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Seattle's George Washington Memorial Bridge (Aurora Bridge) is dedicated on February 22, 1932.

HistoryLink.org Essay 5418 : Printer-Friendly Format

On February 22, 1932, Seattle's George Washington Memorial Bridge, commonly known as the Aurora Bridge, is dedicated. The nearly 3,000-foot, steel cantilever structure spans Lake Union between the Fremont and Queen Anne neighborhoods and completes the final link of U.S. Highway 99 (decertified in 1967 to State Route 99)  from Canada to Mexico. Fifteen thousand people turn out for the dedication, which Washington Governor Roland Hartley (1864-1952) presides over and dignitaries from Canada and Mexico attend. Designed for the Washington State Highway Department, it is the first major highway bridge built in Seattle.

All America Listens

In Washington, D.C., at about 2 o'clock Pacific Standard Time, President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) turned a telegraphic key to unfurl the flags on Seattle's bridge. Sirens wailed and a 21-gun salute cut off in mid-sentence Governor Hartley's speech. Fireboats shot lakewater into the air, and the Sixth Army Engineers Band played the National Anthem.

The dedication of the George Washington Memorial Bridge was one of many celebrations across the nation of the bicentennial anniversary of George Washington's birth. In Seattle, enormous crowds surged to the main event -- the bridge dedication -- which took up many pages of newsprint. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the event in an article titled "All America Listens."

The governor joined forces with Vancouver, B.C., Alderman W. H. Lembke and the Mexican consul, W. O. Lawton to saw the Doug-fir log that served as a ribbon, for this made "another link in the concrete chain between Canada and Mexico" ("Cutting the International Barrier"). At the time the Aurora Bridge was the second-longest cantilever bridge in the state (the Longview Bridge was the longest). Within a month, 11,000 vehicles were speeding over it every day.

Ralph Ober's Bridge

The bridge was designed by the Seattle engineering firm Jacobs and Ober, whose principal engineers were Major Joseph Jacobs (d. 1942) and Captain Ralph Ober (1871-1931). It is likely that the bridge's exquisite design was mainly or perhaps entirely the work of Ralph Ober. One reason to think so was that during the lengthy siting debate (several sites were considered including one that would have extended Stone Way), Ober was invariably the spokesman.

Tragically, Ralph Ober died on August 30, 1931, at Virginia Mason Hospital the age of 60 of a "brain hemorrhage." "Death came," reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "as the greatest monument to his engineering genius, the high bridge over Lake Union, is rapidly nearing completion" ("Captain Ober, Aurora Bridge Designer, Dies"). In all of Ober's several obituaries, credit for the bridge accrued to him. And, when Joseph Jacobs died in 1942, the long list of engineering accomplishments credited to Jacobs did not include the Aurora Bridge. All of which suggests that the Aurora Bridge was designed by Ralph Ober.

Ober was born in Beverly, Massachusetts, on May 20, 1871, and came to Seattle in 1892 as a federal employee. From 1908 to 1911 he served as Seattle's assistant city engineer. Following that, Seattle Mayor Dilling appointed him to the Board of Public Works and as superintendent of buildings for the city. During World War I, he served as a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers. He joined the Seattle engineering firm of Joseph Jacobs as a partner in 1924. His survivors included his wife, Mattie (Shattuck) Ober, and a 7-year-old daughter, Carol Evelyn.

The Aurora Bridge

The bridge is a cantilever bridge, that is, the center span is suspended like a clothesline between two supporting spans (the cantilever spans), which are in turn supported by anchor spans. It has a steel superstructure supported on reinforced concrete piers. The piers are set on underground pilings of Doug-fir logs which are in turn set on gravel, sand, and clay under Lake Union -- there's no bedrock there. There are 684 logs (piles) under the north main pier and 828 piles under the south main pier.

The bridge is 2,945 feet long and 70 feet wide. The truss is a Warren truss (a W design patented in 1848 by British bridge engineers). It's made of silicon steel, an especially lightweight steel. It is a deck truss, so called because the truss runs under the deck.

Because of the different configurations of the opposite shores, the north and south ends of the bridge have different dimensions. It can be "read" from north to south (considering the over-water part only) as:

  • north anchor span (300 feet)
  • cantilever span (325 feet)
  • Warren deck truss suspended span (150 feet)
  • cantilever span (325 feet)
  • anchor arm span (350 feet)
How High Is That Bridge?

The War Department approved a shipping clearance of a minimum of 135 feet and 150 feet over the alweg (the center of the shipping channel). The captains of tall-masted ships docked in Lake Union protested this, but their day was over and they had to remove their vessels before the bridge barred them from the lake forever.

As to the actual height of the bridge at its highest point, various figures are floating around, from 155 feet to 176 feet. (Both the low and the high figure are drawn from various Washington State Department of Transportation sources.) An extremely exacting medical study of the care of suicidal jumpers off the bridge, a study published in 1983 and greatly concerned with length and velocity of fall, reports the height to be 164 feet ("The Effects of Prehospital Trauma Care...").

Jumper's Bridge

The Aurora Bridge has gained a sad reputation as one off which despondent people have leapt (every jump off the bridge does not result in death, but many do). The first jumper was a shoe salesman, age 32, who plunged to his death before the bridge was completed in 1932.

Since then about 230 people have died by jumping off the Aurora Bridge. This was sufficiently disturbing to the increasingly populated neighborhood near and under the bridge that in December 2006, emergency telephones were installed to invite suicidal persons to call for help. In February 2011 the construction of an anti-suicide fence was completed at a cost of $5 million. It is eight feet nine inches tall. Upon completion it immediately became a memorial for those lost to suicide, with flowers and pictures affixed to various points on the bridge.

