A lot of people will take credit for the reopening of the Murray Morgan Bridge in Tacoma during what has been proclaimed by the mayor as Bridge Week.
Some will even deserve it.
Once labeled an unsalvageable relic, an industrial eyesore that had been bypassed by history and most motorists, the iron bridge somehow survived to be the honored guest at its 100th birthday Friday. A $57 million restoration has given it new life and restored the connection between downtown Tacoma and the Tideflats.
And once again there is a link to the Foss Waterway, both its west shoreline and its eastern side. Bridge backers hope it will restart development on the near shore and spark a renaissance on the far side.
But none would be celebrating if not for a determined group of SOBs.
SOBs as in Save Our Bridge, a grass-roots group of Tacomans who decided to take on the state Department of Transportation, take on the engineers, take on the Port of Tacoma and spur city politicians to do the same.
“When we started, we were so naive we didn’t realize it could be done,” said Jim Hoard, the group’s treasurer. Along with Dawn Lucien, Clare Petrich, Bob Evans, Nancy Sayer and Bob Tschida, Hoard placed himself – figuratively – in front of the bulldozers.
Most of them count themselves among Tacoma history buffs, preservationists who think it is important to save the city’s significant structures, especially one listed on the local, state and national historic registers. But they also know that many dismiss such thoughts as overly romantic and detrimental to the economy.
So with the early help of then-Mayor Bill Baarsma and then-City Councilman Tom Stenger, the bridge backers portrayed restoration as the economically smart thing to do. Not only was restoring the bridge far cheaper than any replacement ideas, taking away the link to the port and the Foss would cost the regional economy dearly.
And, if that wasn’t convincing enough, they pointed out that public safety was at risk if emergency vehicles couldn’t move quickly from first-responder headquarters downtown to the port area and back to hospitals.
“It is seldom, I think, that a single structure combines so compellingly the claims of historic preservation, economic development and public safety,” Hoard wrote in his history of Save Our Bridge. “The fact that it does led, upon the (state DOT) announcement that it was to be closed and removed, to a sustained effort to see the bridge saved and rehabilitated.”
If you want to be an honorary SOB, you can attend a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony complete with classic cars from the LeMay museum, take part in a twilight fun run and even sample a special beer brewed by Harmon Brewing in the black bridge’s honor. And anytime you want, you can stroll across and take in the complex web of steel above and the striking views of the city, the Foss and Commencement Bay from the sidewalks.
OPENED IN 1913
“Huge Steel Bridge Is Open,” proclaimed the Tacoma Daily News on Feb. 15, 1913.
“Governor, Mayor and Commercial Club Secretary Speak at Formal Dedication – Champagne Spilled from Lofty Structure.”
The article bragged that this was such a big event that a national newsreel company sent a crew to the event to take pictures “which will be displayed the world over.” In fact, two newsreel crews took in the scene.
A few years later when the News was consolidated with the Tacoma Tribune, the new bridge was featured in the flag of the first edition of the Tacoma News Tribune, along with two other much-loved local icons – the Mountain and the Sun.
Why the big deal? The Tideflats was just beginning to become what it is today, the industrial and shipping center of the region. Until then, ships called on the mile-long warehouse on the western side of what is now the Foss Waterway.
But as the tidal flats were filled, workers needed to get from home to work. A previous drawbridge was small and unreliable. Tacoma needed a better bridge. One of the nation’s top bridge engineering firms was hired – Waddell & Harrington of Kansas City – and given the difficult task.
Waddell designed an early example of a vertical lift bridge – one that lifts from the center parallel to the water beneath rather than one that pivots from a center pier or lifts diagonally. According to the Historic American Engineering Record, this bridge was unique because of its height above the water (60 feet), the need for an overhead span to carry water pipes and because it was built on a 2 percent grade.
Gangways were added to let pedestrians reach the newly created Municipal Dock, home to the Mosquito Fleet of small vessels that ferried passengers to cities and towns around the Sound.
Hoard found John Alexander Low Waddell’s own account of the design, in which he claimed to have used 20 percent to 50 percent more steel than others recommended, a good thing since much of the traffic was carried over twin streetcar tracks.
“It is to be remembered,” Waddell wrote, “that most American iron highway bridges are not what they ought to be, and that the author has endeavored to design structures first-class in every respect.”
That sturdiness allowed the bridge to survive 90 years of heavy use and a decade of abuse and neglect by the state. More than just a transportation corridor, the bridge was a landmark and an icon. As the nexus between the city’s business center and its manufacturing and shipping, many strikes were fought on the approaches, either to keep strike-breakers out of the port or to keep strikers out of the city center.
