From 1931 to 2010, the 1931 South Park Bridge, also known as the 14th Avenue South Bridge, spanned the Duwamish Waterway, linking the Seattle neighborhood of South Park with land in the City of Tukwila that was largely taken up by Boeing Airplane Company facilities. On the South Park (western) shore the bridge was sited in unincorporated King County (outside Seattle city limits). It was jointly owned by the City of Tukwila and King County and operated by King County. The Scherzer Rolling Lift Bascule Bridge was the first and only one of its type built in the state. It opened on March 21, 1931, and remained a quintessential transportation link for nearly 80 years, until its deteriorated condition forced King County to close it on June 30, 2010. The bridge's closing sparked a huge community wake, with many among South Park's diverse residents feeling that the community had been abandoned. A replacement bridge had been in the works for some time, but lacked funding. Herculean efforts to raise money succeeded and four years after the closing, the replacement bridge, a different type of bascule bridge incorporating design elements from the historic bridge, opened on June 29, 2014.
The Old Duwamish River and its People
The Duwamish River is part of the Puget Lowland carved out by retreating glaciers, with coarse sand and gravel beaches formed by the erosion of glacial deposits. Prior to engineering interventions that began in the early 1900s, it was an oxbow river with constantly shifting channels and floodplains. It drained into Elliott Bay, part of Puget Sound, that long arm of the sea. The river was and is subject to tidal action from the sound, with tidal effects in force several miles upriver from the site of South Park. High bluffs flank the lowland river and its delta.
The South Park area was located within a floodplain forest, with a freshwater tidal marsh and wetland nearby. Hardwood trees consisted mainly of red alder (Alnus rubra) and Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia), but the dominant trees were conifers -- western red cedar (Thuja plicate), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis).
The Duwamish people who lived beside the river used all these trees, especially cedar, for fuel, material, and food. The Indians also utilized undergrowth plants such as berries, clover, and ferns. According to a 2008 cultural resources survey, "Wapato ... was grown in shallow water bodies, and cranberries were harvested from bogs. Some levees and meadows were kept clear of larger trees by burning and were cultivated to produce yet other food and material resources" ("Cultural Resources Survey ..."). Cultivated crops included camas, bracken fern, nettles, and willows.
The river environment served as habitat for shellfish and for seasonal runs of five species of Pacific salmon and one of trout. Smelt and herring were also plentiful. Marine mammals such as porpoise, seal, and sea lion "ventured a considerable distance upriver with the tide" ("Cultural Resources Survey ..."). Also present in the river valley were deer, elk, bear, otter, raccoon, and beaver.
The Duwamish had major settlements in what became downtown Seattle, Georgetown, Renton, and Allentown. They operated fisheries extensively along the river, including in the South Park area. The river and its tributaries served as transportation routes that Indians traveled by canoe.
In 1851 the area's first non-Indian settlers (the Collins party) arrived and settled in what is now Georgetown, slightly downriver and on the eastern shore of the Duwamish. Eli Maple (1831-1911) filed for a land claim across the river and a bit farther south, in the South Park area.
During the second half of the nineteenth century non-Indian settlement in the area was rapid and by 1862 Indians were barred from owning property within Seattle city limits. At that time Georgetown and South Park were both outside city limits and Duwamish and Snoqualmie presence in the area was strong. Indians found employment clearing brush, working in hop fields, and the like. Indian presence remains vital in the present-day communities along the Duwamish and includes both residents and tribal members who fish the river under their treaty fishing rights.
Both sides of the Duwamish provided fertile farmland, which the new settlers cleared and planted with crops and orchards. They were, however, farming a flood plain, and annual winter flooding "commonly ruined dwellings and farmland" (Palmer and Palmer). The Duwamish was shallow, and canoes and flat-bottomed ferries provided transportation and crossings. About 12 ferry crossings were established along the Duwamish, one of them run by Luther Collins (1813-1860) beginning in 1855.
By the end of the nineteenth century, dairy farms were established, and by the twentieth century Italian, Japanese, and Scandinavian immigrants were operating larger truck farms. One of those farmers, Giuseppe Desimone (1881-1946), helped to establish Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle.