The Fremont Troll

On a less grim note, one of the bridge's more quirky features is an 18-foot-high, one-eyed troll that squats beneath the north end. The troll has a giant nose, a gleaming eye, and appears to be preoccupied with squashing a vehicle (a VW bug) in his giant hand.

He (it) was commissioned by the Fremont Arts Council and was sculpted in 1990 by four Seattle artists -- Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead. It is made from rebar steel, wire, and two tons of ferroconcrete. It took about seven weeks to complete.

The troll has become an icon of the Fremont neighborhood and one of its most photographed objects. It lives under the bridge at the top of the road that in 2005 Seattle renamed Troll Avenue North.

Beautiful, Historic, Traffic-clogged

Today (2006) the George Washington Memorial Bridge is listed on the state and national historic registers. It has also been reconfigured for safety, a process its landmark status complicated but did not prevent.

It has had its earthquake retrofit. New concrete barriers with an aluminum rail have been placed between the sidewalk and vehicular traffic, which will increase safety both for pedestrians and for vehicles which are now, in an accident, much less likely to go over the edge.

In 2006 the Aurora Bridge carries 100,000 vehicles a day and is one of the state's designated "hot spots" for being within a high-accident zone (along with other stretches of SR 99). Plans, not yet funded, have been made to place the sidewalks under the deck and to make other safety improvements. The bridge remains, despite the unavoidable alterations, a built object of monumental beauty.

Sources:
Priscilla Long, "A Bridge to Beauty," Seattle Metropolitan, August 2004, p. 24; Myra L. Phelps and Leslie Blanchard, Public Works in Seattle A Narrative History: The Engineering Department 1875-1975 (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 48-49; Robert W. Hadlow, "Aurora Avenue Bridge" (Historic American Engineering Record, HAER WA-107), August 1993, Library of Congress American Memory Website accessed May 3, 2004 (http://memory.loc.gov); Patrick R. Frank, "Summary of US Highway 99," Clark's Travel Center website accessed December 20, 2006 (http://www.clarkstravelcenter.com/history.html); George S. Fortner, M.D. et al, "The Effects of Prehospital Trauma Care on Survival from a 50-Meter Fall," The Journal of Trauma Vol. 23, No. 11 (1983); Charles Mudede, "Jumpers," The Stranger, April 13, 2000 (http://www.thestranger.com); Clippings: Two different clippings titled "Capt. Ralph Ober, Aurora Bridge Designer, Dies," August 31, 1931, and "Ober Rites to be Held Today," September 2, 1931, Biography Files, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; "Major Jacobs, Noted Engineer, Dies in Street," clipping stamped March 17, 1942, Biography Files Hus-lz, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; "New Bridge Looms as Vital Traffic Artery," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 22, 1932, p. 1; "All America Listens as Bridge Opens," Ibid., February 23, 1932, Part 2, p. 1; "Lake Union Bridge Provides New Traffic Link in Seattle," Engineering News-Record, March 3, 1932, p. 313; "Lake Union Bridge, Seattle, Washington," Western Construction News Vol. 5, No. 9 (May 10, 1930), pp. 226-228; T. G. McGrory, "Lake Union Bridge Completed," Civil Engineering Vol. 1 (September 1931), pp. 1092-1094; Washington State Department of Transportation, WSDOT Northwest Washington Division, "Route Development Plann: State Route 99 North/Aurora Avenue North," March 2003, WSDOT website accessed August 2004 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR99/study/final/AuroraBridge.htm); Olivia Bobrowsky, "Construction of Aurora Bridge Suicide Barrier Complete," The Seattle Times, February 15, 2011 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Chris Sullivan, "Aurora Bridge Suicide Fence Becomes Memorial for Jumpers," MyNorthwest.com, February 11, 2011 (http://www.mynorthwest.com/category/local_news_articles/20110222/Suicide-fence-becomes-headstone-for-jumpers/); Marriage Certificate No. 8797 (King County), Ralph Hadlock Ober and Mattie E. Shattuck, May 30, 1903, and Marriage Certificate No. 31720 (King County), John Nelson and Mattie Elizabeth Ober, November 16, 1934, and Death Records, Ralph Hadlock Ober, August 30, 1931, (Digital Archives reference No. F69D50FE-74EE-49FF-A243-A14794504478), Washington Digital Archives (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/).
Note: This essay was substantially rewritten on December 20, 2006. It was updated on February 21, 2011, and Mattie Ober's name was corrected on April 18, 2011.


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Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge), Seattle, 1930s
Postcard


Tall-masted vessel Monongohela exiting Lake Union before the center span of the new Aurora Bridge is placed, 1931 or early 1932
Courtesy Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society


Aurora bridge, Seattle, June 9, 1939
Courtesy MOHAI (Image 1983.10.13314)


Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge), viewed from Fremont (north) side, Seattle, February 2006
Photo by M. Anne Sweet, copyright 2006 by M. Anne Sweet


Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge, viewed from Fremont (north) side, Seattle, February 2006
Photo by M. Anne Sweet, copyright 2006 by M. Anne Sweet


Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge), February 2006
Photo by M. Anne Sweet, copyright 2006 by M. Anne Sweet


Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge), Seattle, February 2006
Photo by M. Anne Sweet, copyright 2006 by M. Anne Sweet


Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge), February 2006
Photo by M. Anne Sweet, copyright 2006 by M. Anne Sweet


Fremont Troll (Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead, 1990) under Aurora Bridge, Seattle, 1990
Photo by James G. Dana


Aurora Bridge (George Washington Memorial Bridge), February 2006
Photo by M. Anne Sweet, copyright 2006 by M. Anne Sweet


 
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