Burlington Northern Overpass (Skagit County)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/04/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20643
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The Burlington Northern Overpass, originally known as the Great Northern Overpass, was an integral part of U.S. Route 99, the West Coast's main north-south highway during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The bridge was built in 1936 to cross the Great Northern Railway tracks approximately three miles north of Burlington in Skagit County, and it provided a vital transportation link that ensured the smooth shipment of the area's agricultural products and provided reliable passage to residents, tourists, and travelers alike. The wooden-trestle bridge was 1,182 feet long -- at one time it was the second-longest wooden-trestle bridge in the state and the longest such bridge in Western Washington -- and served for more than 80 years. A deteriorating substructure eventually doomed the overpass, and it was torn down in 2017. A new overpass replaced it in 2018.

The Lake Samish Road

In 1898 the Whatcom County Commissioners let a contract to complete the Lake Samish Road, which trekked around the eastern shore of Lake Samish southeast of Fairhaven (later part of Bellingham) and stopped approximately nine miles from the town at a spot that became known as the nine-mile post, just north of the Skagit County line. Not long after, the road was extended three miles south into Skagit County. By the early 1910s, the Lake Samish Road connected Bellingham to Burlington.

As the automobile gained traction in Skagit and Whatcom counties during the 1910s, cars, a few trucks, and stages (rudimentary buses) began traveling the route. The roadway had been improved to some extent by then, but this was a relative term that basically meant it didn't have as many potholes as unimproved roads. It was still a dirt road, not conducive for driving much more than 25 or 30 miles per hour, which wasn't a problem since most vehicles of the era weren't built to travel a great deal faster. But the drive was a pretty, pastoral one: A 1915 Seattle Times article describes a trip along the road as "pass[ing] through a great forest, only partially touched by logging operations" ("Lister to Inspect ...").

Two Alternatives

In 1916 Chuckanut Drive opened. Chuckanut Drive is a scenic roadway running from just north of Burlington to Blanchard on Samish Bay, then north to Bellingham along a rugged but picturesque way with spectacular views of Samish Bay and, farther north, Bellingham Bay. The road was part of the Pacific Highway, a burgeoning north-south route that by the mid-1910s was developing into the main north-south highway on the West Coast, stretching from the Mexican border at Calexico, California, north to the Canadian border at Blaine and then on to Vancouver, B.C. Chuckanut Drive became a popular draw with casual tourists and travelers alike. By 1921 nearly all of it had been paved, another huge plus in an era when most rural roads were still dirt or gravel. The Lake Samish Road to Chuckanut Drive's east remained unpaved, but was appreciated during Chuckanut Drive's periodic closures from weather or rockslides.

As the 1920s progressed, the Lake Samish Road became a more attractive alternative. Automobile technology improved significantly during those years, and at the same time more and more vehicles began traveling on the roads. This included trucks and buses, which before 1920 had been little more than rickety carriages with motors attached. The larger, heavier vehicles of the 1920s needed sturdier roads, and they needed roads that could handle increased speed because by the end of the decade many vehicles could exceed 60 miles per hour. All of this ruled Chuckanut Drive out. There was plenty of room to expand and improve the road between Burlington and Blanchard, but not from Blanchard north to Bellingham, where parts of the roadbed had been blasted out of rock. Meanwhile, traffic continued to increase. By 1927, there were complaints about congestion on Chuckanut Drive and calls for a new road. Improving the already-extant Lake Samish Road was the natural choice. In 1929 the state senate passed a bill approving construction of the Lake Samish Highway between Bellingham and Burlington, but work was sidetracked for several years in favor of other highway projects.

A 1930 description of the Lake Samish Road in The Seattle Times describes it as "oiled gravel, rough in sections and slippery if wet. Speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour ..." The following year, in 1931, Chuckanut Drive was designated an alternate route on the Pacific Highway, which by then had been renamed U.S. Route 99. The highway's main route was now designated to follow the Lake Samish Road, and widening and paving the road became more urgent. The legislature finally appropriated funds in 1933, and preliminary work began in 1934. This work involved preparation to improve the existing road and included the construction of a few bridges along the road during 1934, but the Great Northern Overpass was not among them.

The Lake Samish Highway

In December 1935, the state awarded a contract for $63,686 ($1.16 million in 2018 dollars) to H. S. Steffensen of Seattle for construction of a "trestle with concrete work ... Burlington north, overcrossing of Great Northern Railway near Belleville" ("$353,172 Road Contracts Let"). Belleville was a tiny community located several miles north of Burlington that has long since disappeared. According to a notice describing the project in the November 22, 1935, issue of The Seattle Times, the project "involv[ed] about 753 cubic yards of concrete, 152,000 pounds of steel reinforcing bars, 66,000 pounds of structural carbon steel, 208 M.B.M [a unit of volume equal to 1,000 board feet] of timber and lumber creosote treated, 20 M.B.M. of timber and lumber zinc chloride treated, 22,650 lineal feet of treated piles, and other items" ("Notice to Contractors").

