Bridging the Gap

We are delighted to bring you a new version of our 2014 exhibit “Bridging the Gap.” Transportation across the water has always been an issue for the Peninsula, and in light of the current bridge closure, we felt that it was important to share the history of the Bridge. Special thanks to Bob Carney, a frequent Guest Curator for the Historical Society, for his assistance with this. Read on for the history, photos, and even a video!

READ about the History of the Bridge below:

It all boils down to geography.

West Seattle, South Park, and White Center all share the Duwamish Peninsula. They are bound together on three sides by water- the Duwamish River, Elliott Bay, and Puget Sound. That means that how to get on and off the Peninsula is never far from our minds!

Early Transportation

Peninsula dwellers have a long history of ferries, trolleys, and bridges that have shaped the landscape and our daily commutes. After the founding of Seattle, the only way to reach the settlements along what are now Harbor and Alki Avenues were by water a long, winding wagon road.

The first peninsula neighborhoods in North Admiral were mapped in 1888. A faster means of transportation were sought to entice real estate buyers. Real estate developers funded the passenger ferry, the “City of Seattle”, to connect West Seattle and downtown Seattle. It cost 5 cents and could make the trip in 8 minutes, a feat that has not been matched since! Soon after, the Mosquito Fleet was added to supplement traffic across the water. They connected communities around Puget Sound to the growing metropolis of downtown Seattle.

The First Bridges 1889-1930

In 1889, the Grant Street Electric Railway spanned the Duwamish River by trolley. It crossed over the first known bridge to the peninsula, a wooden draw bridge at South Duwamish Station, today’s South Pak. Accessing neighborhoods further north still required a combined trolley and wagon trip.

The first bridge to West Seattle wasn’t far behind. In 1890, a railroad trestle was built as part of the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It stretched from Beacon Hill across tide flats to within four blocks of Ferry Avenue.

To improve access to the peninsula, a wooden plank-decked bridge operating on a turntable opened in 1903 along Spokane Street. A swing bridge opened there in 1911, then another in 1918, juggling streetcar lines and fledgling automobile traffic.

Then came the more permanent twin spans, the bascule bridges that opened in 1924 and 1930. The bascules accommodated four lanes each, opening high for marine vessels passing beneath. The spans served West Seattle for decades, frustrating locals with frequent openings for ships running the river. Even at that time, it was a prominent bottleneck.

A New Bridge

In 1968, voters approved “Forward Thrust” bonds, which included improvements to the West Seattle Freeway. Potential designs were presented for an improved bridge in 1972. However, a corruption scandal resulted in the defunding of the project.

Locals were unhappy with the city’s efforts to build a bridge high enough that it would not need to open for water traffic. In the late 1970s, they mounted a petition to secede from Seattle. They hoped to procure funds as a separate municipality to build a new bridge. Half the signatures needed to get secession on the ballot had been collected by June 1978. Then, on June 11, 1978, the freighter Chavez rammed the north bascule bridge and stuck it open. This became known as “the night the ship hit the span.” Emergency funds were secured from all levels of government, and the high bridge that we use today was built between 1980 and 1984. The existing lower swing bridge was opened in 1991.

VIEW photos and more history by clicking through the panels below (may take a moment to load):


GO DEEPER in this video panel from 2014:

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