Seattle Now & Then: The Floating Bridge Inauguration

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: After twenty years of debate about whether to build it and where and how, the first bridge across Lake Washington took 18 months and a few days from ground breaking to accepting its first tolls from drivers happy for the short cut. (Photo courtesy Washington State Archive.)
NOW: For his repeat, Jean Sherrard got within a few feet of the original prospect (now hidden behind bushes) taken by a Port of Seattle photographer at the bridge’s dedication.

Three thousand men got depression-time jobs building the Lacey V. Murrow Bridge – aka the Lake Washington Floating Bridge. Forty-five percent was paid with a federal public works grant and the rest by revenue bonds secured by the 25-cent tolls. The bridge was formally dedicated and opened in the early afternoon – judging by the shadows – of a sunlit July 2, 1940.

About 2000 people watched from the tunnel plaza area here on the bridge’s Seattle side and hundreds more gathered around the toll booths at the bridge’s Mercer Island end. Broadcast by radio nation-wide, the floating bridge was christened like a ship. After cutting the red ribbon, Kate Stevens Bates, daughter of Washington Territory’s first governor, Isaac Stevens, let swing and crash against the concrete bridge a yellow urn in which were mixed the waters of fifty-eight of the state’s waterways: lakes, bays and rivers.

With a smile about as wide, turned up and fixed as the grill work of his inaugural chariot, an open 1940 Lincoln Convertible, the state’s Governor Clarence Martin rode twice across the new bridge. At half way Martin was the first to pay a toll.

We could compare the public effort required to build “the largest floating structure in the world” with our recent struggle to replace the feeble Alaska Way Viaduct with a deep bore tunnel, except that it would take too long. Instead, we suggest that readers consult Genevieve McCoy’s fine chapter on the state’s bridges that is part our book “Building Washington.” You can read it for free on the blog noted here below.

One more toot – an announcement. This “now-then” comparison is one of about 100 such selected for an exhibit of “repeat photography” opening Saturday, April 9th, at the Museum of History and Industry. Most of the exhibit’s Seattle examples were first published here in Pacific. But the exhibit – most likely the last one for MOHAI in its old Montlake quarters – also includes examples from Washington State and even from Paris, the birthplace of photography.


Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean, but not as much as might have been for want of more time between now – 1 a.m. – and slumber time.  But most fit and handy is the essay Genevieve McCoy wrote for our book “Building Washington” on the subject of the bridges to the East Side.  I’ll attach that directly below another attachment: a four page pamphlet that the highway department published introducing the “facts” of the bridge when it was new.  Following the McCoy essay, I’ll attach two Pacific features about the ferry service to Bellevue.   They may be mildly repetitive, but the pictures are not.  We’ll drop in another feature about the East Seattle Hotel built early  on Mercer Island.  And after a few odds and ends.  We will not, however,  get to the negatives I copied from a photo-album of bridge construction scenes shared by the daughter of one of the Floating Bridge engineers.  Perhaps we can have a Floating Addendum on that sooner than later.   (CLICK TWICE to ENLARGE)

Remember please to click these TWICE to enlarge them.

Here follows McCoy’s essay out of “Building Washington.”  You may or  may not know that you can access the entire book with this blog.  It is found, of course, under our “book button.”


WE INTERRUPT McCoy’s essay to enlarge the above look at the old East Channel swinging bridge and then juxtapose it with Jean’s “now” look at 1-5 at that same jump from Mercer Island to Bellevue.

We return to McCoy’s essay with the helpful reminder to CLICK it.

We’ll  interrupt again to print larger the photo directly above with the governor getting ready to return to Seattle at the head of his entourage after paying the first toll.  I often show this slide in slide-show lectures because I then get to point out how similar the front-end of this plush motorcar to the Governor’s well turned and trimmed face.

The few who helped the governor - and later others to stop and pay his toll. Jean notes, "how timely."

Leschi Landing  – at Leschi Park – served motorists between the introduction of the ferry Leschi in 1913 and the opening of the Lacy Morrow (Mercer Island) Floating Bridge in 1940.  In 1948 Seattle accepted the old ferry dock from King County and linked it to Leschi Park and its swelling service to recreational boaters.   (Historical photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archive.)


