(click and click again to enlarge photos)
(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.