Fremont Bridge (Seattle)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 6/11/2017
  • Essay 20374

The Fremont Bridge, the first double-leaf bascule drawbridge spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal, opened June 15, 1917, 19 days before the Government Locks at Ballard were officially dedicated. The bridge links the neighborhoods of Fremont and north Queen Anne, previously connected by a streetcar-carrying wooden trestle. This was razed in 1911 to make way for the widening and dredging of the ship canal and replaced with temporary bridges at Stone Avenue (now Stone Way) and at Fremont Avenue. The Fremont span was removed in 1915 when work started on the permanent bridge. After the new span opened, the Stone Way Bridge was removed despite efforts to save it. The relatively low clearance of the Fremont Bridge required frequent raisings for boat traffic, and the resulting traffic problems spurred plans for an elevated span. The soaring Aurora Bridge, just a few hundred feet to the east, was opened in 1932. Throughout the Fremont Bridge's 100 years of service, it has been Seattle's busiest drawbridge. It also is the only one painted in colors decided by popular vote. The bright blue bridge with its orange accents and neon art stands as a symbol of the Fremont neighborhood's celebrated quirkiness.

Long-term Problems, Short-term Solutions

Fremont was platted in 1888 and annexed to Seattle in 1891. Located on the north side of Lake Union's western outlet, it was a logical site for a bridge as Seattle spread north. A two-mile-long pile trestle carried electric trolleys and other traffic along the west shore of Lake Union and across to Fremont over a narrow passage that was little more than a ditch, dug in the 1880s to connect Lake Union with Salmon Bay. A history of the Seattle Engineering Department described the early trestle and the waterway:

"A rickety wooden structure of antediluvian ancestry originally spanned the narrow and sluggish stream that separated the community of Fremont from Seattle; most of its patrons were small boys who snared salmon from the waters below with bent pins fastened to broomsticks" (Phelps, 43).

The stream wasn't always so sluggish. In October 1903, after the channel had been straightened and widened from Lake Union to Ballard, a dam on the lake failed and the resulting torrent temporarily put the Fremont trestle out of commission.

This original bridge at Fremont was doomed by plans for the ship canal, which would link Lake Washington and Lake Union with Puget Sound. The old trestle had to go so the channel could be widened and made deeper. But the ever-increasing flow of north-south traffic -- motorized and horse-drawn -- demanded a replacement bridge. The siting was controversial, at least in Fremont. The new bridge was set to cut across the northwest corner of Lake Union, connecting Westlake Boulevard with Stone Avenue, five blocks east of where the old bridge had been. Among those favoring that location were Green Lake residents, because it offered them a straighter route into and out of the city, and a group called the Stone Avenue Improvement Club, which gathered 3,000 signatures in support. Opposed were many in Fremont, who feared a bridge to Stone Avenue would "ruin Fremont's business center" ("Fremont Surprised ..."). Their concerns notwithstanding, the Stone Avenue location prevailed.

The resulting Stone Way Bridge was 2,700 feet long and 25 feet above the water. The Seattle Times reported that it contained 90,000 feet of piling and 1.5 million board feet of lumber. It was wide enough for car and streetcar traffic and included a steel-truss opening for boats. Finding solid footing for the pilings was difficult; although the average depth of the water was only 40 feet, the lake bottom was so soft that fir piles had to be driven 100 feet deep for nearly a third of the bridge's length. The cost of the project was about $60,000, split between the city and Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power, which ran the streetcar.

The Stone Way Bridge opened for traffic on May 31, 1911. By 1913 it was carrying more than 25,000 streetcar passengers daily. Despite being a substantial structure and much needed as a surface arterial, it was intended to be temporary. The ship canal was designed to allow passage of ocean-going ships, including navy vessels, and the United States War Department required clearance of at least 150 feet. As The Seattle Times explained:

"If the government allowed the temporary bridge to remain after the canal was completed into Lake Union, considerable modifications of the structure would be necessary, according to the government engineers. The bridge would have to be 30 feet above water the entire distance and would have to include a draw that would give a 150-foot opening. A long span would be necessary and this probably would have to be built of steel at an enormous expense" ("Fremont Surprised ...").

