Ballard Bridge (Seattle)

  • By Priscilla Long
  • Posted 4/04/2017
  • Essay 11260

Seattle's Ballard Bridge carries 15th Avenue NW across the Lake Washington Ship Canal at Salmon Bay, connecting the Ballard neighborhood north of the canal with Interbay to the south. The Chicago-style double-leaf trunnion bascule bridge was built in 1917 in conjunction with construction of the ship canal. In 1933 the heavy creosoted-wood deck was replaced with an open-mesh steel deck. In 1940 the by-then rickety and hazardous wooden approaches were replaced with concrete and steel approaches, upon which a large parade, speeches, and festivities celebrated the opening of the "new" bridge. In 1969 the four original towers were replaced with a single tower. The bridge is heavily used -- in August 2014 during one hour of counting, 2,500 vehicles crossed it. During this hour the bridge opened twice for boats to pass. The city of Seattle owns the bridge, but the United States Coast Guard oversees the ship canal, because it is a navigable waterway. Except for two hours each during the morning and evening rush hours, vessels have priority and the bridge must open for them regardless of road-traffic congestion. Commercial vessels of more than 1,000 tons have priority at all times.

Predecessor Bridges

The first bridge built to span Salmon Bay -- then a saltwater tidal inlet of Puget Sound's Shilshole Bay -- was constructed in 1889. It was a wagon bridge made of puncheon (split logs with the face smoothed). It rose and fell with the tides and lasted a couple of decades before it rotted out. The tracks of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad ran from downtown Seattle to the south side of the bridge. Passengers detrained and walked across the bridge to get home. In 1890 a second bridge, a railroad trestle, was built across Salmon Bay to an area on its north shore recently named Gilman Park, which then consisted of woods and a few homes built in the woods. The area became part of Ballard when it was incorporated as an independent city that same year. Ballard was annexed into the larger city of Seattle in 1906.

By 1910 there were two fixed trestles crossing Salmon Bay at 14th Street NW. One trestle carried Northern Pacific Railway trains (and curved to join Shilshole Avenue NW). The Northern Pacific had in 1892 purchased the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway (and its track). The other was a wagon-road trestle that also carried the streetcars of the Seattle Electric Co. (later renamed Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power). These trestles obstructed work on the Lake Washington Ship Canal and had to be moved.

Thus in 1910 a new bridge, the 14th Avenue NW Bridge, a Howe-truss swing drawbridge, was built (completed June 14, 1910) by Seattle under a permit from the United States War Department. This drawbridge, called at first the Salmon Bay Drawbridge, was co-owned by Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power. In its permit the War Department specified that it must be removed either when it became an obstruction to navigation or when a permanent high bridge was built. The 14th Avenue NW Bridge was located one street east of where the Ballard Bridge was later built at 15th Avenue NW, which explains why Ballard's 14th Avenue NW is so wide. Because of the bridge at 14th Avenue NW, traffic to and from Ballard was not seriously disrupted while the Ballard Bridge was being built. Its draw span allowed vessels and barges to proceed up the waterway as the ship canal was being built.

Lake Washington Ship Canal

In 1909 Seattle and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the enormous infrastructural improvement known as the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Lake Washington east of Seattle would be connected to Lake Union, located more or less in the center of the city, by making a cut (the Montlake Cut) between the two lakes. Lake Union would be connected to Salmon Bay by making the Fremont Cut. A set of locks at the west end of Salmon Bay would both separate and connect Puget Sound to the new ship canal. In the process of constructing the ship canal, the level of Lake Washington would be lowered and that of Salmon Bay raised so that both reached the same level as Lake Union, about 20 to 22 feet above sea level.

A significant moment occurred when, upon the completion of the spillway dam on the south side of the locks, on July 12, 1916, at 6 a.m., the Army Corps of Engineers first closed the gates of the locks and water from Lake Union began to fill Salmon Bay. Prior to this, the gates had been open and Salmon Bay had remained a tidal inlet that rose and sank by about 10 feet a day. After the gates were closed, it took about three weeks for Salmon Bay to fill with fresh water. It became what it is today: a freshwater harbor that stays at about the same level.

Another significant moment occurred on August 28, 1916, when the Montlake Cut was opened. The waters in Lake Washington were let into Lake Union, lowering Lake Washington by some nine feet over the next two months.

