The Puyallup River and Its People
The Puyallup River starts as two streams that spring from glaciers on the western flank of Mount Rainer. They soon unite and the river meanders west and is supplemented by several tributaries before emptying into Puget Sound at Commencement Bay in Tacoma. The deep valley through which the river and its tributaries now run was once a saltwater inlet of Puget Sound, but after the last Ice Age, approximately 13,500 years ago, slow sedimentation and cataclysmic mudflows from volcanically active Mount Rainier began pushing back the sea. More than 5,000 years ago one of these filling events, the Osceola Mudflow (or "lahar"), covered 195 square miles of the lowlands to an average depth of 25 feet.
The watershed of the Puyallup River lies almost entirely within Pierce County, stretches from the crest of the Cascade Mountains to Commencement Bay, and encompasses more than 1,000 square miles. Much of the lower reach of the river's 46-mile course has been straightened during the course of industrial development, and between 1877 and 1988 nearly 90 percent of the river's delta mudflats were filled to become the industrial heart of Tacoma and the site of the Port of Tacoma's expansive maritime facilities.
Both before and after first contact, the Puyallup Tribe and tribes that later became known collectively as the Muckleshoot lived in the watershed, with the Muckleshoot found primarily along the Green and White rivers and the upper reaches of the Puyallup and the people of the Puyallup Tribe farther downstream. Today the Muckleshoot and members of related tribes share the 3,600-acre Muckleshoot Reservation in South King County, created in 1857.
A 1,280-acre Puyallup Reservation was established by the Medicine Creek Treaty in 1854, then expanded to 18,060 acres by presidential order in 1857. Its boundaries girdle the Puyallup River, include much of the land adjacent to Commencement Bay, and extend inland to the southeast. By 1934 all but 33 acres of this reservation had passed from Indian control, although the reservation's boundaries remained intact. After years of litigation and negotiation, an agreement to compensate the tribe for its losses was signed on March 25, 1990. In return for ceding legal ownership of most of their original reservation, the Puyallups received 900 acres of waterfront property, a per capita payment of $20,000 for each adult tribe member, and other concessions. The total value of the settlement was set at $162 million, making it second only to the $962.5 million paid to Alaska Natives for land and rights-of-way for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Today parts, often large parts, of six municipalities -- Tacoma, Fife, Milton, Puyallup, Edgewood, and Federal Way -- lie within the reservation's boundaries, as does the Puyallup Avenue Bridge.
The Cities Bridged
The Puyallup Avenue Bridge was built as a critical link in the fabled Pacific Highway that ran from the Canada to the Mexican border, but it had beneficial local effects as well. The bridge provided a direct link for motorized traffic between Tacoma, by 1927 a booming metropolis, and the fertile farmlands to the north of the city, including the small community of Fife (or, as it was often called until the 1950s, Gardenville). It also shortened and simplified travel between Tacoma and Seattle, a benefit to both cities and a boon to all the smaller communities in between.
Commencement Bay was named by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) of the U.S. Navy in 1841 to mark the point where he began his survey of Puget Sound. The first non-Native to settle in the area was a Swedish immigrant, Nicholas Delin (1817-1882), who in 1852 built a water-powered sawmill at the head of the bay. A sparse pioneer community soon grew up around his operation, but during the Indian War of 1855-1856 these original settlers fled, never to return.
In 1864 a Union Army veteran named Job Carr (1813-1887) started a small town he called Eureka on the banks of a lagoon that branched off the bay in the area now known as Tacoma's "Old Town." Four years later, Morton McCarver (1807-1875) arrived with larger plans in mind. McCarver purchased most of Carr's claim and platted a town he named Tacoma City. He might have preferred calling his project simply "Tacoma," but Job Carr's son had already platted a town of that name at another location.
McCarver set about attracting settlers to his new town, and in 1873, stealing a march on Seattle, he helped persuade the Northern Pacific Railroad to make Tacoma City its western terminus. Or so he thought. The railroad's plans were not entirely in concert with McCarver's, and the company built its depot two miles from Tacoma City at the head of Commencement Bay, calling the location "New Tacoma." At first the tracks extended only to Kalama on the Columbia River, but in 1883 the route finally was tied into the transcontinental system ("Northern Pacific Railroad's Orphan Road").
Tacoma, now unified under that name and formally incorporated in 1884, boomed. Between 1880 and 1890 the city's population exploded, growing from 1,098 to just over 36,000. Seattle was bigger, but Tacoma had the railroad. New streetcar lines branched out to serve new neighborhoods as the city expanded to the south and east. The wharves of Commencement Bay became a center of trans-Pacific and West Coast trade. Seattle, from 1884 to 1887, would suffer the indignity of having a spur line from Tacoma as its only rail link to the rest of the country. It wouldn't last; in 1887, the Northern Pacific, realizing that Seattle had become the commercial center of Western Washington, decided to move its terminus north to the larger city.