Fortunately – and dutifully – James Lee, the official city photographer who recorded this view of the ferry Leshi at King County’s Leschi Landing dated it.  It is June 2, 1914, and if you had been living then and a Socialist you’d have known from the big white sign hanging from the gate to the ferry slip that the annual Socialist Picnic at Wildwood Park was only ten days away.

The Port of Seattle’s double-ender Leschi was built on the Duwamish Waterway but brought over in parts to Rainier Beach and reassembled to serve as the first tax-supported car carrier on Lake Washington in 1913.  A quarter-century earlier Yesler’s Landing (Leschi’s name then) instantly became the second center for lake transportation (after Madison Beach) with the completion of the Yesler Way Cable Railway in 1888 and the introduction of passenger steamers like the Kirkland and the C.C. Calkins.

Steamer Kirkland at the Leschi dock ca. 1891.

Unlike Madison Beach, the Leschi dock rests at the base of a steep ridge that was not suited for cars – even wagons.  In its first years of service there was a sustained chorus of complaints fattened with satiric suggestions that cars be lowered to the Leschi landing by balloon or their own cable.

However, if you were an east side commuter and on foot it was only a 15 minute voyage on the Leschi from Medina and another 16 minute ride on the Yesler Cable to Pioneer Square from where you could either walk to work or catch a variety of trolley’s to anywhere.

The Leschi Challenge. Is this her Meydenbauer Bay or Medina dock? Take note of the date: May 14, 1915.

The Leschi made its last run to Medina and Mercer Island on July 2, 1940, the day the new floating bridge was dedicated.  Weeks later on August 10, 1940 the cable cars on Yesler Way were stopped as well.  The Leschi continued to work the lake running between Madison Park and Kirkland until 1950.  When fairs were lifted from the floating bridge Kirkland motorists found ferry fairs a greater hardship than driving through Bellevue to reach the free bridge.  Pedestrians could walk around the Lake or take a bus.


In 1914 Bellevue was still a remote suburb of a few hundred berry and dairy farmers pitched between a front porch facing Lake Washington’s Meydenbauer Bay and a back lawn of second growth forest.  These farmers and loggers were often also real estate agents.  Trying to encourage a springtime flood of cross-lake migration, they pubished early that year a 14-page pamphlet filled with appealing pictures and well-turned hyperbole.

It reads in part, “Bellevue is a thriving, prosperous suburb of Seattle . . . lying directly across from Leschi Park.  There is plenty of pure air and an abundance of the purest water (but no saloons).  It is far enough away from the whirl of the city, yet near enough to be easily accessible; a truly ideal palce for a home.”

The pamphlet was timed to promote the first auto-ferry service to Bellevue – a 15-minute ride on the then new Leschi ferry.  When filled to its capacity of 400 passengers and “40 teams or autos,” the Leschi could carry a good portion of Bellevue to Seattle.

In the quiet scene of the Leschi at its Meydenbauer landing, only one auto, half a team, and seven passengers wait for the gate to open for boarding.  The day is sunny, and judging from the shadows, it is mid-afternoon.  The fact that the Leschi’s flag is at half mast is explained by the date the photographer, James Lee, inscribed at the bottom of his negative, 5-30-14.  It was Memorial Day.

At the moment of this tranquil tableau, The Seattle Times was pressing its Decoration Day Edition.  The front page declared,  “Glorious weather, a cloudless sky with a beneficent sun, nearly 150,000 citizens, 4,000 uniformed men . . . silken flags flashing, hundreds of automobiles garlanded in the Stars and Stripes – all these united to make Memorial Day epochal in the city’s annals.”

The Leschi resting dockside in this scene has probably just brought back a Bellevue folks from what the evening Times headlined as the “Greatest Parade in City’s History.”  Thus, this settled scene is most likely the quiet after the storm, or as it sometimes is with ferries, the quiet between storms.

