The Montlake Bridge spanning the Montlake Cut in Seattle was completed in 1925, the last-built and easternmost of four double-leaf bascule bridges that carry vehicle and pedestrian traffic across the Lake Washington Ship Canal. It is set apart from its sister bridges by both its Gothic architectural details and its mechanical design, and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. The Montlake span had a rough road to realization -- Seattle voters denied it funding on five occasions between 1914 and 1922, and when a $500,000 bond issue finally was passed in 1923, it was ruled void for technical reasons. The bridge went before the voters one last time in 1924, finally gaining emphatic approval. Work on the span began almost immediately, was completed in less than a year, and the bridge was dedicated on June 27, 1925. It has served ever since as the only direct link between the Montlake neighborhood and the University District. Unlike the three other vehicle bridges crossing the ship canal, the Montlake Bridge is owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation and is part of the short State Route 513 that runs from State Route 520 to Sand Point.
A City of Hills and Gullies
Although it had much to recommend it as a site for a city, including an expansive deep-water port and abundant natural resources, the topography of Seattle in its early days presented significant challenges to growth. In the south, the Duwamish River flowed between West Seattle, where the pioneering Denny Party had landed on Alki Point in 1851, and the rest of the young town. To the north, Denny Hill stood between the city's small urban core, the growing "suburbs" of Queen Anne and Magnolia, and the then-town of Ballard. From Salmon Bay in the west to Union Bay on Lake Washington in the east, the city was almost bisected by water and low swales of land.
The last years of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth saw the completion of several major projects that smoothed the city's contours and linked its parts. Between 1898 and 1930, the massive Denny Regrade project leveled Denny Hill and opened a large area north of downtown to development. Farther north, a wooden wagon bridge across Salmon Bay leading to Ballard was built in 1889, and a railroad bridge went in the following year. The first Latona Bridge spanned a narrow neck of Lake Union in 1891, linking the Eastlake neighborhood and the University District. A low wooden bridge was built in 1892 to connect north Queen Anne to the Fremont neighborhood, and this was replaced in 1911 with a higher span to the east, known as the Stoneway Bridge. In 1909, as part of the planning for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the City completed University Boulevard (now Montlake Boulevard), part of which crossed the narrow isthmus separating the Montlake neighborhood from the exposition's grounds on the site of today's University of Washington. These spans and roads were substantial improvements in their time, but would soon be rendered obsolete by another bold idea that would rival the Regrade in its effects on the city.
The Lake Washington Ship Canal
Thoughts of bringing Seattle's two major lakes to the same level and connecting them to each other and to the salt water were percolating almost as soon as the city was founded. At a July 4th celebration in 1854, Thomas Mercer (1813-1898), who had settled on the south end of what was then called Tenas Chuck ("Little Water"), proposed that its name be changed to Lake Union, in anticipation of the day it would be joined to the larger lake to its east (which Mercer proposed calling Lake Washington) and to Puget Sound to the west. The westernmost projection of Lake Washington, separated from Lake Union's Portage Bay only by a narrow isthmus, was named Union Bay.
It would take well more than half a century, but the hopes of Mercer and his contemporaries were realized exactly 63 years later with the official opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal on July 4, 1917. Work on the project started in 1911 and included (moving east to west): the Montlake Cut linking Lake Washington and Lake Union; the Fremont Cut between Lake Union and Salmon Bay; and the dam and locks at Salmon Bay, the latter of which allowed vessels passage between Salmon Bay and Puget Sound. When it was done, all three inland bodies of water stood at the same level and Salmon Bay, previously a tidal extension of Shilshole Bay, had become a freshwater basin. The project was a major feat of engineering for the time, and it forever changed the city.
The Voters Say Yes, and No
With the completion of the ship canal, the several fixed-span bridges along its course became obstacles to vessel traffic. The primary purpose of the project was ease of navigation, and any bridge that couldn't accommodate the passage of large boats was simply in the way and had to go. But the canal project had been financed with federal, state, and county funds; the bridges would be local projects, paid for primarily with city money, which would have to be raised through the sale of municipal bonds. This required a vote of the people, and the people would prove to be less than cooperative, particularly with regard to a bridge over the Montlake Cut.