Tacoma prospered nevertheless. The financial meltdown called the Panic of 1893 hit the city particularly hard, but it soon recovered and continued to grow. Over the next century, Tacoma would sail through booms and struggle through busts, but every federal census from 1880 to 2010 showed population growth, making it almost unique among the state's sizeable cities. In 1927, the year the Puyallup Avenue Bridge opened, Tacoma had approximately 100,000 residents. By 2012 there were nearly 200,000, making it the state's third most populous city, after only Seattle and Spokane.
The small city of Fife sits across the Puyallup River from Tacoma, east of the main part of that city and southeast of Commencement Bay. It was named after William J. Fife, a prominent Tacoma lawyer who served as head of the Washington National Guard. The community grew up within the boundaries of the Puyallup Reservation. It was fertile land, ideal for growing fruit and flowers, and to many early settlers leaving it in Indian hands seemed, at best, wasteful.
The Medicine Creek Treaty gave the U.S. president the power to divide reservation land into individual, privately held allotments rather than leaving it in the communal ownership of the tribe. In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act codified the practice. It was thought that individual ownership would tie Natives to their allotments and encourage them to build houses and grow money crops, just as their non-Indian neighbors did. It didn't work out that way.
Allotment may have had benevolent, or at least paternalistic, intentions, but for many tribes it had darker ramifications. Government could declare surplus reservation land not allocated to individual Indians and sell it to non-Natives. Given the decimation that disease and dispersal had visited on many Northwest tribes, there were often very few Indians occupying very large reservations. So it was with the Puyallup: In a single year, from 1853 to 1854, their numbers decreased from 150 to a mere 50, likely due to smallpox. With so few left to take allotments, large areas of the reservation remained surplus, to be sold to non-Natives. And although the sale of individual allotments by Indians was for a time forbidden, that bar was lifted in 1903, and thereafter they could sell or lease their land to whomever they pleased. Many did, often for a fraction of the actual worth.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, a surge of European and Asian immigration flowed into the Fife area. By purchase or by lease, more and more Puyallup Reservation land ended up owned or controlled by non-Indians. Immigrants, many from Japan or Italy, who came to work on existing farms, often stayed and bought or leased farms of their own. Piece by piece, over years, almost all of the Puyallup Reservation fell out of Native ownership.
The details of Fife's origins are a little murky. There were mentions of a community called Fife in Seattle newspapers at least as early as 1906. Several businesses carried that name even earlier, and there also was a Fife station on the interurban streetcar line. But that was not the only name used to describe the community. The 1920, 1930, and 1940 federal censuses identified the town as "Gardenville" and not Fife, and it seems the two names, while perhaps not covering the precise same geographical footprint, may have been loosely interchangeable for decades.
The 1950 census listed neither a Fife nor a Gardenville, but in 1957, prompted by rumblings of annexation emanating from Tacoma, the community's citizens approved, narrowly, the incorporation of Fife as a fourth-class city. In 2010 its population was 9,173, living on approximately 5.7 square miles of land east of the Puyallup River, within the boundaries of the Puyallup Reservation. With easy access to rail, Interstate 5, and the Port of Tacoma's Commencement Bay facilities, Fife has become a center for warehousing and distribution.
"The World's Most Perfect Highway"
The coming of the automobile started a revolution in personal and commercial transportation that would transform society and compel the development of a completely new infrastructure to support it. It started slowly, in every sense of the word. The first automobile to appear in Tacoma arrived in July 1900, after a trip from Chicago to San Francisco that took five months and required occasional rides on railroad flatcars. At the time, there were approximately 4,000 automobiles in the entire United States, but that would soon change. By 1905 there were 78,000; by 1910, 459,000; and by 1914, 1.7 million. Roads were needed, and needed badly.
Before 1905, roads in Washington state (and earlier, Washington Territory) were built on an ad hoc basis by individuals, and by towns, cities, and counties to accommodate local needs. The first road mandated and funded in part by the State did not come until 1893, when the legislature designated a route running from Whatcom County, across the Cascades north of Mount Baker, then down to the town of Marcus on the Columbia River. More than 50 years later, it remained uncompleted.