The Leschi stopped calling at Meydenbauer Bay in 1921 when it was determined that Bellevue commuters would rather have a second cup of coffee after breakfast and then rush of in their Packards to catch the ferry at Medina, the other eastside dock for the Leschi connection.

In 1939 King County agreed with Chicago bond buyers to eliminate the competitive Leschi-Medina run when their investment, the floating bridge, was completed. Thus, in 1940 the ferry Leschi was moved to the last remaining ferry service on the lake, that which ran between Madison Park and Kirkland.

Ferry line-up at Kirkland dock.
The Lincoln was the longest-serving vessel running between Madison Park and, seen here, Kirkland.

Later in the 40’s when tolls were lifted from the bridge, this northern route could not compete, and the Leschi made its last lake run on August 31, 1950.  (At least in the mid-1980s when this was first published, it was still afloat in Alaska as a fish-processing plant.)

Excited by this new toll-free ride to its front door, Bellevue in 1947 poublished a new pamphlet.  “It’s easy to see why Bellevue’s population is increasing rapidly.  No one could live an an area more filled with the good things it takes to develop a happy, healthy, well-adjusted life.” Soon Bellevue would no longer be “far enough away from the whirl of the city.”


(First appeared in Pacific, August 10, 1986.)

By the late 1880s, Seattle had grown big enough and rich enough to attract its first suburban dreamers. C.C. Calkins was one of them.  In 1887, this 34-year-old Wisconsin lawyer landed in Seattle with $300 dollars in his pocket. Within two weeks he was $19,000 in debt, but he had 21,000 acres of land. He began selling and reselling, and ended up with $170,000 worth of property.

Other promoters were building bandstands and dance pavilions on the remote shores of Lake Washingotn, connecting them via cable cars to Elliott Bav. Calkins went one step further – to Mercer Island. There he built East Seattle, a grand hotel for Seattle’s well-to-do, with fountains, Turkish baths, a boathouse filled with 100 boats and 28 dressing rooms.

Judy Gellatly’s book, “Mercer Island, the First 100 Years,” describes Calkins’ hotel as a source of pride and a great marvel to the Mercer Islanders “who themselves were still laboring mightily just to exist.” The hotel’s main floor featured an immense ballroom and a large dining room. A grand staircase led to upper floors which were divided into large parlors and 24 guest rooms. The hotel’s details were lavish, with tiled floors, designer wallpapers and fancy hand-colored plaster work featuring cupids, baby angels and bouquets, of course.

In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison embarked from Leschi on C.C. Calkins’ namesake steamer for a visit to East Seattle. It was a moment of brief but soaring success for both Calkins and the islanders. Soon the economic crash of 1893 dropped the speculator Calkins to his knees.  The hotel stood empty for years.

In 1902, a Major Cicero Newell used it as a home for delinquent boys. When neighbors discovered his habit of chaining boys to the fence, they objected and the major abandoned the hotel. It was then used as a treatment home for alcoholics and later it became a boarding house. In July 1908, the last proprietor, a Dr. Leiser, made the mistake of scolding one of his houseboys, who answered the doctor by burning down the hotel.

The East Seattle hotel site about eight years ago when Jean and I were considering including it in our book "Wasington Then and Now." Waiting for Jean are his wife Karen and their oldest son, Ethan.
A Seattle Press Club caravan proceeds north past Mt. Baker on a nearly new Lake Washington Boulevard. The lakeshore was suddenly and considerably changed in the fall of 1916 when the lake was lowered nine feet for the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. (Historical photo courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)


I’ll confess that it is unsettling but true that I don’t know the models of any of these motorcars, the names of any of their passengers or even the occasion to form such a long caravan and head north on Lake Washington Boulevard through the Mt. Baker curves and into Colman Park.

I do, however, speculate.  The year may be 1909 when this part of the boulevard was new.  If so then this motorcade is probably headed for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition that opened that spring on the University of Washington Campus.  Pieces of the boulevard were rushed to completion in order that it would be possible to form processions like this one and drive the distance to the Expo in style.

