Lake Washington. Beck fashioned the area into a retreat where the busy citizens of boomtown Seattle could escape for some communion with nature. Through its first 20 years, thousands paid a quarter to mingle “among the giant firs and beside the laughing brook.”

Some of Beck’s park artifice is evident here, for instance, the ground cover  has been moderately cleared.  Beck also added benches, a bandstand and fountains.

The man leaning against the red alder is surrounded by western hemlock, vine maple, bitter cherry, lady fern, Indian plum, Douglas fir -parts of the ravine’s wild ecology. Whatever trampling those early hordes might have given the ravine, it did not compare to the changes that came after the city bought Ravenna Park from Beck in 1910. The next year the city diverted the warm phosphorus water of Green Lake from the ravine into the North Trunk Sewer line. This left a smaller and cooler creek fed by Ravenna Park’s many small springs.

Now, 77 years later (in 1988), the ravine is more passive than when the ‘Becks charged admission. The Park Department’s economizing neglect has been benign. Nature and the ravine’s volunteer neighbors have conspired to make Ravenna Park an almost wild retreat. How long it will remain so is uncertain.  One of Metro’s alternative plans for separating the North End’s storm drainage from its sewers proposes burying a pipe the length of the Ravenna ravine. It would drain the runoff from the North End’s streets and parking lots into Union Bay. At the same time, the city’s parks department, in trying to clear the waters of Green Lake, wants to bury a second pipe in the ravine that would allow the exchange of water between Green Lake and Lake Washington. The proposal to lay the pipes is not popular with those who like the park the way it is: a wild retreat for urban hikes, botany classes, composers and courtiers. Many of these park users have formed the Save Ravenna Park committee.  (A good reporter would follow all this up 22 years later.  I haven’t.  Perhaps a reader can bring this history up to date.)

A Ravenna Park promotional flier from 1909.
Perhaps the names that match these numbers are on the flip side of the original print - somewhere.
An early park scene, which if memory serves we have posted on the blog once before.
The Seattle Mail and Herald was a popular weekly tabloid hereabouts in the early 20th Century.
A path in the park.
A look north over the campus, 1937. There is as yet no 45th Street Viaduct climbing to the District from the nursery gardens, upper-right, at the north of Union Bay.
Looking northwest across the nearly new University Village. A touch or bit of the Blakeley Psychiatric Clinic appears at the top-middle. My first job in Seattle was tending its gardens in 1965. A large copy of this scene hangs in the clinic's lunch room - or at least did. I gave it to my brother who for decades up until his death three years ago did analysis in his office (with its big plate glass window looking out at its own little garden - like all the rest) at Blakeley. So my gardening was an inside job. Or inside and outside.

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9 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: the 45th Street Viaduct”

  1. Thank you Jana for tying the sting of queens. Perhaps the knot will hold. In browsing the queens list you linked I found only one queen that I have known. That is the commanding Arlene Wade, or Arlene Hinderlie. I met Arelene in the 1990s while she was the force behind gaining the log cabin connected with Alki Point’s Homestead Restaurant as a new home for the West Seattle Historical Society. Arlene’s smarts, energy, and sincerity were dominating and the cabin is now quite a nifty museum for West Seattle history – thanks in great measure to the 1963 Seafair Queen.
    (addendum: Upon reflection I knew one other Queen. During the Helix years, 1967 to 1970, a then recent Seafair queen would visit the newspaper’s office and hang around. I no longer remember her year or name. I do remember that she had broad shoulders and made enthused conversation.)

  2. There is something extra pleasing about the Sand Point Way photo. I went back and looked at it about four times. Why t pleases me so much I cannot figure out. The balance of the photo’s structure, the detail ad colors are wonderful but I think it just pleases me as it is such a human, daily living kind of thing.

    Also, I just ran into something about the Ravenna big tree –if I can find my note I’ll pass it along to you. It was in a website on forestry tree measurements. Interesting.

  3. The photo at the opening of University Village is of my grandmother Dixie Jo Thompson. She was the 1957 sea fair queen.

  4. This was very interesting to read. I grew up in the Ravenna-Bryant area, and not far from where the Seattle Female College was located (we lived between 62 and 60th on 28th NE from 1953 to 1962), and I attended both Bryant and Ravenna grade schools.

  5. Paul, re: your comment about Constance Palmerlee, I’m guessing this is the same one. I googled her name and found that she died in 2002 at the age of 102 (born in May 29th 1900).
    She lived at 5770 26th Ave NE, Seattle, WA, which fits with the address of the Seattle Female College and both were just blocks from where I grew up.

    She apparently also lived on Queen Anne, in West Seattle and lastly, Everett. She died on July 2, 2002 and is buried at Acacia Memorial Park in Lake Forest Park, which kind of surprised me. I thought she would be at Calgary.

    Apparently her house and property was turned over to the bank with a quit claim deed starting in 1996 and it looks like she lost the house by 1997. That’s pretty sad. Although it’s possible the people who took ownership of the property were relatives, with the final sale in 2006. I hope so.

    Found this article about a Constance Palmerlee marrying at 92 and lists her brother as Ronald Phillips, so I’m assuming it’s the same Constance and same family. Interesting that she and her new husband were graduates of Lincoln High School. My parents were too.

    Anyway, was hoping to find some information of the book you mentioned that she might have written but was unable to find any.

    1. Constance Palmerlee & her brother also owned the buildings at 6500 & 6504 Ravenna Ave. N E., I rented 6504 from her until she sold it, it is still my Record store/ toy model hobby shop (since 1988) – before that she used it as a Senior Center – but then got the city to use the new gym at the then closing Ravenna school as a senior center, she was very active in politics – –
      I lived on the east edge Ravenna park on n.e. 60th from 1958 – 75 and walked east on N.E. 60TH to Bryant school passing her house on 26th at 60th, we thought it was a hotel / –

  6. I remember in the 60’s I had a great time at the ravena park alot of us participated in a love in in the good old hippie days,a good time for all. Would like to hear more from others.

  7. In the photo of the viaduct ribbon cutting above, you asked if anyone knew the names- the man second from the left is my grandfather, Ray Eckmann. He owned a clothing store in the University District, Martin & Eckmann going back to the 1920’s. He was an incredible guy- Husky (football) Hall of Fame great, UW Athletic Director, first Prime Minister of Seafair, Seattle City Councilman, the list goes on. Most importantly a wonderful grandfather. He’s in the Boys in the Boat book, as he was the AD at UW in 1936 when they needed to raise funds to send the crew team to Berlin & he evidently spearheaded that effort.

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