The first ballot measure for bridge bonds was put to the voters on March 3, 1913, while construction of the ship canal was still in its early stages. The $1,600,000 proposal included not only ship-canal bridges, but also spans over the East and West waterways of the Duwamish River south of downtown. It was defeated by a margin of more than two to one --19,902 to 8,331. Such a resounding rejection was perhaps due to the fact that the ballot measure was unclear on how many bridges were to be built, what kind they would be, where precisely they would go, and when they would go there. The Seattle Times recommended a "no" vote, pointing out that "the people, in voting bonds, must more clearly specify what is to be done than is set forth in this plan" ("Times Advisory Ballot"). Even for a rapidly growing and prosperous city, so large a blank check was deemed unacceptable.
The City tried again the following year, providing more details and getting better results. Voters were presented four different proposals for bridges over the ship canal -- at Ballard, Fremont, 6th Avenue NE, and Montlake -- and could vote them up or down individually. The Seattle Times changed its tune, exhorting the voters to approve all four and warning that the federal government was threatening to halt work on the canal if bridges weren't soon authorized:
"Bridges are absolutely necessary in order that the people may reap the benefits of the Lake Washington Canal ... .
"The Federal government has spent millions, and the County of King has spent millions -- and the big work is almost done.
"Bridges must be provided -- or the Federal government will stop work.
"The people of Seattle ought to realize these facts when they go to the polls next Tuesday"
("Lake Washington Bridge Bonds").
The voters were half convinced, and on June 30, 1914, they approved bonds to provide funding for bridges crossing the ship canal at Ballard and Fremont and rejected proposals for spans at 6th Avenue NE in the University District and at Montlake. The split vote may have been due to the fact that the two movable bridges approved for the western reaches of the waterway would allow commercial vessels to travel freely into the main body of Lake Union and to the industries that dominated its shoreline at the time. There was less commercial development east of the Latona Bridge, less still at Montlake. It is also possible that many voters had little sympathy or concern for the traveling convenience of those fortunate to enough to live in the upscale residential areas of Montlake, Laurelhurst, and Washington Park.
An election on March 2, 1915, brought additional funds for the Ballard and Fremont bridges, and by a much narrower margin approved a new span at 10th Avenue NE in the University district to replace the Latona Bridge. Voters were not even asked at this election to fund a bridge at Montlake. Faced with an immediate need to ease navigation, the City somehow found enough money in 1916 to jury-rig the old Latona span so that it could, with great effort and awkwardness, open for vessels.
On March 6, 1917, with the ship canal and the Ballard and Fremont bridges nearing completion, Seattle voters were asked once again to approve funding for a bridge over the Montlake Cut. And again they said no, by a margin of nearly two to one.
The Fremont Bridge was opened for traffic on June 15, 1917, three weeks before the formal dedication of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, and the bridge at Ballard on 15th Avenue NW opened in December that year. The two completed spans, together with the hastily modified Latona Bridge, now allowed large vessels, or smaller vessels with tall masts, passage from Puget Sound to Lake Washington. When not opened for boat traffic, the bridges carried cars, trucks, and streetcars across the ship canal. The University Bridge did not open until July 1, 1919, replacing the Latona Bridge and connecting the Eastlake neighborhood with the University District on what was then 10th Avenue E (today's Roosevelt Way NE).
A Very Long 200 Feet
The excavation of the canal between Union Bay and Portage Bay cut Montlake Boulevard neatly in two, and for years anyone wanting to get to the other side of the Montlake Cut by foot or on wheels had to travel west to one of the bridges in Fremont, Ballard, or Latona. As The Seattle Times pointed out in a 1917 article:
"At present a detour of five miles is necessary to get from the south bank of the government canal at Montlake to the north bank, a distance of 200 feet. The Ravenna and Green Lake Boulevards, as well as the Montlake, are separated from the main system by the lack of connection at this point; and it is expected that in time the canal will be bridged, bringing the entire system into one unit" ("Car Maps Tour Covering Route to Laurelhurst").
