Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge / Salmon Bay Drawbridge (Seattle)

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 11/16/2017
  • Essay 20462
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The Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge (or Salmon Bay Drawbridge), a Howe-truss swing drawbridge, spanned Salmon Bay between 13th Avenue W and Ballard's 14th Avenue NW. It replaced two side-by-side fixed trestles and served for eight-and-one-half years (1910-1918). Its context was the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal: To accomplish that major infrastructure improvement, the barrier of the fixed trestles had to be removed. As a navigable waterway the ship canal was (and is) a federal government right-of-way. The War Department permitted the city of Seattle to build the drawbridge as a temporary structure to be used until completion of the higher Ballard Bridge. In 1916, as the Army Corps of Engineers prepared to lower the waters of Lake Washington and raise those of Salmon Bay, the War Department ordered the drawbridge to be raised, or be inundated. At great expense, the city raised the bridge. In August 1918, after the (tardy) completion of the Ballard Bridge, the War Department ordered the immediate removal of the Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge as an obstruction to navigation. In November 1918 the Seattle City Council passed an emergency ordinance to comply.

Ballard at Salmon Bay

In 1909 lumber mills and shingle mills clotted both shores of Salmon Bay, then a saltwater indentation from Puget Sound, with Ballard on its north and Magnolia, Interbay, and Queen Anne along the southern shore. Images of the time reveal a great jumble of stacked shingles and lumber along with smokestacks and industrial equipment and debris.

At the crossing near the bay's eastern end where the new bridge would be located, two side-by-side fixed trestles spanned Salmon Bay. One trestle carried the Northern Pacific Railway (its tracks curved westward onto Shilshole Avenue instead of continuing north along 14th Avenue NW). This had been the track of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway, purchased by the Northern Pacific in 1892.

Directly alongside the Northern Pacific tracks ran a wagon-road trestle that also carried the tracks, wires, and poles of a private streetcar company, the Seattle Electric Company (later renamed Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power). Beginning in 1900, Seattle had granted this firm the franchise to operate the city's streetcar system. It had local agents but was controlled by the national utility cartel Stone & Webster.

A short distance west, the Great Northern Railway's tracks also crossed Salmon Bay from Interbay to Ballard, angling northeast toward these trestles and then turning northwestward to parallel the Northern Pacific tracks running along Shilshole Avenue toward Puget Sound

The Salmon Bay Drawbridge (aka Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge) would not be an entirely new bridge. Parts of the old trestles would be used to reconstruct approaches, and other parts would be disassembled for their lumber and other components. The work included removing various rotting pilings from previous trestles. What would be new about the Salmon Bay Drawbridge was that its center span, a Howe truss, could swing open to let vessels pass.

To Build a Ship Canal

In 1909, after years of dreaming, planning, and false starts, construction work began on the enormous infrastructural improvement known as the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The ship canal would be a navigable waterway and thus fell under the jurisdiction of the federal government, and specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lake Washington, east of Seattle, would be connected to Lake Union, located more or less in the center of the city, via a cut (the Montlake Cut) between the two lakes. Lake Union would be connected to Salmon Bay via the Fremont Cut.

A set of locks at the west end of Salmon Bay would both separate and connect Puget Sound to the new ship canal. In the process of constructing the ship canal, the water of Lake Washington would be lowered and that of Salmon Bay raised so that both reached the same level as Lake Union, about 20 to 22 feet above sea level. Salmon Bay, in 1909 (and historically) was a saltwater tidal inlet of Puget Sound that rose and fell about 10 feet with the tides. It would be reconstructed as a freshwater harbor that stayed at about the same level. To build the ship canal, most of which was on the inland side of the fixed trestles of Salmon Bay, required a drawspan to allow vessels to pass along the canal.

On October 27, 1909, the United States War Department (through its Army Corps of Engineers) approved plans for building the drawbridge over the government canal right-of-way on condition "that said structure is understood to be a temporary one only; and that it shall be altered or wholly removed whenever the secretary of War may so direct" (earlier document quoted in Keppel to City of Seattle). On November 29, 1909, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance (No. 22653) directing the city engineer to secure notes and draw up plans for the bridge, and on December 20, 1909, the council passed an ordinance (No. 22788) directing the Department of Public Works to build the bridge.

Let the Work Begin

On January 6, 1910, Seattle City Engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949) ordered the International Contract Company, which had been awarded the contract, to build the drawbridge. He directed the company "to begin work forthwith upon said improvement and to prosecute the same with due diligence ... You are further notified that said improvement must be completed within one hundred and twenty (120) days from the date of this notice" (Thomson to International Contract Co.).