South Park, located south of downtown Seattle and on the west side of the river, was platted in 1889, incorporated in 1902, and annexed to Seattle in 1907. During the early twentieth century, South Park and other Duwamish River communities were transformed by the straightening and channeling of the river, begun around 1913 and completed in 1920 (though various improvements to the channel continued for decades).
As a result of the straightening, South Park gained some 66 acres that in the 1920s were used for expanded truck farming. But the dredged and re-channeled Duwamish Waterway set the stage for a transformation from agriculture to industry.
Boeing Airplane Company
The Boeing Airplane Company was founded in 1916 and expanded during World War I. By 1918 Boeing had built a plant at Heath Shipyard on the east (Georgetown) side of the Duwamish Waterway, just upriver from Georgetown. The firm began testing aircraft on fields in the Duwamish Valley. Grading and filling transformed these fields into an airfield, which King County acquired in 1928 and named Boeing Field.
During the 1930s, with orders for aircraft coming in from the Army Air Corps, Boeing purchased from Giuseppe Desimone a tract of fill land farther south, between Boeing Field and the waterway. On this tract, from 1936 to 1958, Boeing built Plant No. 2 directly across the river from South Park. Located in Tukwila, Plant No. 2 occupied about 100 acres and comprised more than 30 industrial and office buildings. During World War II, the plant cranked up production exponentially, manufacturing Boeing Model 307 transports and B-17 bombers. At the height of the war, 362 B-17s were being manufactured in a month.
The main work took place in Building 2-40 and Building 2-41, which were attached and built in 1936 and 1941. These buildings, built by the Cleveland firm Austin Engineering Co., were architecturally significant in how they solved the problem of enclosing enormous spaces. The trusses were among the largest in the world at the time and the interior was large enough to accommodate a football field. Employees came and went through tunnels.
The architect was John Stewart Detlie Sr. (1908-2005). Detlie had a background in set design and in the early years of the war designed an extensive camouflage over Plant No. 2, the purpose being to confuse potential enemy aircraft seeking to bomb the enormous American bomber-manufacturing plant. The camouflage covered nearly 26 acres that appeared from the air to be a residential neighborhood. Houses, trees, and streets were constructed of plywood, canvas, and chickenwire.
In 1940 Boeing employed some 7,500 people. By the end of World War II, the firm employed 46,000 workers throughout Seattle. Boeing played a major role in the industrialization of the Duwamish Waterway and in the economy of Seattle. Many Boeing workers lived in South Park, and Boeing and South Park have remained deeply interconnected.
Plant No. 2 was demolished in September 2011. During high-production years, large quantities of contaminants such as solvents and oils had leaked from the plant into the river. In May 2010 The Boeing Company agreed to pay $2 million to clean up pollutants "expelled from Plant #2 from c. 1940-on" (Pacific Coast Architecture Database). It also agreed to restore the adjacent shoreline of the Duwamish. By 2014 the shoreline had been reconfigured to more natural lines and planted with native vegetation.
The Old Timber Bridge
In 1915, as the Duwamish River was being straightened and dredged, the first bridge was built at South Park, about 100 feet north (toward Seattle) of the 1931 South Park Bridge. This wooden swing bridge, owned and maintained by King County, opened on September 3, 1915. It was called the 14th Avenue South Bridge (technically King County Bridge 982A), but came to be known as the "Old Timber Bridge." It had a wooden-plank deck and approaches supported by cedar pile trestles.
The Old Timber Bridge began giving trouble almost as soon as it opened. To let boats pass, a bridge tender opened the swing span by swiveling it on its center pier. This took quite a bit of time. In the first year the tender opened and closed the span about 40 times a month.
Tugs towing log booms would hit the piers and, upon occasion, carry one away. The center pivot pillar in the middle of the waterway "enabled logs to collect on the pilings and choke the water passage" (Perrin, Miller, and Stamets, "14th Avenue South Brick Road ..."). In 1926 an automobile drove through the railing. By 1927 the swing span had rotted and the top truss had failed. The trestles that supported the approaches were rotting. The sidewalks were too narrow and two trucks passing left no room for a pedestrian. This was a concern inasmuch as schoolchildren walked across the bridge every day.
By 1926 an estimated 6,252 vehicles per day crossed the bridge. It served until the 1931 South Park Bridge replaced it in March of that year. The Old Timber Bridge stood beside the new bridge for a few months until it was demolished by October 10, 1931.