Despite the obvious need, it would be more time than anyone imagined before such a span would be built. Funding for it was again denied by the voters in 1919, but by a narrower margin than in the past. Two years later, in 1921, a similar measure lost by only 4,000 votes.
In 1922, bridge supporters tried a new tack, mobilizing UW football fans to support the project by dubbing it the "Montlake-Stadium Bridge." By now Husky football had become a city obsession, and the first "University Stadium," built in 1920, was located just north of the Montlake Cut (where Husky Stadium would later be built). Boosters took up the Montlake-Stadium Bridge name and lobbied hard for the span. Success almost came when, on May 2, 1922, the bridge for the first time received a majority of the votes cast, but still fell 1,872 short of the necessary 60 percent.
Just when it looked like the bridge was nearing voter acceptance, a minor scandal erupted. On July 12, 1922, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that the City's engineering department, under the leadership of City Engineer Arthur H. Dimmock, had since 1913 spent $682,000 more on salaries than it had spent building all three of the other canal bridges combined. Dimmock was soon replaced, and funding for the Montlake Bridge went to the voters for the seventh time on May 8, 1923. This time it squeaked through with a winning margin of just 211 votes more than the 60 percent needed.
But fate was not was not yet finished with the Montlake Bridge. Its first winning vote in seven tries fell afoul of recent changes in the State law governing serial bonds, and the measure had to be resubmitted to the voters the following year. Darwin Meisnest, graduate manager of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (the equivalent of today's "athletic director") from 1920 to 1928, started a public-relations campaign and adopted a motto intended to shame voters who might not benefit directly from a bridge at Montlake -- "You have your bridge, let us have one too" (Lawrence, p. 6). Influential football fans joined the fray, and in the election on March 10, 1924, voters again approved bridge financing through $500,000 in bonds, this time by a margin of 81 percent in favor. As one historian later noted, "Only in America could football become a justification for building a bridge" (Lawrence, p. 6).
One More Hurdle
Ironically, although its three sister bridges at Ballard, Fremont, and Eastlake were completed long before final construction of the Montlake span began, the latter's concrete foundation piers had been in place since 1914, built during the earliest days of ship canal construction. This should have made the completion of the span a relatively easy matter, but having finally won over the voters, the builders of the Montlake Bridge ran head-on into another obstacle -- the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company of Chicago.
In 1920, after completion of the first three spans across the ship canal, the city's bridge engineer, F. A. Rapp, wrote an article for Engineering News-Record magazine. In it, he described in great detail the mechanical workings of the three bridges, attributing most of the ideas to a design developed by the Chicago Public Works Department in 1898. What Rapp failed to mention, and perhaps may not have known, was that in 1913 the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company had been awarded $350,000 in damages for patent infringement based on the Chicago design.
People associated with the Strauss Company read Rapp's article, called their lawyers, and in the fall of 1921 the company filed a patent-infringement claim against the City of Seattle alleging damages of more than $350,000. While this did not directly involve the Montlake Bridge, which had not yet gained voter approval, it may have played a role in its 1922 defeat at the polls. On September 15, 1922, the City settled the Strauss Company's claim for $45,000, which was estimated to be the cost of defending against it. The City also agreed to pay Strauss a small amount for design plans of additional bridges, and to pay a royalty if one was actually built using those plans. Not surprisingly, one wasn't.
Strauss was not done harassing Seattle and its bridge builders. On January 12, 1925, with work on the new Montlake span well underway, Strauss filed a new suit against the City, once again claiming patent infringement. Its request for an injunction halting all work on the project was denied, and the bridge was completed on schedule.