A second Fremont bridge, also intended to be temporary, opened in 1912 as part of Westlake improvements. Its cost of $50,000 was shared by property owners, the Traction, Light & Power Company, and the Northern Pacific Railway. As had happened to its predecessor in 1903, the bridge was damaged in March 1914 when a government dam between Lake Union and the canal broke, but the span was repaired and reopened within three weeks.  

The Case for Bascules 

While workers were dredging and widening the channel, planners were considering alternatives that would best suit the needs of marine and surface traffic. City Engineer Arthur H. Dimock (d. 1929) outlined some options when meeting with the Seattle City Council in April 1914. Tunnels wide enough to accommodate streetcars and motor vehicles would be difficult to construct because of the canal's soft bottom, he said. Fixed bridges with the required 150-foot clearance would require extremely long approaches, new streets, and land acquisitions. Vertical lift bridges would require 200-foot towers. Swing bridges would be ugly and occupy too much land. Dimock told the council he had spent two years studying various bridge types and concluded bascules were the best choice.

A bascule bridge is "a bridge over a waterway with one or two leaves that rotate from a horizontal to a near-vertical position, providing unlimited vertical clearance for marine traffic" (Holstine and Hobbs, 253). The raising and lowering a bascule bridge's leaves is aided by massive counterweights -- steel boxes filled with concrete that are attached beneath the decks -- a teeter-totter-like arrangement set in motion by 100-horsepower electric motors.

The ship canal's first three permanent bridges -- Ballard, Fremont, and University -- were modeled after bridges built by Chicago's Public Works Department in the late 1890s. They were wide enough to handle two lanes of car and horse-drawn traffic, two streetcar lines, and two five-foot-wide lanes for pedestrians.

First Across

The Fremont Bridge was the first to be built. Engineer Dimock estimated it would cost $342,000 and require at least 100 tons of structural steel. Contracts for the project were awarded in August 1915, and the temporary Fremont Bridge was closed later that month so construction on the permanent bridge could commence. F. A. Rapp was the bridge engineer and the city's architect, Daniel R. Huntington (1871-1962), designed the piers. The span was built with two short towers on each end, with the control tower located on the southeast. Including its approaches -- the raised roadways on either end of the bridge -- the structure was 502 feet long.

With all but the approaches to the Fremont Bridge completed, the U.S. engineer in charge of the ship-canal project quashed hopes that the temporary Stone Way Bridge could be saved. Speaking to a city council delegation, Lieutenant Colonel James B. Cavanaugh (1869-1927) was adamant that the bridge be removed after the Fremont Bridge opened, as specified in the permit issued in 1910 by the U.S. War Department. Citizens from the Wallingford Hill and Green Lake neighborhoods had urged that the Stone Way span stay in place for the life of the structure, hoping that by then money would be available to build a permanent bridge at the same site. Also fighting removal of the Stone Way Bridge was Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power, claiming it had permission from the city to use the structure for its streetcars through the end of 1934.

The new Fremont Bridge opened on June 15, 1917, restoring direct access between Westlake and Fremont Avenue for the first time in 22 months. Its total cost was about $410,000. When it was finished, the Stone Way Bridge was closed, and the War Department gave the city until October 19, 1917, to remove it.

The next two bascule spans across the ship canal were the Ballard Bridge on 15th Avenue NW, opened in December 1917, and the University Bridge, completed in 1919. (The fourth bascule bridge over the canal, at Montlake, was not completed until 1925.) The Fremont Bridge had the longest bascule span of the three, at 242 feet. It also was the lowest; when its two cantilevered sections are in their down position to accommodate street traffic they are only 30 feet above the water.

Ships vs. Cars

As Seattle grew, so did the number of motor vehicles. The superintendent of the city Streets and Sewers Department, Charles R. Case, reported in early 1920 that motor-vehicle traffic in Seattle and King County had increased by 85 percent in two years. By 1923, the Fremont Bridge was being described in The Seattle Times as "the neck of the bottle for the entire traffic between the downtown sections and the thickly populated sections of Fremont, Phinney Ridge, Woodland Park, Green Lake, Meridian Avenue, and Wallingford districts," especially during evening rush hour when the "double column of automobiles is continuous, the cars packed bumper to bumper with no room other than to creep slowly forward and no chance to avoid accidents" ("Residents Aroused"). Streetcars were part of the backup, with as many as eight or more waiting along with hundreds of cars for ship traffic to pass.