Preservationist Michael Sullivan tells of one confrontation in 1935. National Guardsmen expected the bridge tender to raise the span to keep striking lumberworkers and longshore workers marching with them from crossing into downtown. When he balked, the Battle of Tacoma was joined at the intersection of South 11th Street and A Street.
STATE TAKES OVER
What had been a city-owned bridge was given over to the state in 1957 and designated Highway 509. It was the DOT’s job to maintain the bridge and its approaches until it no longer had use for them. By later agreement, the state could return it all to the city, as long as the bridge was in good working order. Later still, the deal was amended so that DOT could offer a new bridge if the old bridge was deemed beyond repair.
That time came in 1997 after the city celebrated the opening of a new state Route 509 corridor and a new cable-stayed bridge over the Foss. Both were part of a massive agreement between the Puyallup Tribe and the federal, state and local governments to settle reservation land claims dating back to the mid-1800s. The tribe received land along the Blair Waterway that would be more-valuable if the narrow opening at the mouth was widened. That required removal of a bridge there and relocation of the highway.
But when the cost of a replacement came in too high and when state engineers decided the old bridge was irreparable (backed up by full-color close-ups of spalling concrete and rusted joints), the state tried to back away from its deal. How about using the money set aside for bridge repair instead to tear it down and make other transportation improvements?
The port and the tribe thought this was a good idea. Then-port director Andrea Riniker feared a working bridge across the Foss would lead to a yuppie invasion on the east shore, causing the same kind of urban-port conflicts she witnessed around the Port of Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport.
And the port and tribe wanted a renovated Hylebos Bridge and other transportation improvements far more than a restored Murray Morgan.
The city was considering a counteroffer when Save Our Bridge formed to put a new – actually old – option on the table. How about instead the state keep its legal agreements? How about the city get its own engineering assessments and not rely on analysis by state engineers who wanted the old bridge out of their hair? How about the city hold the state responsible for its failure to maintain the bridge, leading to demolition by neglect?
While SOB kept the pressure on, the involvement of some of the city’s business leaders brought wavering council members along. Retired banker Bill Philip wrote that creation of the Urban Waters project might be reconsidered if there was no road access to the east shore. And Foss development authority president George Weyerhaeuser Jr. wrote that the development potential for both shorelines would be limited if the bridge was demolished and not replaced.
After several rounds of brinkmanship, the city and port cut a deal that led to port neutrality (at least publicly) on bridge restoration. And after a series of weight restrictions, partial closures and eventually complete closure by the state, another deal was struck when new DOT Secretary Paula Hammond reversed the agency’s position and supported a new turnback agreement with adequate compensation to restore the bridge.
Hoard says now that he thinks the public safety issue was most-compelling for Hammond. At the same time, the region’s legislative delegation – led by Tacoma Rep. Dennis Flannigan and Puyallup Sen. Jim Kastama – pushed through the appropriations to cover much of the cost. The federal government came through with a zero-interest loan to complete the package.
The result is an engineering tour de force of an engineering tour de force. A two-year project strengthens the bridge but retains much of its historic integrity.
THIS TIME, A MORGAN
In 1913, a Miss Enola McIntyre stood on the center span and rode it to its highest point. With hundreds of celebrants watching, she pulled a cord and released a bottle of champagne that swung and smashed against the girders, christening the bridge.
On Friday, a similar ceremony will be held. Standing in for Enola McIntyre will be Lane Morgan, the daughter of Tacoma’s much-loved historian and journalist who once worked as a tender in the shack above the bridge deck. The bridge was renamed the Murray Morgan Bridge in 1997.
Among the things that have changed in the 100 years between christenings are safety rules. Unlike Miss McIntyre, Lane Morgan will launch the ceremonial bottle of champagne from a less-lofty perch, on the sidewalk of the glossy black bridge.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
Murray Morgan Bridge events
Light the Bridge 5K Run/Walk, 6 p.m.
A fun run/walk through downtown Tacoma and over the Murray Morgan Bridge will begin at 11th Street and A Street. Participants are asked to wear head lamps or carry flashlights or glow sticks. Advance registration is required. Online: cityoftacoma.org/MMB100
Rededication ceremony, 10 a.m.
Bridge christening, classic car procession, speakers and more. The event will be held at the approach to the bridge near the intersection of 11th Street and A Street. Online: cityoftacoma.org/MMB100
MONDAY THROUGH SATURDAY
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland declared Feb. 11-16 as Murray Morgan Bridge Week. Tacoma businesses are celebrating by offering discounts and specials to customers. Online: tacomachamber.org/content/murray-morgan-bridge-week