The City argued that the mechanical design of the Montlake Bridge was significantly different from that of the other three ship canal bridges, and thus different from the Strauss design as well. In the Strauss design, the trunnions (cylindrical mountings, located near the center of gravity between a bridge leaf and its counterweight, around which the leaf and counterweight rotate during opening and closing) were mounted on a transverse steel girder. The Montlake design was considerably different, dictated both by legal considerations and by the nature of the footings that had been laid back when the cut was first excavated. To keep the navigation channel clear, the trunnions of the Montlake Bridge were mounted on concrete brackets built off from those footings. City attorneys believed that this difference was sufficient to remove the design from the cloud created by Strauss's patent.
As it turned out, the patent dispute, after dragging on for years, was resolved on entirely different grounds. City lawyers discovered that Strauss's claimed patent was in fact an exact reproduction of an earlier patent for a large beam-balance scale used by the U. S. Mint in San Francisco. On May 7, 1929, the City brought a motion to dismiss the Strauss suit in Federal court in Seattle. No one appeared on behalf of the Strauss Company, and the motion was granted. By this time, the Montlake Bridge had been in operation for nearly four years. The City could not recover the money it had paid to settle the earlier suit, but in the end it won the patent war in a rout.
Building the Bridge
Construction on the Montlake Bridge (the title "Montlake-Stadium" disappeared soon after the voters approved the bridge bonds in 1924) began on July 8, 1924. With the 83-foot-high concrete piers already in place, early efforts concentrated on the bridge approaches. A $160,000 contract for this portion of the work was awarded to C. L. Creelman, with a designated completion date of February 30, 1925. To support the roadway, 35 16-inch steel casings were driven along the north and south margins of the Montlake Cut at the bridge site and filled with concrete.
The contract for the bridge's steel superstructure, valued at a little more than $160,000, was awarded to the Wallace Equipment Company of Seattle, and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company won the contract for the bridge's electrical machinery with a bid of $26,133. The Triennial Conclave of the Knights Templar was scheduled for University Stadium in July 1925, and at a conference with city officials on July 25, 1924, all the contractors pledged to have the span completed in time for that event.
Construction proceeded with few complications, welcome progress during a year in which traffic on the Ballard, Fremont, and University bridges increased by 40 percent over 1923 counts. Husky football, of course, would not wait for completion of the span, and starting in 1920 City officials each year approved the deployment of a temporary pontoon bridge across the Montlake Cut, allowing fans to walk to home games via Montlake Boulevard. The temporary bridges were also used for other events, including the City's 1923 4th of July celebration at the stadium.
On March 21, 1925, City Engineer J. D. Blackwell announced that work on the Montlake Bridge was more than half completed. Blackwell predicted that the span would in fact be finished early, and in ample time for the upcoming Knights Templar conclave. The following month, W. D. Henderson, Seattle's superintendent of street railways, promised to complete an extension of the 23rd Avenue streetcar line across the new bridge by July 25th of that year. He was better than his word, and the tracks were ready when the bridge was dedicated in late June.
On April 25, 1925, Darwin Meisnest, who had been appointed head of the bridge's dedication committee in recognition of his role in passing the bond measures, announced that the span would be completed a month earlier than predicted, and that a grand opening ceremony would be held in early June. Seattle's mayor, Edwin J. Brown, sang the praises of the new span and of two individuals deeply involved in bringing the project to fruition:
"Seattle will have one of the most beautiful structures of its kind in the country when the Montlake Bridge is completed. Not only will it be a work of art, but it will be one of the most important civic improvements made in years…
"I believe the people of Seattle owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Meisnest for his efforts to get this bridge constructed. He remained on the job continuously in the face of seeming defeat and surmounted what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles.
"Another man to whom great credit is due for the fast work on the bridge is J. D. Blackwell, city engineer. Due to his efforts Seattle will be able to dedicate the bridge fully one month ahead of the scheduled time" ("Dedication of Montlake Bridge in Early June").
Just four days later, on April 29th, the first automobile made it across the still-unfinished bridge, although not without problems. The vehicle, a Paige Brougham, was driven by Seattle car dealer W. S. Dulmage in what was an obvious publicity stunt, but one with the apparent backing of City officials. A large picture of Mr. Dulmage and his car, posed before one of the bridge's Gothic control towers, ran in The Seattle Times the following week, with the rather cryptic statement, "Many difficulties were encountered, but they did not stop the car" ("Paige Brougham First Across Montlake Bridge").