The Northern Pacific Railway's trestle interfered with construction of the new drawbridge and in December 1909 the Northern Pacific had arranged to instead have its trains cross Salmon Bay on the tracks of the Great Northern Railway. On March 1, 1910, the city of Seattle signed an agreement with the Northern Pacific that allowed the city to construct a plank roadway on its trestle for the purpose of enabling passengers and teams (of horses) to cross the waterway while the drawbridge was being constructed. As of March 24, the Northern Pacific ceased running trains across the trestle.

The Seattle Electric Company (renamed Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power) had the franchise to run streetcars over the trestle being replaced by the drawbridge. It would have part ownership of the Salmon Bay Drawbridge, paying $6,600 of the ultimate cost of about $17,000. On February 10, 1910, City Engineer R. H. Thomson fumed that the firm had as yet failed to remove its track, pole, and wires from the 14th Avenue NW crossing at Salmon Bay:

"At this date ... there has been very little progress made toward getting the wires out of the way. When the weather is bad, the excuse is that you cannot work with the high-tension wires; when the weather is fine you attempt to do the work of about ten or fifteen men with one man and a foreman" (Thomson to G. A. James).

Thomson informed the Seattle Electric Co. that if this job was not completed by Saturday, February 12, the city would proceed to do it. The contentious relationship between the city and the private firm that operated the streetcar system is further revealed in the firm's response: "[I]t seems to me you are laboring under a little misapprehension in reference to this work" (G. A. James to C. J. Moore). The trolley company informed the city that the wires had been removed.

The relationship between the International Contract Company and the city was also fraught with disputes, which are recorded in the correspondence in outbursts and counter-outbursts. On May 12, 1910, C. B. Fowler, president of the bridge-building firm, wrote to Seattle's assistant city engineer:

"We should appreciate it, if you would kindly arrange to deduct the driving of the dolphins [piles positioned ahead of bridge piers to prevent vessels from hitting and damaging the piers] at Salmon Bay, and do this work later yourselves, as it will be impossible for it to be done for some months, owing to several trestles and bridges being in the way, and we are anxious to get this work finished up and forget about it" (Fowler to McMorris).

Seattle's assistant city engineer sent this missive on to the district engineer with a note that this was "a characteristic letter from the International Contract Company" (McMorris to Moore). On May 26, 1910, the president of the International Contract Company wrote to City Engineer R. H. Thomson:

"We trust that you are fully advised about the multitude of troubles from light shafting, insufficient bracing, short cross shafts and misfits in general on the Salmon Bay Bridge, so that we will not be blamed for the same, nor for the delay.
"We certainly have grave fears about the operation of the machinery when the electric power is turned on, and think it would be well for both of us to be present at that time" (Fowler to Thomson, May 26, 1910).

Despite troubles and delays, the city certified the bridge as complete on June 14, 1910.

In its first year of operation, Engineering Department documents reveal, the bridge was opened about 17 times a month, letting through about 19 heavy craft and nine light craft. Disputes that continue more than a century later (regarding the successor bridge) began immediately: How long should road traffic be held up while the bridge was open? How long should vessels have to wait while traffic passed over the bridge?

Timing Is Everything

In an ideal world, the Ballard Bridge, a much higher bascule bridge built to carry 15th Avenue NW across the Salmon Bay Waterway portion of the canal, would have been completed and open to traffic before the Army Corps of Engineers undertook to lower the waters of Lake Washington and raise those of Salmon Bay. But the Ballard Bridge was only about half finished when, on February 19, 1916, Lieut. Col. James Cavanaugh (1869-1927) of the Corps wrote to Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919):

"You are hereby informed that plans of this office contemplate the elevation of the waters of Salmon Bay to the permanent level on or about July 1st next. The necessary modification of the Fourteenth Avenue Bridge should therefore be made in the near future" (Cavanaugh to "The Mayor").

To avoid being inundated, the Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge completed just six years earlier would have to be raised. Not long after Cavanaugh's letter, City Engineer Arthur Dimock (d. 1929) informed Mayor Gill:

"It will be necessary to raise the approaches to the existing Ballard Bridge [meaning the temporary drawbridge] and also to raise the existing swing drawbridge at this point, for the reason that the approaches and the machinery of the draw span will be submerged. The cost of this work will be about $5,000.00" (Dimock to Gill).

On April 10, 1916, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance (No. 35942) to raise the bridge, and appropriated $5,800 from the General Fund for the purpose, and the work was completed in time to prevent the bridge's submersion when the locks gates closed and Salmon Bay began to rise in July.


The Ballard Bridge, a Chicago-style double-leaf trunion bascule bridge, opened to traffic on December 15, 1917. Now the U.S. War Department deemed the Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge an obstruction to navigation, and, on August 15, 1918, ordered the city of Seattle to remove the bridge, "the work of removal to be commenced within two weeks and to be completed within two months from the date of service of this order" (Keppel to City of Seattle).

