Find of the Month

Each month we highlight interesting, important, and odd items from our collection, along with the stories they tell.

Most recent Find of the Month

May 2024 - Bridges vs. tunnels

tunnel plan

With the Lake Washington Ship Canal due to open in 1917, Seattle began to plan for how people and vehicles were going to cross the newly widened waterway. A bond issue to fund bridges was to go on the ballot in the fall of 1913, but an engineer named J.W. Johnson wrote to City Council with an alternative plan.

Over half of his 4-page letter was dedicated to explaining why bridges were a bad idea and not at all what was needed for a town "destined to be a world city." Johnson argued that bridges would impede ships in the canal, would slow wagon traffic when opened or under repair, and would require an "appalling" level of expenses for maintenance and operation (he estimated $8000 per year per bridge). He also believed a bridge would last just 15 years before needing to be completely rebuilt.

Johnson predicted that with the coming opening of the Panama Canal, hundreds of thousands of people would come to settle in Seattle needing homes and employment and increasing traffic, adding, "We cannot build for the present Seattle; we must build for the future." Bridges "will not serve our purpose" - but luckily, he had another proposal ready to go. He contended that a tunnel could be built for the same cost as building and maintaining a bridge "for a given period" and that the tunnel would be "everlasting" if properly constructed.

He included a map with two suggested tunnel locations, as well as two drawings showing areas for streetcars, wagons, pedestrians, and utilities. He envisioned the tunnels to be 50 feet wide and 18 feet high, with concrete construction, brick pavement, and glazed tile interior walls. His estimated cost was $200 per foot for a total of $500,000 per tunnel. He anticipated the council's sticker shock at this number but argued that "we cannot expect to become a world port unless we offer every facility to the world."

The council appeared not to seriously investigate Johnson's proposal, as his letter was placed on file and they went ahead with the bridge bond issue that fall. The ballot measure did not pass, but the following year voters approved bonds for bridges in Ballard and Fremont.

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Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.