The big day came at last, and on June 27, 1925, the City staged a gala ceremony to dedicate the Montlake Bridge. A "few thousand" people crowded the span and its approaches for the celebration ("Montlake Bridge, Link With University, Is Dedicated"). The opening event was the ceremonial passage of the first street railway car to traverse the bridge. It was decorated with flags and bunting, piloted by Mayor Brown in motorman's togs, and full of politicians and officials, including engineer Blackwell and his entire staff. Preceding the streetcar was the Seattle Police Department Band, and behind it the crowd of celebrants poured onto and across the bridge to gather at its southern end, where a ceremonial stand had been built.
City Council President Bertha Landes (1868-1943), who one year later would oust Brown to become Seattle's first woman mayor, was assigned the task of suitably christening the new bridge. It was the height of Prohibition, and newspaper accounts coyly noted that it took Landes two swings to break a bottle of "some effervescing fluid" on one of the its steel supports. Darwin Meisnest then spoke, at length, thanking everyone involved in the project and introducing "each city official and staff who had to do with building the bridge," along with various members of civic improvement clubs who had supported the project. This litany eventually came to an end, and Mayor Brown closed out the ceremony by comparing the Montlake Bridge favorably to "the Tiber Bridge over the Tiber River" in Italy, although "having several features that make it distinctly Seattle" ("Montlake Bridge, Link With University, Is Dedicated"). The reference may have seemed obscure to some -- the Tiber River had no fewer than ten bridges across it at various points in the city of Rome alone, all ancient, all made of stone, all immovable.
Who Should Get the Credit?
The Montlake Bridge's repeated rejection by the voters over 10-year period may have worked to its favor. It is generally recognized as the most beautiful of the five bascule bridges that cross the Lake Washington Ship Canal (the four vehicle spans and Great Northern Railway's single-leaf Bridge 4, just outside the Ballard Locks). An article and concept drawing that appeared in a newspaper on March 6, 1921, two days before the voters rejected the bridge for the fifth time, was an obvious attempt to garner support:
"As the bridge will be both a link in the boulevard system and an approach to the university campus and The Stadium, care has been given in the plans to give it the best possible architectural appearance" ("Architect's View of Proposed Montlake Bridge").
The drawing that ran with the article depicts the bridge with two squat structures at each end and two tall control towers, resembling small lighthouses, at its opposite corners. While the design clearly differentiated the Montlake Bridge from its predecessors, it bore scant resemblance to what was later built.
Architect Carl Freylinghausen Gould Sr. (1873-1939) founded the University of Washington's Department of Architecture in 1914, and his connections with the school administration proved lucrative indeed. Between 1916 and 1933, Gould won commissions to design no fewer than 18 buildings on the school's campus, ranging from fraternity houses, to halls housing academic schools, to the magnificent Suzzallo Library. Gould headed the design commission that chose Collegiate Gothic as the university's signature architectural style, and in partnership with Charles Herbert Bebb (1856-1942) put his stamp on the university's campus and beyond. However, multiple sources that credit Gould with the design of the Montlake Bridge's architectural details appear to be in error.
It is obvious that the campus's dominant Gothic architectural style was an inspiration for the design of the Montlake Bridge. The evolution of the design can be seen by comparing the 1921 drawing with one published in the same newspaper in January 1924, a little less than two months before the project went to the voters for an eighth, and last, time. Gone are the four squat towers, replaced by four two-story Gothic towers, one on each corner, mirroring the dominant style of the university's most prominent buildings. As noted in The Times:
"The Gothic type towers which will top the reinforced concrete approaches will be most attractive, and lend a proper setting to the architectural design of university buildings" ("Engineer Completes Montlake-Stadium Bridge Plans").
