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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Bridge Too High? How Warren Magnuson Overbuilt The West Seattle Bridge

A friend reminded me of a passage in the Shelby Scates biography, “Warren G. Magnuson” (U.W. Press, 1997), which bears on the repairs and closure of the West Seattle Bridge. Maybe the Magnuson golden touch with federal funds produced a bridge too high and too vulnerable?

As Scates recounts the story, Sen. Magnuson was elated when he got the news of the freighter Chavez ramming the old West Seattle Bridge. Elated because now Maggie could raid the federal bridge replacement fund and build a new bridge. The Port of Seattle, led by Commissioner Merle Adlum, wanted a high-level bridge so it could extend cargo docks up the Duwamish River. Even the mighty Maggie had failed to find federal funds for that dream. Enter the mysterious, elderly Capt. Rolf Neslund, steering the ill-fated freighter. (Neslund’s wife was later convicted of murdering him and burying body parts under the kitchen floor, according to the book’s account.)

Maggie drained the entire $100 million bridge replacement fund and soon the bridge design was high enough to allow passage of “the highest mast conceivable for a ship at that time; higher than has ever been remotely needed.” Later, the Port gave up on cargo docks on the Duwamish, and the scandal-ridden bridge was nonetheless built too high, and too steep for rail or monorail transit. Scates, a former lead political reporter for the Seattle P-I, quotes former Port President Dick Ford as saying the bridge “should have been built more modestly.”

Now it may turn out that the unnecessary height created too much stress on the structure. It certainly created too much stress on the politicians, with three politicians convicted in connection with kickbacks from contractors.

Hat-tip to Jeffrey Long of West Seattle for the reminder of the Scates’ account.

David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

6 COMMENTS

  1. David – a footnote to your West Seattle bridge post. While serving on the Seattle Port Commission in the late ’80s I received a call from Harriet Bullitt, a committed civic activist with a keen interest in environmental issues, requesting a meeting regarding Kellogg Island. I knew and much respected Harriet and was pleased to honor her request.

    Harriet and a number of others – memorably, folks who arrived by kayak – met shortly thereafter on the western shore of the Duwamish, a short distance upriver from the West Seattle bridges opposite Kellogg Island. The group advised that Kellogg Island, a muddy undeveloped small outcrop owned by the Port of Seattle, was an important bird sanctuary. They requested that the Port abandon any interest in developing the island and commit to preserving Kellogg Island as a bird sanctuary.

    I then met with Port staff and learned that the Port owned several parcels of land on the Duwamish, including Kellogg Island, which it held in reserve for future development as container terminals and related commercial activity. Staff further advised that their was near zero probability of the Port developing its Duwamish holdings given the existing capacity of Port facilities on Elliott Bay, the recent significant expansion of the Port of Tacoma, and the overarching challenges to any development arising from fact that the ground was hugely contaminated. I conveyed the sanctuary request and the staff background to my fellow Commissioners and asked if anyone seriously opposed dedicating Kellogg Island as a bird sanctuary. None did and the sanctuary was created. (My dim recollection is that we went further, formally abandoning an interest in developing any container facilities on the Duwamish.

    On hearing of the Port’s decision, I received a call from City Councilman George Benson. Mild mannered George, a friend, could hardly contain his sense of betrayal for having supported construction of the high bridge solely on the basis of the Port’s claim of necessity to preserve the economic growth of the region.

  2. Thanks for that fascinating historic footnote, Henry. It reminds me not only of the Port’s delusions of expansion in high-land-cost Seattle, but also of the way the city has failed to realize what an asset it has in the Duwamish River — for recreation, for housing, for protection of habitat. Seattle’s housing crisis is partly the absence of affordable land for building affordable housing. But there is lots of such land in the river valley. That absurdly high bridge is a kind of mocking monument to our folly.

  3. Gerry Johnson, a Seattle attorney who served as Magnuson’s top aide at the time, adds some details to the saga of the West Seattle bridge. Sen. Magnuson saw an opportunity in the crash because it created “an obstruction to navigation” – which freed up federal emergency funds. Subsequently Maggie’s office was able to tap similar funding to replace the Hood Canal Bridge after it sank in a windstorm. In a note about political intrigue, Johnson recalls there was “a little drama” with then-Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams, who initially balked at the funding for the West Seattle high bridge and who was mulling a primary challenge against Magnuson. The high bridge, Johnson notes, was built to the Port’s specifications with the eager support of then-mayor Charlie Royer. A reader adds a related point, which pertains to the folly of the Port’s hope of developing the Duwamish River for large ships, namely that these ships would have had no way of turning around once up the narrow waterway.

  4. It has always baffled me that monorails are deemed incapable of going up or down hills. They are rubber-tired electric vehicles; we have electric rubber-tired buses going up and down Madison Street with its seventeen degree slopes. (I also can’t quite understand how a taller bridge has more stress on it than a shorter one: does gravity’s pull increase with height?)

    • Think of the bridge supports as a lever arm. If there were only vertical forces acting on the supports then the height of the bridge would not matter, aside from the extra weight of the taller supports. However, there are a lot of forces that act horizontally against the supports. These torque the supports in various ways. The longer the lever arm, the stronger these forces act against the base of the bridge.

  5. David. As you may recall around that time I was covering Port and trades issues from time to time for you at The Weekly. I had a certain insider perspective: my father, Ben Weeks, was then chair of Leckenby Company located on Harbor island since the mid-1940s – a position that led him to a stint at the time of the bridge incident as head of the Harbor Island Improvement Association. He told me that the day the ship hit the span and the days after he had numerous people calling to ask him if this was a done deal – intentional. The story had great fictive elements, at the very least, as I recall. If a planned fix of the old lower bridge was done, a high bridge would never cost out. Merle and friends dreamed of pushing containers all the way up the dredged Duwamish in Port of Rotterdam style – believing they could hold off Tacoma somehow or that the Puyallup would never settle their land dispute that opened the container biz big time there. Then drop into this the icon of a white-haired apparently somewhat absent-minded Scandinavian pilot and then put a person temporarily at the wheel to blame of another ethnicity – if I remember this correctly – and it all seemed to add up to a terrific script. And this was of course before Rolf passed through his wife’s meat grinder.

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