Beauty and the Bridge

Early in the process of contemplating the bridges to be built to span the ship canal, City Engineer Arthur H. Dimock (d. 1929) argued that the city should pay attention to aesthetics. In a letter to the Seattle City Council he wrote:

"In the construction of bridges for municipal uses some attention should be paid to securing lines which are graceful and pleasing. There was a time in the history of American bridge building when the only thought was to secure the utmost economy in construction. The bridge which performed the service required with the least number of tons of steel was always the best bridge. This resulted in not only inartistic but positively hideous structures being erected in many places. Of late years, however, it is coming to be recognized that it may be possible to secure graceful and pleasing lines even in steel structures without spending any large additional amount of money" (Dimock to Seattle City Council, January 11, 1913).

But even if beauty did cost more, he continued, it is a "justifiable expense on the part of a municipality. Bridges form one of the most striking and monumental features of any community" (Dimock to Seattle City Council, January 11, 1913). Dimock drew the council's attention to Paris, its beautiful bridges spanning the Seine being one of the great attractions of that city.

The Ballard Bridge

At the end of 1913, City Engineer Dimock noted in his annual report that with "all this activity towards a definite and rapidly nearing conclusion" of the work on the ship canal, "it seems extremely unfortunate to report that no substantial steps have been taken by city authorities to provide for permanent bridges to span this waterway" ("Annual Report of the [Seattle] City Engineer for the Year Ending November 30, 1913")

Very late in the day, Seattle voters passed a bond issue on March 2, 1915, to build the Fremont and Ballard bridges across the new canal. On August 2, 1915, the Seattle City Council authorized the Board of Public Works to incur the necessary public indebtedness to begin the work. Work on the Ballard Bridge began on September 1, 1915. This was four years after work on the ship canal had begun. This lack of coordination between the building of the ship canal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the bridges by Seattle would have a cost. By the summer of 1916, with the Corps of Engineers set to close the newly completed locks and raise the water level in Salmon Bay, the Ballard Bridge was not yet half finished. The rising waters would have inundated the 14th Avenue NW Bridge so, in an emergency ordinance, the Seattle City Council authorized the Board of Public Works, at great expense ($5,800), to raise the height of the old drawbridge.

The new Ballard Bridge was planned under the supervision of Seattle City Engineer Dimock and designed by bridge engineer F. A. Rapp. The bascule (drawbridge) spans were made of steel. These spans opened and closed by means of huge counterweights "consisting of concrete-filled steel boxes attached to the underside of the decks at the rear of the trusses" (Spanning Washington, 153). The counterweights rotated around a heavy pin called a trunnion (or trunion). The particular design of this Chicago-style double-leaf trunnion bascule bridge was patented by the city engineer of Chicago; Seattle paid $2,500 to use the design. Motors of 100 horsepower moved each span independently. In case of motor failure, a leaf could be opened by hand in six hours.

The huge piers supporting the drawbridge spans were made of concrete. The roadway was constructed of blocks of creosoted wood. The approaches were timber trestles.

The Lake Washington Ship Canal was formally dedicated on July 4, 1917 (although thousands of ships had already passed through it since the connection was completed in the fall of 1916). The Fremont Bridge, in some ways the fraternal twin to the Ballard Bridge (same design, same design team, different dimensions) had opened on June 15, 1917. The Ballard Bridge opened to traffic on December 15, 1917. But larger vessels still could not use the Lake Washington Ship Canal beyond the east end of Salmon Bay because the low 14th Avenue NW bridge was still in place there.

On August 15, 1918, the War Department ordered an immediate removal of the 14th Avenue NW Bridge. It was now an obstruction to navigation. On November 25, 1918, the Seattle City Council passed an emergency ordinance (38937) directing the Board of Public Works to remove the bridge. This was done.

An Intolerable Traffic Menace

As early as 1932, a campaign was underway in Ballard for the by-then-rickety approaches of the Ballard Bridge to be renovated. A 1932 article in The Seattle Times spoke of the "dangerous condition" of the "shaky old wooden structure" -- referring to the wooden trestle that supported the approaches. The article also noted the "deplorable" condition of the surfacing and guardrails ("Ballard Begins Final Drive ..."). The structure had become a fire hazard.