Even this drawing was not quite correct. Although it accurately pictured the design of the towers, it showed that there would be a total of four, with one on each corner of the bridge where the concrete approaches met the wood decking. The bridge as built has only two towers, on its northwest and southeast corners, only one of which is used for controlling openings and closings. So reminiscent are they of campus architecture that it is understandable that many sources credit the bridge, and particularly the design of the towers, to Gould. But while his influence is obvious, he seems to have had no direct role in its design. Credit for that must go to the Seattle Engineering Department, with consultation from Seattle architects Edgar Blair (1871-1924), Harlan Thomas (1870-1953), and A. H. Albertson (1872-1964).
What It Is
In technical terms, the Montlake Bridge is a Pratt deck truss, simple-trunnion bascule span with double opening leaves. Unlike swing bridges, when a bascule bridge opens the waterway it spans is completely free of obstructions, and unlike vertical-lift bridges, there are no height limitations for vessels. It is unique among the four bascule vehicle bridges along the canal in that it is owned and operated by the state Department of Transportation and is officially part of State Route 513, which runs from the SR 520 interchange in Montlake to Magnuson Park on Sand Point Way.
On a bascule bridge, shafts and gears transfer power from electric motors to open and close the leaves, and because the weight of the leaves is nearly matched by counterweights attached to their shoreside ends, remarkably little power is necessary. It is a relatively simple design, durable and reliable, as evidenced by the very few occasions when any of Seattle's bascule bridges have broken down over nearly a century of service.
The Montlake Bridge is 182 feet long, measured from trunnion to trunnion, and has 69-foot-long approaches of reinforced concrete leading to the span at either end. When the bridge is closed, the vertical clearance between the water and the center of the span is approximately 48 feet (with some seasonal variation), the highest of the four bascule bridges along the route of the ship canal. As originally built, it had a wooden roadway 40 feet wide with two streetcar tracks and two 10-foot-wide sidewalks. In 1946, heavy steel mesh replaced the wood roadway, a project that caused the bridge to be closed to vehicles for nearly six weeks.
There's Always a Downside
Regardless of type, all opening bridges have one thing in common. While they are being used for vehicular traffic, larger boats can't pass. When they are opened for vessel traffic, no vehicles can cross. Since there are many more cars on the road than ships on the sea, it is usually drivers who believe they are the most inconvenienced by the bridge openings.
Because the Lake Washington Ship Canal bridges cross what is classified a navigable waterway under federal law, their rules of operation are dictated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and these rules strongly favor vessels. As the City explains:
"Federal law gives marine traffic the right-of-way over vehicular traffic. The City of Seattle must apply to the U.S. Coast Guard for exceptions to that rule. The exception for bridge closures during rush-hour periods is granted by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard also allows vessels to be held for 10 minutes on the Lake Washington Ship Canal bridges to allow accumulated vehicular traffic to clear" ("Bridges and Roadway Structures Bridge Openings").
The City claims that, on average, vehicular traffic is stopped for four minutes for each opening of the ship canal bridges. Most Seattle drivers would probably beg to differ. In fall and winter, when pleasure boat usage is at its lowest, bridge openings are relatively infrequent, but in spring and summer the bridges pop up with disconcerting frequency.
The Montlake Bridge, being farthest east, sees less vessel traffic than the others spans, and on average, opens eight to nine times per day. But vehicle traffic on the Montlake Bridge is much heavier; a 2010 traffic analysis by the Seattle Department of Transportation found that an average of 59,300 vehicles crossed the bridge every weekday, more than double the count at the University and Fremont spans and about 2,000 more per day more than the Ballard Bridge. Because the Montlake Interchange, just a few blocks south of the bridge, has ramps to and from the SR 520 floating bridge, traffic can at times back up a mile or more in all directions. A bridge opening at 3:30 p.m., just before the span's rush-hour closure, can affect traffic throughout the afternoon commute and have repercussions as far away as Interstate 5.
Although there has been discussion of, and opposition to, constructing a second bridge at Montlake, for now at least the historic Montlake Bridge will stand alone at the gateway between Seattle's two major lakes. Getting it built was a battle, and getting across it can at times be difficult, but its architectural elegance has made it one of the city's most beloved and admired public works.