Two more roads were designated in 1897, but there was little other State involvement, and the Washington Highway Department was not established until 1905. At that time, there were fewer than 125 miles of road in the entire state that were classified as "improved" ("A Brief History ..."). Funding allocated by the legislature for road construction up to that point totaled barely $130,000, "with apparently little to show for the expenditure" ("Forty Years With the Washington State Department of Highways").
The new highway department's early planning stayed focused on roads designed to carry horse-drawn traffic rather than motorized vehicles. To further complicate matters, State highway authorities and the individual counties, to which the primary responsibility for road creation had fallen, did not always get along. Often, roads mandated by the legislature to be built by the counties were simply not completed. There was no overall plan to link the patchwork of disconnected byways that served only local needs, and those often inadequately. But by 1910 most officials accepted that the automobile was here to stay, and in 1911 the State assumed more responsibility for road building with the passage of the Permanent Highway Act.
At first it seemed that no one really knew how to build the kind of roads that would be needed. It was learned the hard way that surfaces designed for horse and buggy would not bear up under the heavier and more rapid horseless carriage. The first concrete-surfaced roads did not appear in Washington until 1912, but they proved immediately successful. In 1913 a plan for a connected system of roads was finally adopted by the legislature. What were termed "secondary routes" were given numbers, but nine planned primary roads were given names instead. One was the Pacific Highway, and it would eventually become the longest and one of the most famous in the nation.
The inclusion of the Pacific Highway in the legislature's 1913 designation was almost entirely due to the efforts of private individuals, notably Samuel Hill (1857-1931), son-in-law of railroad magnate James J. Hill (1838-1916). Even before the full dawn of the auto age and as early as 1894, Hill saw a day when there would be
"a highway built through British Columbia down our own coastline, clear to Mexico and it’s going to be a hard surfaced road" ("Samuel Hill celebrates ...").
In 1899, Hill founded and became first president of the Washington State Good Roads Association, and he started building experimental roadways on the grounds of Maryhill, his estate on the Columbia River. In 1910 a more specialized group, the Pacific Highway Association of North America, was formed in Seattle for the express purpose of "the promotion of the construction of an international highway along the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico" ("Autoists Organize Highway Association").
Their voices did not go unheard in Olympia. In 1915, the legislature for the first time set out a plan, short on detail and long on ambition, for the Pacific Highway's route through Washington, describing it as:
"A highway starting at the international boundary line at Blaine, Washington; thence southerly by the most feasible route through the cities of Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Everett, Seattle, Renton, along the easterly side of the White River Valley through Kent, Auburn, Tacoma, Olympia, Tenino, Centralia, Chehalis, to the southern boundary line at the city of Vancouver, to be known as the Pacific Highway" (Remington and Ballinger, Sec. Section 5878-2).
The Federal Aid Road Act, passed in 1916, marked the first major investment of federal funds into state highway construction, and the Pacific Highway was one of the first to benefit. But early federal contributions were modest and the need great and growing; by 1920, the number of registered motor vehicles in the state exceeded 186,000. In 1921 the Federal Highway Act was passed; federal aid increased, state purse strings loosened (aided by the passage of the State's first gas tax that same year), and section by section the Washington portion of the Pacific Highway was built. In 1924, when it was more than 90 percent complete, a national publication called it "The World's Most Perfect Highway" (The Highway Magazine). When finished, the Pacific Highway ran unbroken from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Tijuana, Mexico. One of the last links to be completed in Washington state was the Puyallup Avenue Bridge.
To Get to the Other Side
Humans have been building bridges since someone first threw a log across a stream. The great majority of early bridges were made of wood, and none have survived. But in the Middle East, Mesopotamians were building stone bridges thousands of years BCE, and traces of the earliest known stone bridge in Europe, dating from ca. 1900 BCE, are found at the Palace of Knossos in Crete. The oldest known bridge in the world that is still in use, a single-arch stone span, was built across the river Meles in Turkey ca. 850 BCE. The Romans took bridge engineering to a new level with their stone and brick arched bridges and aqueducts, intact examples of which can still be found as far as their vast empire stretched. A revolution in bridge building went hand in hand with advancements in metallurgy, and the oldest known cast-iron bridge, built in 1779, is still in use in Telford, England. The adjacent community was named Ironbridge and is now part of the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage site.
Advances in the manufacture and working of steel soon made it the preferred material for bridges. The famed Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, was the first in the world to use steel suspension cables. Seven years later in Scotland, the first long cantilevered railway bridge made primarily of steel was built over the Firth of Forth.
