The Once Beautiful University Bridge

University Bridge is a story of gain and loss. The gain was the current 1919 bascule (draw) bridge, designed by City Architect Daniel R. Huntington, that replaced the 1891 wooden Latona Bridge.

The loss were the four towers the bridge once had.

Drawbridges were needed to allow ships to pass through the newly minted Ship Canal. University Bridge was the last of three bascule bridges built at the time – the other two were the 15th Avenue (Ballard) and Fremont bridges.

Although technically still standing, the original bridge barely lasted thirteen years. Everything except the massive piers below was demolished when the bridge was widened in 1932-33.

The towers were roughly 18 feet long and pedestrians could walk through them enjoying a window view over the lake. Each tower likely had a stairway for the bridge tenders who had to manually lower the roadway gates to stop traffic before lifting the drawbridge. Automatic roadway gates were installed with the 1933 remodel, and the four towers were replaced with two non-descript, utilitarian control towers.

The four original Huntington towers are clearly visible in the 1932 photo above that was taken just before demolition. Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, N. 5441

Going, going! The wrecking ball is poised above one of the four original towers of the University Bridge just before it is about to be demolished in 1932 to make way for the bridge expansion. Photo was taken from the bridge deck looking northeast. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, N. 5811

University Bridge today can best be viewed from North Passage Park on the northwest side of the Ship Canal, under I-5 Freeway. From there you can can see the massive Huntington piers that hold the counterweights (also visible on either side) for the lifting and lowering of the drawbridge, but everything else – the thinner concrete piers of the approaches and the concrete railing and roadway above is from 1933.

University Bridge today viewed from North Passage Park in Wallingford.

The 1933 bridge was designed for both streetcars and horseless carriages, and its concrete railings were a safety improvement. Prior to that, the wood railings on the 1919 bridge protected pedestrians and horses but did little for careening cars trying to avoid accidents on the busy bridge but instead taking dives into the lake.

The remodel brought with it the innovative steel mesh grating that made for a lighter bridge, the first of its kind in the nation. But the expanded roadway turned out to be substandard for motor vehicles; on the plus side, it’s now the bike lane. 

While all four draw bridges over the Ship Canal were registered in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1982, only the Fremont Bridge and Montlake Bridge are Designated Seattle Landmarks. Had the city preserved the four original towers, University Bridge might have had more of the cachet of those two bridges and been a wonderful link between them.

In 1914 as the first three bascule bridges were being designed, there was a definite awareness of aesthetics as noted in the National Historic Places nomination:

On April 20, 1914 the city engineer wrote a letter to the city council: ‘of late years, it is recognized that it may be possible to secure graceful and pleasing lines, even in steel structures, without spending any large additional amount of money. It is fortunately possible owing to the height at which our bridges will be built above the water level to secure equal mechanical efficiency with a well-balanced and pleasing effect.’ D.R. Huntington, City Architect, was responsible for the architectural treatment of the piers of the three bascule bridges. The massive, concrete piers of the University Bridge and the handsome towers on the Fremont Bridge provide an appropriate architectural frame for the passageway between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. However, the architectural treatment of these three bascule bridges do not equal the monumental stature of the cross-girder bascule bridge built across the canal at Montlake Avenue in 1924.

Today, the drawbridge opens about 3,000 times a year down from a peak of 7,000 in the late 1970s. After the Fremont and Ballard bridges, University Bridge is one of the busiest drawbridges in the country.

Drawing by Karen Berry

Written by Judy Smith

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