Now & Then -- Seattle's Fremont Bridge

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 1/01/1999
  • Essay 2577
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This file contains Seattle historian and photographer Paul Dorpat's Now & Then photographs and reflections on the Fremont Bridge. The bridge crosses the Lake Washington Canal, connecting Seattle's Fremont Neighborhood with Queen Anne on the other side.

The Fremont Bridge

Northend motorists know this contemporary view of the Fremont Bridge, for when it's up -- and it has been up more than a half-million times since it started teeter-tottering more than (in the mid-1980s) 68 years ago -- you have three or more minutes to gaze up at it and beyond to the green skyline of Fremont.

The bascule (meaning it operates like a seesaw by means of a balance) bridge was built for the Lake Washington Ship Canal and opened along with the canal in 1917. The older photo of the older bridge was shot about 14 years before that. The scene was first published in Pacific Northwest, a short-lived but slick monthly which sought to promote Seattle's culture and real estate by putting the best construction on everything.

Fremont was no exception. Pacific Northwest editors declared that it was near the "geographical center" of Seattle. And it was, but only because, when the new little town was incorporated into the city in 1891, Seattle's northern city limits stretched into the forest wilderness beyond Green Lake. Fremont found itself both in the center of the city and far from it.

Located at the northwest corner of Lake Union, Fremont was inevitable. In 1888, a couple of entrepreneurs from Fremont, Nebraska, platted the town. At the outlet of the lake, it was an obvious site for a bridge, a lumber mill (also built in 1888), and a town. The Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern R.R. had come through a year earlier, and by 1890 electric trolleys were speeding at 20 miles per hour above a timber trestle along the western shore of the lake, giving a fast ride to and from Seattle "proper."

In the older photo we can see the trolleys and tracks running across the old Fremont bridge. Although we cannot see the outlet, there is evidence of its far bank just this side of the Fremont Mill. In 1902, this stream had been straightened and widened all the way to Ballard.

The improved ditch and dam at the outlet provided more perfect control of logs floated downstream to the dozen or so mills in Ballard. The dam was also meant to control floods, but within the year it broke and almost flooded Fremont.

In 1903, Fremont was still a dry town, being within the four-mile circle of sobriety which then surrounded the University of Washington and protected the temperance of its students. Later, when this circle was cut in half, Fremont got wet with more than its share of taverns. But in 1903, the Pacific Northwest article promised that it was "entirely free of saloons and promises ever to be. The suburb is composed of the very best citizens in the West."

Actually, it still has them. Today Fremont is one of Seattle's model neighborhoods for good-natured activism: Bartenders and Baptists work side-by-side. This neighborly concern has ushered in, among other things: the Fremont Fair, one of the area's first foodbanks, the Fremont Public Association, and the monthly free newspaper, the Forum.

The Forum's 1985 Official Visitors Guide to Fremont calls its bascule "The Busiest Drawbridge on the Planet Earth." These wonderfully balanced machines(?) are a test of faith. For the motorist in a hurry, they provide a bit of purgatory. But for those in grace, this repeated and relaxed drawing of the Fremont Bridge may be an intimation of a heaven which, for all we know, is filled with bascule bridges performing for the souls of those confirmed in Fremont.


Paul Dorpat, Seattle: Now & Then Vol. 2 (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1988), Story 58.
Note: This essay was edited for in 1999.

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