The Brick-Paved Road
The road that met the approach trestle of the Old Timber Bridge on the South Park side, 14th Avenue S, was paved entirely in brick. This became the well-known Highline Road, later called Des Moines Road, later Des Moines Memorial Drive S. It became an essential route that linked Duwamish River delta communities with communities farther south and west.
It was initially a dirt road constructed in 1890 and named County Road No. 88. Construction of a brick-paved road that ran from the new "Old Timber Bridge" to the Des Moines city docks began in 1916. The road was eventually designated County Highway No. 14.
This brick-paved road became significant -- beyond being a well-traveled route that illustrated brick road-building technology -- when it was made into a memorial for some 355 soldiers from King County who lost their lives during World War I (1914-1918). The Seattle Garden Club planted a memorial of 1,200 elm trees along the road, which members dedicated on May 30, 1921.
When the decrepit Old Timber Bridge was to be replaced, the road to the new bridge was reconfigured. The 1931 South Park Bridge was built beside the old bridge, farther south, with the approach on the South Park side more toward 16th Street. Part of 14th Avenue S was widened and asphalted. (Over the years, the remainder of the Des Moines Road was also altered and asphalted.) This process left in place a small segment of the brick road that had served as the approach to the Old Timber Bridge. It was little used and this lack of use undoubtedly saved it as a rare example of brick-paved-road technology, still in place in 2010.
The 1931 South Park Bridge
The need for a new bridge was acute. From 1929 to 1931 the King County Engineering Department supervised the building of the 14th-16th Avenue South Bridge (aka South Park Bridge) about 100 feet upriver from the old bridge. The bridge was designed by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago. The Wallace Bridge and Steel Company fabricated the steel, and the Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company constructed the bridge. This new bridge spanned the Duwamish Waterway between South Park (the South Park side was sited on unincorporated King County land) and City of Tukwila land located just north of what would become Boeing Plant No. 2.
The 1931 South Park Bridge was a double-leaved bascule bridge (the type with leaves that rise to let boat traffic pass between them). It was a bascule bridge of the Scherzer Rolling Lift type, invented by William Scherzer in Chicago in 1895. Each leaf, in this case each 95 feet long, rotates on a quadrant (a roller shaped like a quarter of a circle -- think slice of pizza), "which rolls along horizontal track girders" (Soderberg). Thus, as the leaves are raised they roll backwards, allowing for a larger opening through which vessels can pass.
The technical specs of the bridge are elaborated in a King County Landmark Registration form used to nominate the bridge for landmark status:
"The substructure of the bridge is composed of steel rebar reinforced poured concrete. The vertical clearance beneath the terrestrial piers is 16 feet, 8 inches. The clearance for river traffic beneath the closed bridge at mean high tide is 32 feet. The opened bridge provides a water channel that is 125 feet wide. The overall length of the bridge including its approaches is 1,285 feet. Abutments, piers, and pylons are steel girders (I-beams) and trusses. These steel components located beneath center span and approaches are painted green ... . Vertical rows of wooden pilings (dolphins) standing in the water through the bridge passage act as bumpers for boat traffic. Concrete pylons beneath both bridge approaches are square with chamfered corners and square corbels" (Palmer and Palmer).
Warren deck trusses supported the bridge's approach spans. (A truss is a support system made up of members [wood or steel] arranged in verticals and diagonals. In a "deck truss" the roadway is level with the top chord, in other words the supporting truss is under the roadway. The Warren truss has a triangular pattern with a vertical member in the center of each triangle.)
The Evans Brothers
The bridge was associated with two brothers who worked together as bridge engineers. They were significant figures in King County engineering history, and their association with the bridge adds to its significance. Both Donald Hampson Evans (1888?-1970) and Daniel Lester Evans (1895-1979) were employees of King County. Together the Evans brothers were responsible for the choice of a Scherzer Rolling Lift bascule bridge.