Construction of the overpass took place during 1936, but the big story was construction of the Lake Samish Highway. Work on part of the job was stalled by a strike for more than two weeks in August 1936, and that threatened to delay the project to the point that workers would be unable to complete it before winter weather set in. This became such a concern that a "citizens' committee" of three influential Bellingham residents met with representatives of the various unions involved in the project to negotiate a pay raise for the workers, which the contractor subsequently accepted. A second issue -- a demand by union leaders that the job be staffed only by union employees -- was negotiated directly between the contractor and the unions. The unions prevailed.

An anticipated completion date of late October came and went, but the newly paved Lake Samish Highway and the Great Northern Overpass finally opened to traffic on November 25, 1936. The overpass was known as the Great Northern Overpass for its first 35 or so years. After the Great Northern Railway and three other railroads merged in 1970, becoming the Burlington Northern Railroad, the overpass would be renamed the Burlington Northern Overpass. ("Burlington" in the railroad's name is unrelated to Burlington, Skagit County, where the overpass is located.)

A formal dedication ceremony for the highway was held on December 1, 1936, in Alger, a small community near the northern edge of Skagit County, roughly halfway between Bellingham and Burlington. The dedication was a big enough event that the Director of Highways, Lacey Murrow (1904-1966), who grew up nearby in Blanchard, attended. Governor Clarence Martin (1887-1955) was also expected, but ended up being a no-show.

The Overpass

The Great Northern Overpass was designed by Otto Rae Elwell (1890-1935), a Scottish immigrant who came to the United States as a boy. After attending high school in Ohio, Elwell landed a job on a surveying team in Yakima in 1908, and he went on to work extensively on designing bridges throughout the state for the next quarter-century. In 1921 he was appointed deputy county engineer in Thurston County and later he was hired by the State of Washington as a bridge engineer. Elwell was the chief engineer for the Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges, which in 1935 connected Whidbey Island in Island County to Fidalgo Island in Skagit County, and he had his hand in numerous other state projects as well. However, the Great Northern Overpass was likely one of the last projects that Elwell worked on. Declining health forced him to enter a sanitarium in July 1935 and he died that November, shortly before the contract was awarded for construction of the Great Northern Overpass.

The overpass was a 1,182-foot-long, 33-foot-wide wooden-trestle bridge. Its concrete deck was 29 feet wide, and its roadway had two 11-foot driving lanes, one-foot shoulders, concrete curbing, and a sidewalk on the west side of the bridge. The deck was supported by 72 bents (support structures in the trestle that are made up of two or more columns and connected at the top by a cap or a strut). Sway braces and sills were bolted horizontally and were placed across bridge piles and between alternating bents. There were four single fire curtain walls, nine feet tall and 30 feet wide, on the bridge. They were made from Douglas fir and treated with zinc chloride (a wood preserver) before being painted with primer and black paint. There were also two double fire curtain walls near the center of the bridge, originally built from the same pretreated lumber and covered with galvanized sheeting, but later replaced with stacked masonry. Plain metal guardrails flanked both sides of the bridge.

A cultural-resources assessment conducted in 2015 by Drayton Archaeology of Blaine, Whatcom County, found that the bridge was documented as the second-longest, and one of the oldest, bridges with timber supports in the state. (As of 2018 Washington's longest timber-supported bridge was Pend Oreille County's Usk Bridge in Northeast Washington, stretching 2,281 feet over the Pend Oreille River.) The Burlington Northern Overpass was considered eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but a deteriorating substructure threatened to cause the bridge to collapse. In Skagit County's 2016 Annual Bridge Report, the bridge had a sufficiency rating of 3 out of 100 -- by far the worst in the county and, in fact, the bridge was ignominiously ranked as one of the five least-safe bridges in the state. It was declared to be functionally obsolete. After 80 years of service, plans were made for it to be demolished and replaced.

An Essential Lifeline

What did the Burlington Northern Overpass and the Lake Samish Highway mean to Skagit County?

Agriculture has always been the county's main industry. There were plenty of fish canneries in Anacortes in the twentieth century's early years, but farther inland, oats, hay, and (later) peas were the mainstays. During the 1920s county farmers began producing a new crop: seed. Spinach, beet, and mustard seeds were all grown, but by the 1930s cabbage seed was becoming the predominant seed crop. Cabbage seed was grown so successfully in Skagit County that at one point it accounted for 95 percent of the total cabbage-seed production in the United States. Though these crops were at first harvested by hand, by the 1930s tractor-drawn combines were available, which increased production considerably for those who those could afford the machines. And by the 1930s tulip production was starting to catch on in Skagit County. This grew into a much larger industry after the end of World War II in 1945.

