Seattle's Montlake Bridge spanning Montlake Cut opens on June 27, 1925.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/30/2012
  • Essay 3133
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On June 27, 1925, Seattle's Montlake Bridge spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal's Montlake Cut is officially opened in a ceremony that draws thousands of celebrants. The span is a double-leaf  bascule bridge with distinctive Gothic control towers intended to reflect the dominant architectural forms of the nearby University of Washington campus. The last to be built of the four bascule bridges crossing the canal, and widely considered the most beautiful, it nonetheless has had a difficult time gaining voter approval. Originally paid for and operated by the City of Seattle, it will later will be taken over by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) as part of State Route 513.

A Unique Bridge

The Montlake Bridge, which carries vehicles and pedestrians across Montlake Cut on the Lake Washington Ship Canal, was not completed until 1925, several years after the opening of the Ballard, Fremont, and University bridges to its west. The delay was due to funding difficulties -- five times between 1914 and 1922, the voters of Seattle defeated bond measures to finance the span. Shortly after it was finally approved by a narrow margin on May 8, 1923, the bond issue that was to provide funding was ruled invalid as not complying with State law. A new measure was submitted to the voters the following year, and for the first time was passed by a substantial margin. Many credited the change in voter sentiment to the popularity of the University of Washington's football team, which in 1920 started playing home games in University Stadium, located on Montlake Boulevard just north of the cut.

With so many years to prepare, the Seattle Department of Engineering, headed by J. D. Blackwell and in consultation with local architects Edgar Blair (1871-1924), Harlan Thomas (1870-1953), and A. H. Albertson (1872-1964), developed a design for the bridge, and particularly the towers on its northwest and southeast corners, that closely reflected the dominant Gothic style found on the University of Washington campus. Architectural historian Lawrence Kreisman has described the towers and lighting of the bridge as:

"modeled in concrete, granite, and brick infill embellished with terra-cotta arched buttresses and spandrels and with colored glass windows and copper cupolas. Gothic styled lighting fixtures, also in copper, are placed at intervals along the span."

Architect Carl Gould Sr. (1873-1939) was first head of the UW School of Architecture and designed no fewer than 18 university-related buildings on and near the campus, including the strikingly Gothic Suzzallo Library. Because many of the architectural details of the bridge so closely echo his work, he is widely but erroneously credited with having a hand in its design. Although it clearly draws on his ideas, he appears to have played no direct role in its planning or its architectural details.

The Big Day

On June 27, 1925, a month earlier than anticipated, the Montlake Bridge was officially opened in a ceremony that, according to The Seattle Times, drew "a few thousand" participants" ("Montlake Bridge, Link With University, Is Dedicated"). A ceremonial streetcar, decorated with flags and bunting and bursting with politicians, officials, and others involved in the planning and construction of the span, followed the Seattle Police Department Band across the bridge. Following it in turn was the large crowd of celebrants, and once across everyone gathered around a decorated platform at the span's southeast tower.

One of the highlights of the ceremony came when City Council President Bertha Landes (1868-1943), who one year later would become Seattle's first woman mayor, took two tries to christen the bridge with what, at the height of Prohibition, was described as a bottle of "some effervescing fluid." On her first swing, the bottle struck the steel superstructure, but did not break. On a second and mightier attempt it did, "splashing her with its contents" ("Montlake Bridge, Link With University, Is Dedicated").

There were of course speeches, and some must have seemed interminable. Darwin Meisnest, graduate manager of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (the equivalent of today's "athletic director") and head of the bridge's dedication committee, took time to acknowledge nearly everyone involved in the project and introduced individually "each city official and staff who had to do with building the bridge," along with various members of civic improvement clubs who had supported the project. Seattle mayor Edwin J. Brown took a more poetic tack, comparing the Montlake Bridge favorably to "the Tiber Bridge over the Tiber River" in Italy, although "having several features that make it distinctly Seattle" ("Montlake Bridge, Link With University, Is Dedicated"). He did not designate which of the 10 ancient stone bridges that cross the Tiber River in Rome he was referring to, but his remarks were nonetheless very well-received. He ended his speech with another tribute to City Engineer J. D. Blackwell and his staff, who by almost-unanimous opinion had designed and supervised the building of the most beautiful bridge in the city.

The Montlake Bridge was not only exceptionally attractive, but also desperately needed and long overdue. Since the earliest days of the the massive construction effort that developed the Lake Washington Ship Canal, University Boulevard (later Montlake Boulevard), the only road connecting all the nearby neighborhoods directly to the University District and vice versa, had been severed by the Montlake Cut. For well more than a decade, anyone wishing to travel the 200-foot width of the cut was forced to take at least a five-mile detour, either to the old Latona Bridge or, after July 1919, the University Bridge on Eastlake Avenue E. The lack of a bridge across the cut led to some creative solutions for spanning the gap. At least eight times between 1920 and 1925, seven for UW football games and once for a production of The Wayfarer (a massive religious pageant popular at the time), a pontoon bridge was built across the cut for pedestrians.

The lovely new bridge, rejected by the voters so many times, finally filled this gap, to the relief of many and the joy of UW football fans.


Lawrence Kreisman, Made To Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 67; Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle: A Narrative History: the Engineering Department, 1875-1975 (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 47; "Montlake Bridge, Link With University, Is Dedicated," The Seattle Times, June 28, 1925, p. 3; "Arrangements Made to Seat Record Crowd," Ibid., November 2, 1924, Sports Section, p. 1; "Canal to Be Bridged," Ibid., July 11, 1921, p. 3.
Note: This essay replaced an earlier essay on the same subject. The new essay was expanded slightly on April 20, 2017.

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