A front-page editorial in the Times on January 19, 1927, said the city "cannot longer postpone the solution of the traffic problem at the Lake Washington Canal." Calling the bridges at Fremont, Eastlake, and Montlake "wholly inadequate," the editorial said two more bridges were needed. (The Ballard Bridge, taller and west of the heaviest traffic flow, was not part of the discussion.) By then an estimated 26,000 cars crossed the Fremont Bridge daily. The traffic problems were not all caused by ships. Because of a truck accident on the bridge in February 1928, "thousands of motorists and street car riders on their way to work sat for an hour in temporary immovable lines of vehicles that extended for blocks along the streets converging at the bridge" ("Fremont Jam").

Planning was soon underway for a high-level bridge across the northwest corner of Lake Union at Stone Way. That site had been described 14 years earlier by City Engineer Dimock as "what must become, by virtue of its geographical and topographical situation, the great main artery for the north end of the city" (Dimock). But a crossing at Aurora Avenue, about 1,000 feet west of Stone Way and just a few hundred feet east of the Fremont Bridge, would be shorter and have a firmer foundation, and that is where the high-level bridge was located. The Aurora Bridge -- officially the George Washington Memorial Bridge -- was built as a federal and state project as part of U.S. Highway 99. After it opened in 1932, surface traffic eased somewhat on the ship canal's bascule bridges, including at Fremont.

The Color Controversy

The Fremont Bridge was for decades painted a dull green. In 1972, when it was time to repaint, the Fremont Improvement Committee picked a new color, Fremont Orange, and residents approved the change. Painting began that August and was expected to use 900 gallons. The new color dramatically distinguished the bridge from the other ship-canal spans.

Orange proponents expected a look something like San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Apparently it was a bit more than that. One of the painters said it was "so bright it hurts when the sun shines" and a reporter added that it "screams for the attention of motorists, pedestrians, and boaters" ("Bridge is Glowrious Orange").

The Fremont Orange paint was specially designed for Seattle weather conditions, but in just 12 years it had faded to a color variously described as pink, dull coral, or "between dead salmon and stale fruit" ("Orange Crushed ... "). Eager to use a more durable color but willing to give the community its say, the city engineering department offered five choices: Pickle Green, Canal Blue, Nutmeg Brown, Pirate Gold, and Sky Gray. Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939), wearing overalls, painted swatches on the bridge so people could see the colors before voting at the 1984 Fremont street fair. Adding a bit of controversy was Armen Stepanian, self-described mayor of Fremont, who believed the bridge should stay orange. He campaigned for that old favorite as a write-in candidate.

About 80,000 attended the street fair that year, but only 1,807 voted. Canal Blue was the big winner with 1,153. Orange came in a distant second at 253. Eventually, with input from Fremont artists, a two-color scheme was chosen -- bright blue with orange accents. The bridge was painted that way in 1985, setting it apart from the canal's three other spans, which remained dull green.

Staying Colorful

Aside from the color, only minor changes were made to the Fremont Bridge in its first 88 years. In 1928 it gained backup motors, and in 1960 an addition with an exterior deck raised the height of the control tower, improving visibility for the bridge tender. Some extra quirkiness was added in 1994, when two neon sculptures were added to the bridge's towers. One, installed on the northwest tower, showed fairy-tale figure Rapunzel, her wavy neon-yellow locks extending out of the window. The other sculpture, on the northeast tower, depicted Rudyard Kipling's fable, "How the Elephant Got Its Trunk." The sculptures were created by Rodman Miller, an anatomy professor turned artist, and were unveiled on Halloween.

