On February 7, 1925, the Puyallup Valley Tribune reports that the Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company (PSB&D) of Seattle has submitted the winning bid for construction of the Meridian Street Bridge that will span the Puyallup River north of the town of Puyallup in Pierce County. When finished, the bridge will shorten the distance to Tacoma to the northwest, and it eventually will become part of State Route 167. Designed by Maury M. Caldwell (1875-1942), a Seattle consulting engineer, the bridge is based on the well-known Warren-truss form, but modified in a manner that likely makes it unique in the United States, and perhaps the world. Steelwork assembly on the bridge begins on June 8, 1925, and the span is completed just in time for the September 21 opening of the 25th Western Washington Fair (later the Washington State Fair) in Puyallup. The Meridian Street Bridge will remain in service until 2015, when it will be moved to storage intact in the hope that the historic structure can be repurposed, perhaps as a pedestrian bridge, at another site.
The Why and the Where
The site selected for the new bridge was of some historical significance. The first non-Native settlers entered the Puyallup Valley in the 1840s, and by 1850 pioneer John Carson was operating a ferry across the Puyallup River very near where the Meridian Street Bridge would be built 75 years later. In 1855 nearly all the settlers were driven out of the valley by the Indian Wars, but in 1856 Carson returned with a small company of volunteers and built a blockhouse called Fort Maloney at the same location.
When hostilities ended, Carson built a wooden toll bridge at the crossing, but a few years later it fell victim to a flood, and he resumed the ferry operation. In 1860 a military road, originally authorized, but not funded, in 1853, was finally completed from Fort Vancouver to Seattle, passing through Fort Steilacoom and crossing the Puyallup River by ferry at the site of the blockhouse. For a time, Carson and his wife, Emma, lived in the blockhouse, where Emma Carson established the valley's first school in 1861.
The town of Puyallup was founded in 1877 on the south bank of the river by pioneer Ezra Meeker (1830-1928). Its economy first flourished with the cultivation of hops for beer brewing, but by the second decade of the twentieth century the area was known for growing various types of berries and as the place in Pierce County to buy an automobile. Barely six miles to the west lay Tacoma, the largest city in Pierce County and the county seat. Much of the region's commerce flowed through docks and railway terminals located north of where the Puyallup River crossed the tidelands of Tacoma's Commencement Bay. As the Puyallup Valley developed, the need for better access to the north side of the river became apparent.
In November 1924 Pierce County applied for federal aid to build a steel highway bridge across the Puyallup River. The bridge would connect to a new arterial, to be called Meridian Street, which would intersect with the Tacoma-Seattle highway north of the river and facilitate travel to Tacoma, Fife, and the Puyallup Indian Reservation (most of which by 1923 was owned and being farmed by non-Natives).
The design of the bridge was the work of Maury M. Caldwell, an independent consulting engineer with offices in Seattle's Central Building, although his name did not appear on the initial drawings submitted in support of the request for federal funds. Caldwell had long experience in bridge design, having worked for the C. G. Huber Company, the Union Bridge Company, and the Strauss Bascule Bridge Company. Arriving in Seattle around 1904, he soon began working as a draftsman in Tacoma's City Engineering Department. In 1910 he became a partner in an engineering firm. He later returned to government employment, including a few years as chief deputy engineer for Pierce County, before resuming private practice in 1916.
Caldwell's plan for the Meridian Street Bridge began with a basic Warren through-truss configuration, first patented in England in the mid-nineteenth century and one of the simplest and most common designs for bridges comprised of steel members riveted or bolted together. A through-truss bridge is one in which the two vertical sides are connected at the top by a webbing of transverse steel cross-members, which strengthens the structure but limits vertical clearance for vehicles. Bridges without this cross bracing are known as pony trusses and have no such height limitations, but are less robust when subjected to heavy loads.
Perhaps inspired by a design patented in 1923 by Claude Allen Porter Turner (1869-1955), a structural engineer who worked out of Minneapolis, Caldwell modified the basic Warren truss in a number of ways. A standard Warren truss has parallel horizontal top and bottom chords (the longitudinal members that run the length of the bridge). In contrast, the top chords of the Meridian Street Bridge are made up of angled segments that rise gradually from either end and meet at the middle, forming a parabolic arch that adds considerable strength but little weight to the entire structure. Caldwell's designs also specified the addition of longitudinal bracing on alternating V-shaped truss panels along either side of the bridge, a feature absent from the basic Warren truss. Both of these modifications were also included in Turner's patent drawings, but Caldwell's plan dispensed with additional vertical braces that Turner's design called for.
