Seattle Now & Then: West Seattle drawbridges, 1978

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: Rerouted westbound traffic clogs the 1930 West Seattle drawbridge during the afternoon rush hour of Monday, June 12, 1978, some 36 hours after the freighter Antonio Chavez rammed its companion 1924 span (right) and stuck it upward and beyond repair. (Greg Carter, West Seattle Herald, courtesy Robinson Newspapers)
NOW: The West Seattle Bridge dwarfs the approach (right) to the low-level West Seattle swing bridge, which opened in 1991, replacing the 1930 drawbridge that had remained after the ramming of its companion. When closing the high bridge, the city reserved the low bridge for transit, freight, bicycles and emergency vehicles. The electronic sign on the bus reads, “Essential trips only.” (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on May 21, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on May 24, 2020)

For West Seattle’s bridge, if at first you don’t succeed, secede!
By Clay Eals

Sounds screwy, but having reported on it when it was built, I still call it the new bridge:

  • The busy West Seattle Bridge, until recently second in city traffic only to Interstate 5.
  • The span swooping 157 feet over the Duwamish Waterway that linked a massive peninsula with the rest of Seattle.
  • The arch that elevated West Seattle to hipness from relative obscurity, ensnaring the district in a citywide development boom.
  • The towering roadway that opened not that long ago – can it really be 36 years?

And now, to protect the public, it’s been closed since March 23 for incalculable, indeterminate repairs. Not to reopen until 2022, if at all.

Coping with the coronavirus and now possessing only a circuitous way out, West Seattle could be said to be on double lockdown. It’s a fine time to reflect on a dramatic juncture from 1978 that makes today’s bridge turmoil seem like Yogi Berra’s “déjà vu all over again.”

After years of scandals and broken city promises to build a high bridge to replace two run-down but frequently opening, traffic-clogging drawbridges built in 1924 and 1930, the peninsula’s civic leaders were fed up. On March 29, 1978, a who’s who of West Seattle launched a campaign to secede from Seattle.

Though some thought it a joke, it had a straight-faced rationale: A separate West Seattle would become the state’s fourth largest city, with stronger status to secure money for a high bridge to connect with top dog Seattle. Secession required citywide balloting, including by those outside of West Seattle not anxious to shed a hefty tax base. But the secession campaign, said chair Dick Kennedy, was “deadly serious.”

Quickly, petitions filled with signatures approaching half the number to force a secession vote, when at 2:58 a.m. Sunday, June 11, an enormous freighter rammed the east end of the opened 1924 drawbridge, freezing it upward and beyond repair. The culprit was the now-legendary three-minute “lack of concentration” of 80-year-old pilot Rolf Neslund, who, bizarrely, later was murdered by his wife.

The ramming produced the best pun in West Seattle history: “the night the ship hit the span.” The immediate result – eight lanes of traffic squashed into four on the remaining, functioning 1930 low bridge – is depicted in our “Then” photo.

Officials leapt into action. Warren Magnuson, our longtime U.S. senator, secured $110 million for a freeway-like high bridge. Other jurisdictions chipped in lesser amounts. Secession fizzled. Construction began in November 1980. Eastbound lanes opened in November 1983, westbound lanes in July 1984.

Fast living, however, takes a toll. The high span was to last 75 years but hasn’t made it halfway. How long before the city builds another new bridge?


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are two video links and four additional photos as well as 14 clippings, mostly from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

VIDEO: West Seattle Bridge history, 15:19. (Seattle Municipal Archives)
VIDEO: “Bridging the Gap” panel discussion featuring former Mayor Charles Royer, Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen and others, July 14, 2014, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the opening of the high-level West Seattle Bridge, moderated by Clay Eals, 1:41:18. (Southwest Seattle Historical Society)
The first pour on footings for the new, high-level West Seattle Bridge, early 1980s. (Greg Carter, West Seattle Herald)
An ironworker climbs a pier of the high-level West Seattle Bridge under construction in the early 1980s. (Greg Carter, West Seattle Herald)
A fisheye view of removal of the the rammed, stuck-open 1924 span of the low-level Spokane Street Bridge, early 1980s. (Greg Carter, West Seattle Herald)
The 1924 span of the Spokane Street Bridge soon after the June 11, 1978, ramming stuck it open. The recently opened Kingdome is seen in the background. (Greg Carter, West Seattle Herald)
July 11, 1936, Seattle Times, page 21
March 29, 1978, Seattle Times, page 1
April 5, 1978, Seattle Times, page 14
April 16, 1978, Seattle Times, page 27
April 18, 1978, Seattle Times, page 18
April 19, 1978, Seattle Times, page 51
April 22, 1978, Seattle Times, page 1
April 27, 1978, Seattle Times, page 14
June 12, 1978, Seattle Times, page 1
June 12, 1978, Seattle Times, page 3
June 24, 1978, Seattle Times, page 13
July 6, 1978, Seattle Times, page 14
Sept. 4, 1978, Seattle Times, page 15
Dec. 17, 1978, Seattle Times, page 14
April 20, 1983, West Seattle Herald/White Center News, photos by Peggy Peattie, story by Clay Eals, page 3
Clay Eals (left), reporting for West Seattle Herald and White Center News, and Bob Rudman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resident engineer, stand inside the east end of the under-construction, high-level West Seattle Bridge on April 7, 1983. The gap shown in the photo is 65 feet. It was joined on July 13, 1983. (Peggy Peattie, West Seattle Herald)
With reporting clipboard stuffed in his jacket, Clay Eals (right), then editor of the West Seattle Herald and White Center News, looks south with his dad, Henry Eals, in the gusty winds atop the high-level West Seattle Bridge on Nov. 10, 1983, the day its eastbound lanes opened. (Peggy Peattie, West Seattle Herald/White Center News)



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