The first iron-truss bridge in American was built in 1844 in Pennsylvania for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and most substantial bridges in America from the late 1800s to the early twentieth century were built to truss designs. The two most common forms (each of which has several variations) are the Pratt truss and the Warren truss, both patented in the 1840s. The common feature of all steel-truss bridges is a reinforcing framework that is riveted, welded, or bolted into a series of triangular sections. These serve to distribute the primary forces to which a bridge is subjected: tension, the tendency to pull apart; compression, the tendency to push together; and torsion, the tendency to twist.
Why a Puyallup Avenue Bridge?
The residential and business districts of Tacoma expanded to the west and south from the city's origins on the western shore of Commencement Bay, but the filled mudflats of the Puyallup River delta to the southeast became the industrial heart of the city, its working waterfront, and the future site of the Port of Tacoma's expansive shipping facilities. Puyallup Avenue, a major commercial thoroughfare in Tacoma, skirted to the south the several artificial waterways that extend inland from the end of the bay, making it a logical approach for a straight-shot span joining Tacoma and Fife. But before 1927, the route between the two communities was roundabout, veering southeast from Puyallup Avenue and wandering along before eventually crossing the river by bridge a little over a half mile upstream. The Puyallup Avenue Bridge would remedy that.
The new bridge also helped alleviate regional traffic woes. The Pacific Highway between Seattle and Tacoma shaved miles and quite a few minutes from the most popular earlier route, the meandering High Line Road. When the bridge opened in 1927, there were more than 412,000 people living in Seattle, Tacoma, and the smaller communities in between that were on the route of the Pacific Highway. It was estimated that 8,000 vehicles a day traveled between the two cities, 10 percent of them trucks. The ease of transportation that came with the completion of the Seattle-Tacoma stretch of the Pacific Highway benefited both cities and was critical to the development of the communities along its route.
Bridges, including the Puyallup Avenue Bridge, also were key to the success of the entire Pacific Highway, which often had to cross not only rivers, but canyons, ravines, marine inlets, and every sizable divot and ditch geology threw across its path. Any obstacle too big to fill or too long to go around needed a bridge -- large, medium, or small -- and those bridges allowed the highway to maintain a relatively direct course from Canada to the Mexican border.
Building the Bridge
The designers and builders of the Puyallup Avenue Bridge faced three challenges: the crossing of the dikes on either side of the Puyallup River, spanning the river itself, and the crossing of railroad tracks that ran on either side of it. To span these obstacles, three variations of the steel-truss bridge were used. These were linked to surface streets and to each other by sections made of reinforced concrete. The design was complex and provides a good illustration of the bridge-builders' art as it was in 1925.
The Puyallup Avenue Bridge (also known as the Puyallup River Bridge and the Eells Street Bridge) was designed by engineers of the State Highway Department and built by Grant Smith and Company of Seattle. Site preparation started on September 14, 1925, and the bridge was completed in early 1927. The State's plans had to be approved by the federal War Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Public Roads. Rights-of-way were needed from the railroads over whose tracks it would run, and the requirement to cross those tracks would influence the bridge design. The federal government, which would pay for somewhat more than one-half the cost of building the span, approved the plans and specifications in the closing months of 1925. One condition of federal funding required the builders to use exclusively materials, including steel, manufactured in the United States. The Wallace Equipment Company of Seattle began fabricating the steel for the bridge in early 1926 while workers were busy building reinforced-concrete approaches on both sides of the river.
The roadway of the Puyallup Avenue Bridge is 36 feet wide with a five-foot pedestrian walkway on either side, and its 2,833-foot length is divided into sections. Five separate truss spans are incorporated along its length, one each over the railroad tracks on either river bank and three, which are linked, carrying traffic across the river itself. All are through-truss spans: the roadway travels between and under the truss framework, which rises on both sides and is cross-braced overhead. The deck rests on a floor system that is supported by the bottom chords (the bottommost horizontal members of the truss), and by the piers and abutments.
Coming from the west, the bridge begins at the intersection of Puyallup Avenue and E Portland Avenue in Tacoma, where a reinforced-concrete approach rises from grade and leads to the westernmost steel section of the bridge. This is a 193-foot-long Baltimore petit truss, a variation of the basic Pratt truss with additional diagonal members in the lower sections of the superstructure that add strength. The style was invented in 1871 by engineers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and "petit" refers to the short additional bracing that is used. This section of the bridge carries traffic over railroad tracks serving the industrial area of Tacoma south of Commencement Bay.
After the tracks are passed, a long reinforced concrete approach mounted on concrete pedestals leads to the primary section of the Puyallup Avenue Bridge, three linked segments of Pennsylvania petit truss design. The Pennsylvania petit truss, invented by engineers of the Pennsylvania Railroad, is, like the Baltimore type, a modification of a Pratt-truss design, with additional diagonal members. What really distinguishes it, however, is the parabolic, as opposed to straight, top chords (the topmost horizontal members of the supporting superstructure). The central part of the Puyallup River Bridge is made up of these three nearly identical sections, each a Pennsylvania truss and each 252 feet long.