Only one bridge is known to have been built to Turner's precise design -- the Liberty Memorial Bridge that crossed the Missouri River and linked Burleigh and Morton counties in North Dakota. It no longer exists, to the dismay of bridge historians and preservationists. Caldwell's Meridian Street Bridge is apparently also unique. There is no known span of the precise design anywhere in North America, and to date none has been reported anywhere in the world. This may seem a minor distinction to most, but to engineers and bridge aficionados it is significant, and imbues the Meridian Street Bridge with notable historic prestige.
The Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Company's winning bid was $77,200, beating out nine other bids that ranged from $78,989 to $93,905. The Virginia Bridge and Iron Company was subcontracted to fabricate at its plant in Memphis, Tennessee, the steel components for the bridge, which would weigh 380 tons. When complete, the beams and girders built to design specifications would be shipped north by rail and riveted into a finished span by PSB&D.
While waiting for the steel to arrive, workers prepared the site, erecting piling and falsework (temporary structures to support the steel components in place during construction), piers upon which to build the approaches, and pouring concrete dumbbell-shaped footings to support the bridge ends. This was completed by mid-May 1925, and work on assembling the steel began on June 8. On June 26, The Tacoma Sunday Ledger reported: "The longest single riveted span in the state, the Meridian street bridge at Puyallup, is nearing completion and will be open to traffic on August 20 ..." ("Biggest Single Riveted Span ..."). The article went on to describe the structure in some detail:
"The new bridge when completed will cost $77,200, will be 371 feet long ... The sidewalks on the span will be seven feet wide while those on the approach will be more than five feet. [In fact, there was only one sidewalk across the bridge, along its eastern side.] The north approach is 209 feet and the other 171 feet" ("Biggest Single Riveted Span ...").
On July 4, 1925, the Puyallup Valley Tribune also heralded the span's anticipated completion, reporting on its front page that C. J. Fleming, the superintendant of construction, had said the bridge would "be ready for traffic within six weeks ..." ("Bridge Will Be Completed Soon").
The article noted that "Work has also been started on the road to the Seattle-Tacoma highway from the end of the north approach [to the bridge]. This stretch of road is being built by the county and will be paved sometime soon" ("Bridge Will Be Completed Soon"). That may have been so, but on the south side of the bridge, Meridian Avenue remained unpaved. For reasons that are no longer apparent, the Puyallup City Council refused to authorize funds for the work, and it was not until late September that Pierce County stepped in and completed the paving, just in time for the opening of the 25th annual Western Washington Fair (now the Washington State Fair).
The predictions for completing the bridge proved overly optimistic, perhaps because estimates failed to take into account the time needed for the concrete deck of the bridge to cure after it was poured. Another front page article in the Puyallup Valley Tribune on Saturday, August 15, 1925, provided a more comprehensive and accurate pictures of where things stood:
"Unless things go awry, the new Meridian street bridge over the Puyallup River will be thrown open to traffic on the opening day of the Western Washington Fair, September 21 ...
"Riveters on the steel span were to finish their work Wednesday of this week. Immediately work preparing the floor of the bridge to receive its 5 1/2-inch base of concrete was to start in order that all might be ready for the pouring of the concrete by Monday. This work will take about one week ... For twenty-eight days thereafter the concrete must be left to set before any travel is allowed over it.
"With the concrete down, workmen will start painting the new structure, which rises more than 80 feet above the surface of the Puyallup River. Although a span-bridge, the Meridian Street structure is built level with the street, the truss-work and steel all supporting it constructed over instead of under the bridge deck" ("New Bridge to Be Open ...")
The newspaper article also gave some insight into the lives of the men who built bridges, skilled workers who traveled from project to project:
"Not the least interesting phase of the bridge building is the type of men who have taken part in its construction.
"The Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging company carries on its activities in every part of the West, from Mexico to Alaska.