More likely it is 1911.  The negative number suggests it, although Webster and Stevens Studio numbers are often enough misleading.  However, two archival prints of this and a second very similar scene are marked “Seattle Press Club tour” and “autos on boulevard, Mt. Baker Park, 1911.”  On of the cars sports a Press Club banner.  That builds confidence.

This part of the boulevard was most like the lakeside parkway that the Olmsted Brothers envisioned when they planned the city’s parks and boulevard’s in the early 20th Century.   Their highest ambitions for the city were to purchase the entire west side of the lake from shoreline to the ridge between Colman and Leschi Parks and carry the boulevard up to a scenic “crestline” – as they called it.  Instead the parkway was developed into a string of parks that often meander with the boulevard between the lake and the ridge to their own picturesque effects.

When the lake was lowered 9 feet in 1916 the concrete and riprap seawalls were exposed.  Here at Mt. Baker the seawall was kept and a new landscaped slope drops from it to the shoreline.  In other sections the old riprap was generally removed.

The historical photo was recorded by the Webster-Stevens studio from the Dose Terrace steps,  pictured below.

The Dose Terrace steps. Photo courtesy of John Cooper.


No doubt often missed by motorists on Lake Washington Boulevard watching out for cyclists, Dose Terrace is another of the elegant “touches” that the Olmsted Bros managed to include in their parks plan for Seattle a century ago. Reaching here to a bed of tulips the ivy once hung like a festoon on the sculpted conclusion of the Doe’s Terrace stairway where it joins Lake Washington Boulevard.  It is near the margin where Colman Park to the north touches Mt. Baker Park to the south.
John Olmsted  – of the Olmsted Bros landscaping firm that in the early 20th century designed much of Seattle’s parks, including Colman and Mt. Baker, and boulevards — persuaded Charles Dose to donate this part of his 1906 addition to the building of a namesake stairway that would lead from the developers modest (about 50 lots if I’ve counted them correctly) Lake Washington Addition to the grand shoreline drive that Olmsted had planned for the city.
Dose’s much larger “city beautiful” neighbor to the south, the Mt. Baker Park Addition, also joined the plan and contributed parts of their up-scale neighborhood to the Olmsted scheme contingent on the city agreeing to develop and maintain them, which it did.
Near 31st street Dose set up a real estate office that was about the size of a dining room.  But with its sturdy columns, covered porch and front steps as wide as the office it appeared like a small temple to real estate sales.  That the selling did not at first goes so well was influenced in part by the 1907 recession and the lack of trolley service closer than Rainier Boulevard.
While waiting for sales and the trolley Charles Dose could enjoy his steps, which begin at the top with “Dose Terrace” inlaid in brass on the first step, and end here.  From this slightly elevated platform one can still admire, what the Park Commissioner’s illustrated 1909 report describes as a “lake shore boulevard and pathway of which Seattle or any city in the country could justly feel proud . . . With the broad expanse of water to the east and the towering Cascades in the distance, the scene is beyond description.”



ASA MERCER, younger brother of Seattle pioneer Tom Mercer, is best known for two accomplishments.  First, he was the  first president of the Territorial University.  Next he did the audacious thing of persuading eastern seaboard women – some of them Civil War widows – to follow him back west to Seattle for new careers as teachers and such and such – like new husbands.  Below is a hand-colored copy of Harper Magazine’s feature on the young Mercer’s heroics.

WE’LL conclude for now with another look at the opening day celebrants.


5 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Floating Bridge Inauguration”

  1. In the Building Washington sponsor page for the Washington State Department of Transportation, page 95, a caption mentions “gasless” handling of concrete in the Lacey Murrow tunnel section. Shown are carriages pulled by horses. Wow, what high-tech gasless technology!

  2. Before the bridge was formally open to traffic my father and some friends illegally rode bicycles across the bridge one evening. They narrowly avoided a bad accident. The person ahead of everyone stopped as quickly as she could and yelled for the others to stop; she saw that the openings in the drains in the bridge deck they were approaching (I don’t know if on the walks or the road) were wider than the bicycle tires, and they would have dropped into the gap throwing the riders off. I don’t know if or when that was ever changed, but several young adventurers had a close call.

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