A good road and a solid bridge were essential in transporting these crops to market. The relatively flimsy roads and bridges before the 1920s and 1930s were not able to handle the heavy trucks and combines that were rumbling along county roads by the 1930s. The Lake Samish Highway, including the Burlington Northern Overpass, was an essential lifeline in transporting the county's crops, especially for farmers in the northern part of the county. At the same time, the highway and bridge were similarly important to traffic just passing through the area, because U.S. 99 was the West Coast's main highway well into the 1960s. It was imperative to maintain a good road and bridge, particularly as traffic continued to increase over the years.

A New Bridge

During the 1960s Interstate 5 was built through Western Washington, and by 1968 the freeway had been completed across Skagit County. It was also in 1968 that U.S. 99 was fully decommissioned and no longer recognized as the West Coast's official north-south route. Still, the old Lake Samish Highway -- now known in northern Skagit County as Old Highway 99 North Road -- and the Burlington Northern Overpass soldiered on for another half century, until it was deemed necessary to replace the overpass.

The replacement was good for both vehicle and rail traffic. The new prestressed-concrete-and-steel span not only was a safer (and considerably wider) bridge, with two 12-foot driving lanes, 8-foot shoulders (good for bicyclists), and a sidewalk, but it also included structural earth walls, gutters, and a stormwater system. Further, the new bridge was better able to handle the heavier weight loads carried by trucks and tractor trailers -- a significant advantage given that approximately 15 percent of the 6,000 vehicles crossing the bridge daily was truck and freight traffic. Additionally, the new overpass would allow the railroad to build another rail line through the area, increasing capacity for freight traffic on the line.

In January 2017, Skagit County contracted with Cascade Bridge of Vancouver, Clark County, to replace the bridge. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on January 31, 2017, and the old Burlington Northern Overpass was demolished in May. Construction of the new overpass proceeded apace and by September 2018 was nearly complete, at a total cost of $19.2 million.


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Chuckanut Drive opens in the spring of 1916" (by Phil Dougherty), "Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges are dedicated on July 31, 1935" (by Priscilla Long), "Skagit County -- Thumbnail History" (by Janet Oakley), "Lacey V. Murrow becomes Director of Highways on March 20, 1933" (by Kit Oldham), and " Great Northern Overpass near Burlington in Skagit County opens on November 25, 1936" (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 4, 2018); "Samish Highway Is Dedicated by 2-Counties Group," The Bellingham Evening News, December 1, 1936, p. 1; "Lake Samish Road Strike May Be Ended Today," The Bellingham Herald, August 27, 1936, p. 1; Morning Olympian (Olympia), May 17, 1921, p. 2; "Sound and Inland," The Seattle Times, April 8, 1898, p. 2; "Lister to Inspect Highway Below Bellingham," Ibid., April 27, 1915, p. 5; "Senate Votes for Easier Auto Trips to Vancouver," Ibid., February 15, 1929, p. 10; "How the Roads Are," Ibid., June 22, 1930, Automobile Section, p. 2; "Notice to Contractors," Ibid., November 22, 1935, p. 24; "$353,172 Road Contracts Let," Ibid., December 4, 1935, p. 15; "Citizens Seek to End Samish Road Strike," Ibid., August 22, 1936, p. 2; "Samish Highway Opening Celebrated," Ibid., December 2, 1936, p. 9; Garth Baldwin, Jennifer Chambers, and Courtney Paton, "Cultural Resources Assessment for the Burlington Northern Overpass Project, Skagit County, Washington" (Drayton Archaeology, November 4, 2015), copy in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington; "Otto Rae Elwell," Pacific Coast Architecture Database website accessed September 29, 2018 (http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/person/6421/); "Burlington Northern Overpass Project," Skagit County Public Works website accessed July 31, 2018 (https://www.skagitcounty.net/departments/publicworksbnop); "2016 Annual Bridge Report," Skagit County Public Works website accessed July 31, 2018 (https://www.skagitcounty.net/PublicWorksEngineering/Documents/2016%20Bridge%20Report.pdf); "Skagit County -- Project Information and Updates, Burlington Northern Overpass Replacement Project (FMSIB Project ID: 92-0)" Washington State Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board website accessed July 31, 2018 (http://www.tib.wa.gov/FMSIBProjects/projectInfo.cfm?pid=92-0); "Session Laws, 1933, Chapter 78, Highway Appropriation," Washington State Legislature website accessed July 22, 2018 (http://leg.wa.gov/CodeReviser/documents/sessionlaw/1933.c78.pdf); "CPI Inflation Calculator," Bureau of Labor Statistics website accessed July 25, 2018 (https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm).

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