The Seattle City Council passed an emergency ordinance (No. 38937) on November 25, 1918, directing the Board of Public Works to remove the drawbridge.

The end of the Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge coincided with the end of the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Co.'s operation of Seattle's electric streetcar lines. The relationship between the city and the private firm had been chronically acrimonious. In June 1918 Seattle's superintendent of Public Utilities sent Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) a memo detailing "The failure of Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company to comply with franchise obligations" (Murphine to Hanson). Hanson responded by issuing a bitter, lengthy, and vituperative report to the Seattle City Council, which included the following slings:

"Our street car transportation is even worse than the committee reports .... With their rolling stock deteriorating and becoming more unsafe daily, with barns crowded with idle street cars, the public is backed into suffocating, dirty, unsanitary cars like bananas on a bunch. Every car line in the city is affected, but as yet the traction officials have sneered at any suggestions from the city authorities.
"Conditions are all but unbearable, and the service unspeakable ...
'The public in Seattle, of course, know that this company rests under a cloud; a cloud of attempted repudiation; a cloud of a criminal and indecent past, where legislators and officials were bought and sold; a cloud of shame and disgrace and debauchery; a cloud of incompetence and ignorance of fundamental honesty" (Hanson to City Council).

In 1918 Seattle purchased most of the private firm's streetcar lines, including the equity it owned in the Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge.

Thus ended the saga of the Salmon Bay Drawbridge. This Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge had a short existence, but its history illuminates how complicated, contentious, and challenging the process of building Seattle's infrastructure could be.


Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard, "Seattle Now and Then: Ballard's Bascule Bridge," February 13, 2016, DorpatSherrardLomont website accessed November 16, 2017 (; "The City of Seattle -- Department of Public Works, Specifications for the improvement and construction of a drawbridge ...," October 5, 1909," and R. H. Thomson to International Contract Co., January 6, 1910, and R. H. Thomson (City Engineer) to G. A. James (Seattle Electric Co.), February 10, 1910, and G. A. James (Seattle Electric Company) to C. J. Moore, February 11, 1910, and R. H. Thomson, City Engineer to C. B. McMullin (Superintendent, Seattle Division, Northern Pacific Railway), December 22, 1909, and "Agreement between Northern Pacific Railway Company and City of Seattle, March 1, 1910," and D. W. McMorris, Office of City Engineer, to Mr. C. J. Moore, District Engineer, Seattle, March 24, 1910, and C. E. Fowler, president, International Contract Company to Mr. D. W. McMorris, May 12, 1910, and D. W. McMorris to C. J. Moore, May 14, 1910, and C. E. Fowler to R. H. Thomson, May 26, 1910, all in Folder 1946, Box 2, Record Series 2615-02 (Engineering Department misc. improvements records), Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Seattle City Ordinance No. 22653, November 29, 1909, Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle City Ordinance No. 22788, December 20, 1909, Seattle Municipal Archives; J. R. Wood (District Inspector) to W. F. Paddock (Chief Clerk), September 28, 1911, C. B. Bagley (Department of Public Works) to A. H. Dimock (City Engineer), November 28, 1918 (with Seattle City Ordinance No. 38937 enclosed), and F. P. Keppel (United States War Department) to City of Seattle, August 15, 1918, all in File: Bridges, Misc., 1910-1911, Box 7, Record Series 2602-02 (Engineering Department subject files), Seattle Municipal Archives; A. Dimock (city engineer) to H. C. Gill, February 28, 1916, and Lieut. Col. Cavanaugh to "The Mayor," February 19, 1916, both in Comptroller File 63499, Seattle City Clerk's Office, Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle City Ordinance No. 35942, April 10, 1916, Seattle Municipal Archives; Thomas F. Murphine to Ole Hanson, June 24, 1918, and Ole Hanson to Seattle City Council (attached to Murphine letter) Seattle City Clerk's File 70848, Seattle Municipal Archives; A. W. Leonard (President, Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power) to Harry W. Carroll, Esq., December 23, 1918 (list of property to be transferred, Exhibit F, "Schedule Showing Bridges and Equity in Bridges"), Seattle City Clerk's Office, Comptroller File 72055, Seattle Municipal Archives; Plans for Salmon Bay Bridge, 1909, Engineering Records Vault, Seattle Public Utilities; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "City Light's Birth and Seattle's Early Power Struggles" (by Walt Crowley) and "Lake Washington Ship Canal (Seattle)" (by David B. Williams), (accessed November 2, 2017); "Ask Removal of 14th Ave. Bridge," The Seattle Times, September 4, 1918, p. 13.

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