"Wherever engineering feats are accomplished this company has its crew of men, who spend five months to a year in a place, methodically going about their duty of constructing engineering marvels of steel and concrete. For a period of a few months they may be in Mexico City or somewhere in the wilds of Northern Canada, or even better, they may be near Seattle or Tacoma as they are now. Until they receive their orders, though, no one knows where his next task will take him" ("New Bridge to Be Open ...").
As mentioned earlier, the Puyallup City Council balked at paying for paving the portion of Meridian Street within its jurisdiction. Concerned about ease of access to the Western Washington Fair, Pierce County Commissioner Henry Ball intervened and had the work done in time for the fair's opening on September 21, 1925.
Surprisingly, there does not seem to be any remaining record of an opening ceremony for the Meridian Street Bridge, although it would seem likely that there was one, if for no other reason than it was reputed to be "the longest single riveted span in the state ..." ("Biggest Single Riveted Span ..."). A month or so after the bridge opened, the Washington State Historical Society erected nearby a stone and mortar pyramid with plaques commemorating the establishment of Fort Mahoney and other events of note that occurred on or near the bridge site, providing some historical context.
Context of another kind soon came as well, a crossing of the new span that brought to mind how much had happened since early non-Native settlers arrived. Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), who would turn 95 in December 1925, had settled in the Puyallup Valley in 1862 as a 32-year-old and platted the town of Puyallup 15 years later. After spending most of his adult life in the valley he loved, he lived long enough to cross the Meridian Street Bridge shortly after it was completed.
The First Relocation
Caldwell's unique design for the Meridian Street Bridge proved durable, and for its first 46 years, the bridge carried traffic across the Puyallup River in both directions. In 1971 a new concrete span was built to carry southbound traffic, with both lanes of the old bridge now dedicated to northbound use.
By January 1991 deterioration of the Meridian Street Bridge's floor beams led to the imposition of load limitations, and a study in 2012 noted "the steel members are exhibiting severe corrosion and the concrete deck and piers are delaminating," in addition to the fact that the bridge did "not meet current standards for lane and shoulder widths" ("Puyallup River Bridge Preservation Strategy," 2). A decision was made that it had to be replaced.
In 2011 the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) determined that the bridge qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation concurred. By this time the Meridian Street Bridge had been found to be both functionally obsolete and structurally deficient. It could not be preserved in place and could not carry vehicle traffic much longer.
As part of the planning for a replacement bridge, it was decided to move the Meridian Street Bridge 60 feet to the east, where it could continue to carry northbound traffic across the Puyallup River until a replacement span was completed at its former location. Between July 11 and July 13, 2014, laboring night and day, workers lifted the bridge onto dollies running on tracks, moved the entire structure intact 60 feet to the east, and connected it to new, temporary approaches.
The Second Relocation
The replacement bridge opened in 2015. The old Meridian Street Bridge was no longer needed and was in fact in the way. But its historic nature and unique design demanded extraordinary measures to preserve it. There were hopes that it could be relocated and repurposed, perhaps as part of a pedestrian and bicycle trail. In the meantime, the Meridian Street Bridge, intact save for its pavement, sidewalk, and approaches would be moved to storage on a state-owned right-of-way not far from the original site.
Beginning on Friday, August 7, 2016, crews from the Omega Morgan company, specialists in challenging moves, raised the old span 21 feet in the air using hydraulic jacks, then slid it sideways 60 feet onto 24 dollies parked on the new bridge. Once the old bridge was safely set on the dollies, a huge Kenworth prime mover tractor unit, connected to a short trailer heavily ballasted with concrete blocks, ever so slowly pulled the entire bridge north down SR 167 (N Meridian Avenue), then west across the southbound lanes and onto a vacant WSDOT right-of-way. Videos of the move are available on YouTube, links provided in the sources below.
A Bridge, Anyone?
After its relocation, the Meridian Street Bridge was offered without charge by WSDOT to a qualified private or public entity that could repurpose it. The bridge would come with a million-dollar grant, the amount the department estimated it would cost to demolish the structure. But even with a million-dollar grant, disassembling, moving, refurbishing, and reassembling the bridge at another location would be a considerable and expensive undertaking.
WSDOT had received no qualified proposals by September 2017, but was committed to keeping the Meridian Street Bridge intact until June 2019. If arrangements were not made by then for moving and repurposing the historic span, plans called for it to be demolished and the steel recycled.