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Seattle's University Bridge opens on July 1, 1919. Essay 3139 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 1, 1919, the University Bridge, which connects Seattle's University District with Eastlake, is dedicated and opens to traffic. The bascule bridge crosses Lake Union where the lake connects with Portage Bay.

A bascule bridge is a drawbridge that operates like a teeter-totter. As the bridge span rises, its counterweight lowers, and as the span lowers the counterweight rises.

During 1932 and 1933, the University Bridge was reconstructed. The timber trestles were replaced with approaches of concrete and steel; the wooden block paving on the deck was replaced with an Irving Open Mesh steel deck, two additional lanes were constructed on the lift span, and the control towers were rebuilt. The reconstructed bridge was re-opened to traffic on April 7, 1933.

New Technology Saves Lives

The use of open steel-mesh grating on the University Bridge was the first use of this technology in the United States. Steel-mesh grating (invented by Walter F. Irving, of the Subway Grating Co. of Long Island, New York), represented a tremendous improvement over timbered bridges. It made the bridge spans lighter and easier to raise and lower. It was safe for horses and cattle (a concern in 1933). Its open-mesh design lets wind through during gales and reduces the chances of the bridge blowing down. It does not have to be replaced every 10 years, as did the surfaces of timber bridges. The steel mesh on University Bridge was replaced once, in 1990.

The steel-mesh is not as slippery as wood in wet weather. In his history of Northwest technology, Adam Woog notes that before the steel-mesh surface was installed, the University Bridge averaged 182 accidents and 6 deaths annually. No deaths or accidents due to a slippery surface have been recorded since the installation of steel-mesh grating.

Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle: A Narrative History: the Engineering Department, 1875-1975 (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 44-47; Adam Woog, Sexless Oysters and Self-tipping Hats: 100 years of Invention in the Pacific Norhtwest, (Seattle: Sasquatch Publishers, 1991), 164-165.

Travel through time (chronological order):
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Special Suite: Bridges |

Related Topics: Seattle Neighborhoods | Roads & Rails | Science & Technology |

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You

This essay made possible by:
The SCHOONER Project:
The Hon. Jan Drago
Seattle City Council
Seattle Department of Neighborhoods

University Bridge dedication, July 1, 1919
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

University Bridge with new Irving open mesh steel deck, Seattle, July 18, 1933
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives (Image No. 8071)

University Bridge, Seattle, May 2001 Photo by Priscilla Long

University Bridge with Irving open-mesh steel deck, installed 1933, replaced 1990, Seattle, May 2001 Photo by Priscilla Long

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