520 Bridge turns 50 years old

Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

Happy birthday ol’ floater! The 520 Bridge opened 50 years ago today — August 28, 1963. On the same day that local dignitaries gathered for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Lake Washington, Martin Luther King led millions in the March on Washington in DC. Unrelated facts? Not in the least.

But before getting to that, WSDOT has been celebrating 50 years of floating across State Route 520 by collecting stories about the highway. Their “520at50 Memory Lane” website and Twitter campaign allows people to write their own bits of local history:

My friends and I rode our bikes from our Ravenna homes to be a part of the festivities. We got there well before the crowds arrived and stationed ourselves in position to see the cutting close up… I do remember that my friends and I broke the ribbons before they were cut and we held them together until after the official cutting took place. Each of us had a bit of those pieces of plastic in our pockets as we rode our bikes back home that day. — David Oehler

… when my girlfriends mom let me user her Vespa scooter while my car was being repaired. I would then drive across the bridge, under construction on the Vespa. The first time the construction guys said I couldn’t go but I told them I had to get to class after visiting my girlfriend. They recognized a true romance in the making and let me cross every day for about a month until the bridge opened when I had to pay tolls like everyone else, 25 cents. — Chris Warner

Looking back, we joke that our early years at Seward School dealing with constant SR 520 and I-5 construction noise is the reason we were stunted intellectually. — Anonymous

The site has a bunch of historical photos, documents and vintage video showing the bridge under construction in the early 60s. The silent footage is worth watching for scenes of workers throwing hot rivets, burning tree stumps (is that the Arboretum?) and a cable safety gate stopping a charging dump truck before the drawspan. The gate wins. Sort of.

WSDOT has also published a more substantial history website of the corridor as part of the 520 highway replacement project: 520history.org. The site, developed in partnership with HistoryLink, broadly covers the tribes that once lived between Portage and Union Bays, the industrialization of Lake Washington and tells the more “official” history of the 1960s floating bridge construction. Lots of interesting new material there.

As commendable as these efforts to record history are, there are many stones left unturned. While there is mention of the freeway politics behind the Montlake-Medina route choice for 520 over Kirkland-Sandpoint — (Montlake’s wetlands and garbage dumps were easier obstacles to overcome) — there is nothing about the discourse of those debates including “white flight” fears of diminished property values and “social change.” And most glaringly missing from the story: the grass-roots citizens’ protest that later defeated 520’s planned successor, the R.H. Thomson Expressway through the Arboretum and Central District. Eugene Smith’s 2004 book Montlake: An Urban Eden touches on this, noting how Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton framed the city’s preferred Thomson route:

[Clinton] wrote Senator Warren Magnuson in November, 1960, to … “preserve the Arboretum as a priceless asset to the City and the State.” He acknowledged that condemnation of private property was necessary and that it would cost half a million dollars more than Plan A, as determined by city-appointed appraisers. Their report had observed that, if the right-of-way left the homes on the east side of 26th Avenue, “the present owners will tend to move elsewhere . . . [and] their replacements are apt, and almost certain, to be of a lower social stratum and will drop the quality and, hence, the value of the whole Montlake Peninsula.” Plan B, on the other hand, would produce a “very minor reduction of values in the total Montlake Peninsula [and] would more than offset the added cost of the private property acquisition.”

With Plan B, the city then demolished about a dozen homes on 26th Ave E. Hard to imagine that happening today.

Anyways — happy birthday, Bridge!

RERUNS: 520@50: Garbage, time and habitat

Image: Montlaker via Seattle Municipal Archives #30545 – 30549

The recent news that Eva, Eddie the Eagle’s widow, has new eaglets in her nest was happily received by 520 commuters, park-goers and residents alike. The habitat around the freeway has come a long way since it was drained, dredged and regraded fifty years ago — and before that abused during its days as the Miller Street garbage dump.

When the Olmsted Brothers redesigned Washington Park into botanical gardens and an arboretum during the 1930s, someone from the firm went to the neighboring Miller Street dump and took this sequence of photos to document the wider panorama of the site (above, click for a larger view). Capitol Hill rises to the left on the horizon and the UW campus skyline sits just to the right of center. In the left foreground, you can see the garbage dump literally growing before your eyes:

Image: Seattle Municipal Archives #30545

Two trucks are unloading debris over the edge of the dump. A fire burns to the right. This process of dumping, lasting from the early 1900’s until 1936, created the landmass for what eventually became the WSDOT Peninsula. Because garbage and gardens generally don’t mix well, the Olmsted Brothers recommended the dump be closed — and the city then agreed.

Now for the freeway. The following two images show this same area before and after construction of 520; in 1961 and 1965 respectively:

Images: Pacific Aerial Survey via UW Map Collection

The before-image shows the scablands of the old Miller Street dump wedged between the Montlake neighborhood on the left, and Foster Island on the right. The paths of freeway ramps are just beginning to appear through the wetlands. The after-image shows the full extent of 520, completed in 1963. More interestingly, it shows the lagoons carved around the landmass of the dump – today’s WSDOT Peninsula – bounded by the Arboretum ramps.