A major overhaul of the Fremont Bridge began in September 2005 and lasted until June 2007. It included replacing the bridge's crumbling approaches, rebuilding its decks and railings, and updating mechanical and electrical systems. The project cost $42 million and wreaked havoc with area traffic. Before work began, an estimated 33,000 vehicles were crossing the bridge each day. During construction, car traffic was choked down to one lane in each direction, and buses were kept off the bridge entirely. Overnight and weekend bridge closures added to the disruption. Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1945) cut a ceremonial ribbon to reopen the span on June 2, 2007, and the neighborhoods celebrated with street parties at both ends.

Since 1981 the number of times the Fremont Bridge raises for marine traffic has been repeatedly reported as about 35 per day, and typically more in the summer. Owing to the span's closeness to the water it is Seattle's busiest bascule bridge, and one of the busiest in the world. Its other claim to fame, or infamy, is its unusual color scheme. The blue and orange combination first applied in 1985 survived a repainting in 1997 (at a cost of $650,000) and a freshening up that was completed in 2015. The bridge still sported those distinctive colors in 2017 as it approached its 100th birthday.


Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle: A Narrative History, The Engineering Department, 1875-1975 (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 43; Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now & Then, Vol. 2 (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1986), 162-165; Lawrence Kreisman, Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 72; Patricia C. Erigero, Seattle Public Schools: Historic Building Survey (Seattle: Seattle Public Schools and Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, 1989), 60; A. H. Dimock to Seattle City Council, April 20, 1914, Folder 22, Box 21, 8200-05 Water Department General Files, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs, Spanning Washington: Historic Highway Bridges of the Evergreen State (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 2005), 153, 253, 256; "Still Runs Away to the Sea," The Seattle Times, October 8, 1903, p. 1; "Fremont Surprised by Bridge Approval," Ibid., May 11, 1910, p. 12; "Stone Avenue Bridge," Ibid., April 1, 1911, p. 3; "Rapid Growth of North End," Ibid., November 20, 1913, p. 6; "Cars Again Operating Over Fremont Viaduct," Ibid., November 25, 1912, p. 5; "Damage by Flood Rapidly Repaired," Ibid., March 24, 1914, p. 14; "20 Bids Received on Steel Canal Bridges," Ibid., July 23, 1915, p. 2; "Stone Way Bridge Must Go, Says Cavanaugh," Ibid., February 6, 1917, p. 7; "City Gets Order to Tear Down Old Bridge," Ibid., August 14, 1917, p. 12; "Street Improvement Work Is Imperative," Ibid., February 1, 1920, p. 11; "Editorial: We Need 2 More Bridges in North End," Ibid., January 19, 1927, p. 1; "Fremont Jam Shows Bridge Need, Tangle of Traffic in North End Increasing," Ibid., February 19, 1928, p. 11; "Tower Raised," Ibid., February 10, 1960, p. A-5; "Bridge: Fremont Span Being Painted Bright Orange," Ibid., August 17, 1972, p. E-1; Rusty Yerxa, "Bridge is Glowrious Orange," Ibid., September 24, 1972, p. 1; David Schaefer, "Fremont Says Goodbye Old Paint; Span to Get New Hue," Ibid., June 7, 1984, p. E-1; David Schaefer, "Orange Crushed: Blue for Fremont Bridge," Ibid., June 20, 1984, p. B-2; Jean Godden, "Weirdness Blows In on Fall Wind," Ibid., October 24, 1994, p. B-1; Susan Gilmore, "Project Will Keep Bus Traffic Off Bridge in Fremont," Ibid., May 19, 2006, p. B-1; Mike Lindblom, "Fremont Bridge Work Nears End," Ibid., May 23, 2007, p. B-5; Tan Vinh, "Bridge Reopens, and Fremont Returns to, uh, 'Normal' Again," Ibid., June 3, 2007, p. B-2; Jack Broom, "Same Old Colors for Fremont," Ibid., July 1, 1997, p. B-1; "Bridges and Roadway Structures," Seattle Department of Transportation website accessed May 29, 2017 (; "Fremont Bridge," Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Landmarks website accessed May 29, 2017 (; "Fremont Bridge Painting Project," Seattle Department of Transportation website accessed May 30, 2017 (

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