In March 1932 a bond issue appeared on the ballot that would have raised $1.8 million to reconstruct the bridge. But it was decided to first renovate the also-decrepit University Bridge. These were Depression years and funds were short and the Ballard Bridge would have to wait.

But the discussion waxed on. The Seattle Times further deplored the condition of the bridge:

"Due to the decaying condition of the timbers and the slippery surface of the present approaches, city officials have long recognized the bridge as a growing traffic menace, four fatal accidents having occurred there within the past two years. More than a year ago Fire Chief Robert L. Lang wrote the City Council: 'Due to the nature of such wooden construction, every fire there contains potentials for the complete destruction of the superstructure. The situation is an intolerable one from a safety standpoint'" ("Issues of Election March 8").

Ballard interests, led by the Ballard Commercial Club, continued to lobby for major work on the bridge. It was a busy, and now hazardous, structure. By 1934 one census counted 12,679 vehicles crossing the bridge during a 15-hour period. (That would be 845 vehicles during an average hour.)

A major improvement was made in 1934: replacing the heavy, slippery wooden deck of the bascule leaves with an open-mesh-steel deck. This new type of roadway surface, "which was original and somewhat revolutionary when placed on the University Bridge," according to the Seattle Department of Engineering, "is a proven success. Skid accidents have been entirely eliminated on this span" ("Annual Report of the City Engineer for the Year Ending December 31, 1934," p. 4). The steel-mesh grating for bridge decks was invented by Walter F. Irving of the Subway Grating Co. of Long Island, New York. The Irving steel-mesh deck was lighter and less slippery, and allowed snow and rainwater to fall through instead of accumulating to make the road surface slick.

The Rebuilt Ballard Bridge

In 1937 the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance authorizing work to begin on reconstructing the bridge. The job took a year and a half and replaced the timber approaches with approaches of concrete and steel that featured ornamental lighting. The cost was $800,000, funded 45 percent by the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the remainder by Seattle's share of the state gasoline tax.

The work closed the roadway for the year and a half of construction. For the duration, people crossing the ship canal were obliged to drive over the Fremont Bridge or the Aurora Bridge.

A parade to celebrate the "new" Ballard Bridge was held on Saturday, May 25, 1940 ("Key Opens New Span to Ballard"). Governor Clarence D. Martin (1887-1955) officiated and led the parade across the bridge. The recently elected "king" of the Ballard District, Donn H. Frizzell (1920-1986), a University of Washington freshman and a graduate of Ballard High School, reigned over the parade. Serving as co-royalty was Elizabeth Wright, Central District "queen." Seattle Mayor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) wielded a huge key to symbolically open the span.

Over the Decades

In 2003 eight sculptures -- 10-foot aluminum towers depicting Ballard's Native American and Scandinavian heritage -- were erected on either side of the bridge's north (Ballard) approach. Called "Ballard Gateway," they were created by Tom Askman (b. 1941) and Lea Anne Lake and paid for by Seattle Department of Transportation 1 Percent for Art funding, City of Seattle general funds, and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods' Matching Fund.

The Ballard Bridge is owned by the city of Seattle and operated by Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), but federal law defines the ship canal as a navigable waterway, giving the federal government oversight via the United States Coast Guard. The Ballard Bridge has a 44-foot clearance, and for any taller vessel to pass the bridge must be opened. As between cars crossing the span and boats passing through the open leaves, boats have priority.

To request that the bridge be opened, vessels contact the bridge tender by radio (marine band channel 13) or with two whistles, one long and one short. Years ago the Coast Guard gave SDOT the authority to keep the bridge closed during rush hours, 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., except that any vessel weighing 1,000 gross tons or more, or towing a vessel weighing 1,000 gross tons or more, always has priority. At night (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) one bridge tender covers three bridges and for the bridge to be opened, vessels call or radio an hour in advance. The bridge tender drives between bridges. (Of the ship canal bridges, the Fremont Bridge, with its 30-foot clearance, is the lowest and must be opened the most frequently.)

Traffic on the Ballard Bridge is often fast, and congestion is routine. In 2014 during a one-hour count, 2,500 vehicles passed. A bridge opening takes an average of five minutes, and with Seattle's increasingly congested traffic, the vehicular backup attending each opening gets longer and longer. As of early 2017 the Seattle Department of Transportation was considering petitioning the Coast Guard for a regular schedule of openings, instead of upon vessel demand.