That eagles and ospreys and turtles, herons, beavers and crows have returned to this area is testament to two things: time and a strong will to not mess things up.

This article was originally published June 7, 2012

520@50: Happy 5/20 Day to the I Love You Bridge

Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

It has been a busy week for 520, with draw bridge openings, a community design meeting, new Portage Bay bridge designs and an architectural take-down of its silly sentinels. Also, a Montlake Community Club survey recently revealed that 520 is our highest priority issue. While many Montlakers live here precisely because of the bridge, we also have to guard against its future replacement turning the neighborhood into a 10-year construction project and a 75-year traffic jam. So yeah, while we’re pretty rough on the big ol’ floater, we should also confess our love for it — 520 means I love you in Mandarin Chinese after all. So here’s to you State Route 520: Happy 5/20 Day!

520@50: Shaping the WSDOT Peninsula

Image: via BOLA & Keist: Washington Park Arboretum Historical Review

This aerial photograph shows the Arboretum shoreline during the 1930s. It’s worth a close look. Note the Montlake Bridge in the upper right and the Arboretum entrance (Foster Island Road and Arboretum Drive) in the lower left. The photograph is pre-520, pre-MOHAI and pre-Husky-Stadium-grandstands. The lower part of the image shows the reclaimed marshland that was exposed when Lake Washington was lowered nine feet in 1916.

Note the finger of scorched earth that extends across the marshland. That’s the Miller Street Dump, where Montlake tossed its garbage from the early 1900s until 1936. Over time, as trash was thrown from the edge, the dump grew into a peninsula of garbage extending into the marsh.

Now compare the 1930s view with this aerial photograph of 520 freeway construction in the early 1960s:

Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

The vantage point is similar – the Montlake Bridge is in the upper right – but the shoreline is very different. Lagoons were dredged following the peninsula contours of the Miller Street Dump, seen in the finger of land left between the new freeway ramps. This man-made landscape was born out of necessity: construction materials were to be delivered by trucks on terra firma (the dump) or by barges floating on water (lagoons), so the marshy lakebed was scooped up and dumped into a pile that became Marsh Island, seen on the far right.

The Arboretum lagoons were not created as a wetland park so much as they were a consequence of 520’s construction process.

520@50: Pouring Concrete in the Arboretum

Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

This image shows a concrete pour for 520 just east of Foster Island in the fall of 1961. After this area was dredged, barges brought equipment and materials to the work site as seen in the foreground. Workers are guiding wet concrete into the wooden formwork of a beam across a row of columns extending above the water. When finished, these “column bents” will support long-spanning girders that in turn support the roadway.

Many millions of people have driven across this piece of concrete cast into the Arboretum wetlands. Significantly fewer people have rented a canoe and paddled under it.

Image: Montlaker

520@50: Dumping the Spoils

Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

In the early 1960s the Arboretum wetlands were dredged into lagoons to facilitate the construction of S.R. 520. Where did all those dredge spoils go? Much of it west of Foster Island was heaped into a pile that became (still-sinking) Marsh Island.

The east side of Foster Island was a different story. The image above shows a crane bucket dropping a load of lake bottom onto a barge just off the Madison shore. In those days workers were allowed to tow the barges to the middle of the lake and dump the spoils right into the water. This practice stopped later in the project when concerns were raised about a cloudy discoloration in the lake (already heavily polluted by sewer drains). Barges then had to be towed at greater expense through the ship canal and dumped into Puget Sound.

The barge in this image is dredging the floating bridge’s western approach in February, 1961. Since then, this area has grown into a whole new ecosystem. Commuters and kayakers that pass through here know well the herons, turtles, eagles and summer lily pads that surround the highway. The building in the middle background is the Broadmoor Golf Club with Capitol Hill in the distance. Indeed, there are quite a few species that live around 520.
Sources: Plummer via the Department of Highways, Klingle

520@50: When Machines Appeared in the Arboretum Wetlands

Dredging the shoreline near Foster Island in preparation for SR 520. Image: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI

The 520 bridge turns 50 next year which marks the end of its serviceable life. In recent days, impressive looking cranes and barges have appeared out on Lake Washington to start construction for the replacement highway. So what kind of machines were used to build 520 in the early 1960s?

This image shows a floating crane dredging the west side of Foster Island in the Arboretum, just where 520 stands today. The lakeshore in this area was a vast wetland exposed to the sky when Lake Washington was lowered in 1916. But building a modern highway through wetlands proved to be difficult. Construction trucks can’t drive through muck and barges can’t float in muddy shallows. So the area was dredged into the “lagoons” we see today.

In the foreground, trees and vegetation are removed to make the dredging work easier. The crane’s bucket “eats” the shoreline to the left and puts the spoils on the second barge to the right. There is a worker standing next to the bucket giving the crane a sense of scale. In the distance, the Montlake Bridge is on the far right and Capitol Hill rises to the far left.