Once the river is passed, heading east, a very short section of elevated concrete roadway leads to the fifth steel bridge section, a Warren truss with bracing that forms alternately inverted equilateral-triangle-shaped spaces along its 114-foot length. It is not a "pure" Warren truss; vertical steel supports have been added within each triangular section for increased strength. This part of the span carries traffic over railroad tracks that lead into the facilities of the Port of Tacoma, and is followed by a long, reinforced-concrete approach that terminates near the intersection of Eells Street and Milwaukee Way in Fife. (For reasons that are not entirely clear, Puyallup Avenue becomes Eells Street on the west end of the bridge and remains so only until the intersection with Milwaukee Way on the east, where it become Pacific Highway East.)
Contemporary records demonstrate that remarkably few problems were encountered during the construction of the Puyallup Avenue Bridge. For something so massive, the tolerances were tight. The first inspection report by the federal district engineer for the Bureau of Public roads, dated September 10, 1925, noted that a measurement error of seven-tenths of a foot (about 8 inches) had been discovered, requiring a compensating change to the length of one of the bridge sections. Regular federal inspections were carried out throughout the course of the project, and the worst comment the work or the workers garnered was "satisfactory." Much more common were the adjectives "good" and "excellent," both as to progress made and the quality of the work performed. In January 1926, while crews were working on the concrete approaches, the federal inspector enthused:
"Contractor has most of the regular employees in several crews all concentrated on this job in order to keep them during winter. These men are all hard, steady workers with skill and experience in each line. Under the leadership of these men, other men are required to do equal work and friendly rivalry between crews is producing rapid progress ..." (Inspection Report, January 26, 1926)
The first steel for the bridge arrived from Seattle in the spring of 1926, and work proceeded at a brisk pace with almost no complications. Progress was consistently ahead of schedule and the quality of the work the subject of regular compliments. The contract set a completion date of March 21, 1927; an inspection report of January 10 of that year predicted that the job would be completed by February 1, nearly two months ahead of schedule. And it was, but there was one small problem. A stretch of the Pacific Highway north of Fife was not yet paved, and the spanking new span, ready for service, would not be put into regular use for several months.
Boosters were not deterred. On December 30, 1926, while workers busied themselves doing mostly final cosmetic touches, a notice went out from the Pierce County branch of the Washington Automobile Association calling for people to show up for a ceremony on January 8, 1927, to dedicate what it called "the first structure in the last gap of the Pacific Highway between Tacoma and Marysville" ("Auto Club to Open New ... Bridge"):
"In inviting you to attend this opening and dedication, the Automobile Club feels that the citizens of the state should get together to pay tribute to this exhibition of modern development in highway construction" ("Auto Club to Open New ... Bridge").
The last structure in that last gap, the Ebey Slough Bridge between Everett and Marysville, would not formally open until August 26, 1927. When the entire highway was completed, one could drive on the same road from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Mexican border, and it was for a time the longest highway in American, and perhaps in the world.
A Long Life of Service
Eighty-six relatively trouble-free years later (as of 2013), the Puyallup Avenue Bridge endures. But even steel and concrete have their limits, and the art of bridge design has advanced considerably since 1927. The City of Tacoma owns the bridge now, and is responsible for its increasingly costly maintenance. In 1973 the western approach to the first steel-truss section of the bridge was replaced as part of a new interchange on Puyallup Avenue; other than that only relatively minor repairs have been recorded over the years.
But since at least 2008, plans have been afoot to eventually replace the entire span, at an estimated total cost of more than $38 million. Due to the expense of doing it all at once, the City is proceeding section by section, and first up will be the 950-foot segment on the Tacoma side of the river just past the section that was rebuilt in 1973. This time, the Baltimore petit truss also will be replaced, and current designs call for a strikingly modern, cable-stayed span that will stretch to the western end of the bridge's linked center sections. Because the new section will be wider than the old, the City must negotiate for a larger right-of-way with the Puyallup Tribe, part of whose reservation it crosses.
In the meantime, the Puyallup Avenue Bridge continues to serve both commercial vehicles and the traveling public. Load limits have been placed on the span in recent years, but it still carries an estimated 16,000 vehicles a day between Tacoma and Fife. Interstate 5 may have rendered the span obsolete for long-distance highway drivers, but its importance to the two neighboring municipalities it has long served has only increased.