At the time the bridge was built, Don Evans served as chairman of the King County Board of County Commissioners. He was born in Port Ludlow and moved to Seattle as an infant. He attended the University of Washington, earning bachelor and graduate degrees in engineering. While in college he was captain of the university's track team and held records in javelin and high jump. During World War I, Don Evans served as a captain in France. By 1921 he was head of King County's Bridge Engineering Department. He was subsequently elected King County Engineer and headed the engineering department from 1926 to 1929. In 1929 he was elected to the Board of County Commissioners, on which he served until 1933. From 1933 to 1962, he owned the engineering firm Don H. Evans, Inc.
Daniel Lester Evans (or D. Lester Evans) served as resident construction engineer on the bridge. He modified the plans and specs provided by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company. He was a Seattle native who attended Broadway High School and the University of Washington. He served as an army flier during World War I, and after the war worked for Seattle City Light on the Skagit River dams. He served as county engineer from 1948 until 1959, an unusually long tenure. During World War II he was chief civilian engineer in Seattle for the Army Corps of Engineers. D. Lester Evans was the father of Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), future governor of Washington.
The new bridge was dedicated on Saturday March 21, 1931. It was a "gala day" in the South End ("Airplanes Roar Overhead ..."). Some 3,000 men, women, and children came out for the event. A squadron of airplanes from Boeing Field roared overhead.
Albert Geiger, age 7, son of Charles Geiger of the South Park Club, was to have christened the bridge by smashing a bottle of Duwamish River water against it, but this part of the ceremony was complicated by the boy's "sudden attack of stage fright" ("Airplanes Roar Overhead ..."). News reports do not reveal whether or how the bottle was actually smashed against the bridge. In any case Miss South End, Margaret Kremeyer, surrounded by her court, officiated at the christening and Albert joined the parade that moved across the bridge.
On the South Park side, officials made speeches. H. W. McCurdy (1899-1989) of the contracting firm, Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company, formally presented the bridge to King County, represented by county commissioner Don Evans. Don Evans, in turn, presented the bridge "to all the people of the county for their use" ("Airplanes Roar Overhead ...").
Years of Service
The 1931 South Park Bridge provided the South Park community with nearly 80 years of service.
On June 6, 1982, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in November 1996 it was designated as a King County landmark. The bridge was "a distinctive example of the early 20th century moveable bascule bridge that replaced swing bridges during this period" ("Cultural Resources Survey ...").
Last Years and Last Days
By 2007 the heavily used bridge had deteriorated to the point of serious concern, and steps were begun to consider a replacement. According to the Cultural Resources Survey:
"The stability of the South Park Bridge and its ability to open and close properly are increasingly at risk. There is misalignment of the moveable bascule leaves and cracking in the concrete bascule piers, both of which have resulted in operational difficulties. Poor-quality concrete used in the original construction of the bridge is also causing chemical deterioration of structural elements. In particular, substantial concrete deterioration is occurring below the waterline of the in-water concrete pier columns" ("Cultural Resources Survey ...").
In addition, over the years several earthquakes had damaged the bridge. The Cultural Resources Survey noted that "the inadequate depth of existing bridge piles ... places the bridge at great risk of substantial damage from future earthquakes" ("Cultural Resources Survey ...").
In due time King County declared the bridge so deteriorated that "there are no feasible repair options" ("South Park Bridge #3179"). On June 30, 2010, in the midst of a huge and sorrowful community wake, the county closed the bridge for good. At 7:56 p.m., after several efforts to move the chanting, singing, shouting crowds off the bridge -- the last one successful -- the leaves of the 1931 South Park Bridge were raised, never again to be lowered. Traffic could no longer pass.
The New South Park Bridge
For four years, no bridge spanned that part of the Duwamish Waterway. Commuter times lengthened, gas costs increased, and the small businesses in South Park suffered. These years were taken up with Herculean efforts at fundraising, followed by river restoration, the taking down of the old bridge, and the construction of a new bascule bridge, this one of the trunnion type.
Mitigation included extensive historical signage on the new bridge as well as the use of the old balustrades, gears, quadrants, and lampposts of the 1931 bridge as ornamental features in the balustrades and landscaping of the new bridge. In the process of building the new bridge, extensive river restoration was carried out on the Boeing side as well as the South Park side.
Exactly four years to the day after the closure, the new South Park Bridge, a trunnion bascule bridge chosen to be as similar as possible to the 1931 bridge, opened to traffic at 6 a.m. on June 30, 2014.