Another issue is the narrow sidewalk provided for both bicycles and pedestrians, with only a low curb separating them from speeding cars. The pedestrian facing an oncoming bicycle is obliged to flatten him- or herself against the railing, or else the bicyclist must dismount and walk on the curb or step into the traffic lane. Solutions to this were also being proposed and debated in 2017.

Ballard Bridge Tenders

No one knows a bridge better than its tender. The tender works in the tower raising and lowering the leaves, and also performs bridge maintenance such as greasing the gears. One Ballard Bridge tender, Bill Watson, tended the bridge for 16 years before retiring in 1990. He raised the two leaves, each one weighing 900 tons, hundreds or thousands of times. He liked the view, the seclusion, and the quiet. The job involves a lot of solitude.

Another Ballard Bridge tender, David Laesk, stressed in an interview the high priority of safety, especially not opening the bridge inadvertently while someone is on it. There are stressful moments. Imagine dealing with this:

"[A] burly guy on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle decided he didn't want to wait for the bridge to go through its standard five-minute opening cycle. Just before it began to open, the man squeezed his motorcycle past the road gate and accelerated, only to slam on the brakes when he saw something was wrong. A 5-foot wall had formed at midspan because the other half of the drawbridge had risen at a faster rate. The man's bike plowed into it, the impact somersaulting him up and onto the other half of the bridge, where he landed in a sitting position, as if choreographed by a Hollywood stunt team" ("Drawn to Solitude").

This person ended up, not dead, but with a broken ankle.

For the Birds

The bridge-tender job comes with a great view and a great perch for watching birds. And birds there are. Of the 126 different species counted in the Seattle Audubon Society's 2016 Christmas Bird Count, many can be seen at one time or another from the tower of the Ballard Bridge. They include species of cormorants, ducks, grebes, gulls, hawks, and crows. They include rock pigeons and starlings.

For decades European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), an introduced species that arrived in Washington in the mid-1940s, roosted under the Ballard Bridge approaches in massive numbers. In 1967, for example, the Seattle Audubon Society estimated that 10,000 starlings roosted under the bridge. In 1971 bridge tender Noble North told a Seattle Times reporter that starlings roosting under the approaches went cheep, cheep, cheep all night. In the morning they flew out to forage for food. The starlings left a massive amount of droppings, drove out other birds, and got caught in the gears of the bascule leaves. The ammonia from their droppings corroded the steel in the bridge.

But during the 1990s, the number of starlings diminished. The likely reason? The peregrines (falco peregrinus) had arrived. "When you get a peregrine that takes up residence in the area, it becomes a virtual death zone [for starlings and pigeons]," stated wildlife biologist Michael MacDonald. "They're like unpaid flying maintenance workers" ("Birds of Prey Adapt Their Habits ..."). Peregrines can fly 200 miles per hour, making them the fastest animal on earth. They catch their prey -- often a starling or pigeon -- in mid-air. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, due to DDT poisoning, peregrine populations went into drastic decline. In 1980 there were only four pairs left in the state. But with regulation of pesticides they have rebounded, and in 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took them off the Endangered Species list.

During the 1990s, the Seattle Department of Transportation installed nest boxes for peregrines on the Ballard Bridge. And for a few years the raptors did nest on the bridge: The first peregrine chick hatched there in 2006. But since 2015, they have shunned the Ballard Bridge nest box, likely due to nearby construction, although peregrines continued to nest in Seattle on the Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge, the West Seattle Bridge, and the Washington Mutual Tower.

For the People

The Ballard Bridge's centennial year, 2017, found Seattle's population burgeoning and massive citywide transportation improvements in progress. These included extending light rail, a tunnel being bored under downtown Seattle, and the planned take-down of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The transportation improvements set to transform Ballard during the coming decade had yet to be finalized. Options under discussion included a high train-only drawbridge, a tunnel, and a new drawbridge that would carry light rail, bicycles, pedestrians, and motor vehicles. What was not debatable was that for Ballard and its old bascule bridge some big changes were just up the road.


Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs, Spanning Washington: Historic Highway Bridges of the Evergreen State (Pullman: WSU Press, 2005), 154; "20 Bids Received on Steel Canal Bridges," The Seattle Times, July 23, 1915, p. 2; "Ballard Bridge Thrown Open to Traffic," Ibid., December 16, 1917, p. 20; "Ask Removal of 14th Avenue Bridge," Ibid., September 4, 1918, p. 13; "Issues of Election March 8," Ibid., March 3, 1932, p. 2; "Ballard Begins Final Drive to Improve Bridge," Ibid., March 6, 1932, p. 12; "Clubs Are Aiding Ballard Plans," Ibid., November 6, 1937, p. 4; "Key Opens New Span to Ballard," Ibid., May 26, 1940, p. 55; "Lumberjack to Lifesaver: Bridgetenders' Duties Varied," Ibid., December 4, 1962, p. 37; Byron Fish, "Bird Watching a Rugged Affair," Ibid., January 11, 1967, p. 56; Larry Coffman, "Poet-Fruitgrower Rhymes Starling with Pest," Ibid., April 16, 1967, p. 44; John Hinterberger, "The Starlings of Ballard, Ibid., September 25, 1971, p. 1; Joanne Plank, "Bridging a Career Lifetime with the City -- in Ballard this Man Had Raiser's Edge, " Ibid., June 15, 1990, p. C-2; Diedtra Henderson, "Residents Petition City to Improve Ballard Bridge After Accident Kills Woman," Ibid., June 14, 1991, p. A-1; "Falcon Nest on Bridge May Reduce Pigeons," Ibid., March 14, 1997, p. B-2; Scott McCredie, "Drawn to Solitude," Ibid., June 26, 2005, p. H-1; "Here and Now," Ibid., May 30, 2006, p. B-2; ; Mike Lindblom, "Ballard's Wish," Ibid., May 31, 2016, p. A-1; Mike Lindblom, "Seattle Wants to Limit Drawbridge Openings to Ease Car Traffic," The Seattle Times, September 1, 2015 (; Seattle City Council Ordinance 35054, August 2, 1915, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Seattle City Council Ordinance 35942, April 10, 1916, Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle City Council Ordinance 38937, November 25, 1918, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Annual Report of the [Seattle] City Engineer for the Year Ending November 30, 1913," Engineering Reports, Box 1, Office of City Clerk, Annual Reports, 1802-G2, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Annual Report of the [Seattle] City Engineer for the Year Ending December 31, 1934," Engineering Reports, Box 2, Office of City Clerk, Annual Reports, 1802-G2, Seattle Municipal Archives; City Engineer Dimock to Seattle City Council, January 11, 1913, Comptroller File 50636, Seattle City Clerk's Office, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Annual Report of the [Seattle] City Engineer for the Year Ending December 31, 1936," Engineering Reports, Box 2, Office of City Clerk, Annual Reports, 1802-G2 (1931-1949), Seattle Municipal Archives; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle's University Bridge opens on July 1, 1919" (by Priscilla Long), "Due to construction of Lake Washington Ship Canal, Lake Washington is lowered 9 feet beginning on August 28, 1916, and the Black River disappears" (by Jennifer Ott), "Plans to overwinter whaling vessels in the newly created freshwater harbor of Salmon Bay are announced on November 3, 1916" (by David Williams), "Lake Washington Ship Canal (Seattle)" (by David Williams), and "Seattle Neighborhoods: Ballard -- Thumbnail History" (by Walt Crowley), accessed April 1, 2017; "Ship Canal Bridge Openings" Seattle Department of Transportation website accessed August 6, 2016 (; "Ballard Bridge," My Ballard website accessed February 27, 2017 (; "Ballard Gateway," Public Art Archive website accessed February 28, 2017 (; "2016 Seattle Christmas Bird Count, December 31, 2016," Seattle Audubon Society website accessed March 6, 2017 (; Priscilla Long phone conversation with Toby Ross, science manager, Seattle Audubon Society, March 6, 2017; Woody Wheeler email to Priscilla Long, March 6, 2017, in possession of Priscilla Long, Seattle; Dean Wong, "Birds Under the Bridge," Ballard News-Tribune, May 2, 2006 (; Fiona Cohen, "Birds of Prey Adapt their Habits to the Urban Landscape," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 2007 (;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fourteenth Avenue NW Bridge/Salmon Bay Drawbridge (Seattle)" (by Priscilla Long) (accessed November 6, 2017). 
Note: This essay was emended and updated on November 6, 2017.

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