Politicians, officials, and members of the public dedicate Pacific Highway's Puyallup Avenue Bridge linking Tacoma and Fife on January 8, 1927.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/08/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10427

On January 8, 1927, politicians and officials from Washington state and the federal government join with the public to dedicate the new Puyallup Avenue Bridge between Tacoma and Fife, a critical segment of the still-incomplete Pacific Highway. Building the bridge has taken not much more than a year at a construction cost of approximately $665,000. The ceremony, organized by the Pierce County chapter of the Automobile Club of Washington, takes place on the bridge's long center span, above the slow waters of the Puyallup River. A band plays, politicians speechify, and a large crowd watches as Washington Governor Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952) drives an automobile through a satin ribbon stretched across the center of the bridge. Although the bridge is virtually complete save for cosmetic finishing touches, the highway leading to it from the north is not, and the span will not officially open to traffic until more than eight months later.

The Pacific Highway

The government of Washington state was slow to embrace the inevitably of the automobile and to grasp the magnitude of the new infrastructure that would be needed to support it. Before 1905, roads in the state (and earlier, in Washington Territory) were built by individuals, and by towns, cities, and counties to accommodate local needs. Only rarely did the topic of roads even come up in the state legislature, and when it did, little was accomplished. The first State Highway Department was established in 1905, but its early efforts focused on the needs of the horse and buggy, which required less-durable roads than heavier, faster, motorized vehicles. Little progress was made in building roads to accommodate them, and the first concrete road in the state was not put into use until 1912, when it proved a great success. But automobiles and trucks began coming off American assembly lines, and by 1920 they would number 185,000 in Washington state alone. That same year American manufacturers produced 2.3 million new vehicles.

Some members of the public were advocates of the automobile and of good roads to drive them on, including, notably, Samuel Hill (1857-1931), son-in-law of railroad magnate James J. Hill (1838-1916). Even before the full dawn of the auto age and as early as 1894, Hill dreamed of "a highway built through British Columbia down our own coastline, clear to Mexico and it’s going to be a hard surfaced road" ("Samuel Hill celebrates ..."). In 1899, Hill founded and became first president of the Washington State Good Roads Association, dedicated, as its name stated, to promoting the construction, by government, of good roads. The organization still exists today, now known as the Washington State Good Roads & Transportation Association.

Hill was quoted as saying, "Good roads are more than my hobby; they are my religion," and he was willing to put his funds where his faith was, paying for several experimental roadways built on the grounds of Maryhill, his estate on the Columbia River ("Sam Hill and other visionaries ..."). Although some questioned Hill's motives, by 1907 the organization he founded had helped convince the new highway department to pay for a dozen proposed state highways and to help with the expense of a few county roads.

On September 19, 1910, at the Alaska Club in downtown Seattle, a more specialized group, the Pacific Highway Association of North America was born. As explained in The Seattle Daily Times:

"The new association will have as its principal object the promotion of the construction of an international highway along the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico. There is already a strong sentiment for this road, and the organization perfected last night is merely for the purpose of procuring concerted action in pushing the project" ("Autoists Organize Highway Association").

Slowly, the state legislature was brought around, and in 1913 it adopted its first plan for a system that would connect many of the state's scattered short segments of road into a coherent whole and supplement it with new roads. What were termed "secondary routes" were given numbers by the legislature, but nine planned primary roads were given names instead, including the Pacific Highway. It would eventually become the longest and one of the most famous in the nation, and the Puyallup Avenue Bridge between Tacoma and Fife would in 1927 become one of the last completed Washington links in the border-to-border route.

The Bridge

The Puyallup Avenue Bridge (also known as the Puyallup River Bridge and the Eells Street Bridge) was designed by engineers of the State Highway Department and built by Grant Smith and Company of Seattle. The federal government, which would pay for somewhat more than one-half the cost of building the span, approved the plans and specifications in 1925 and site preparation started on September 14 of that year. Only American-made materials, including steel, were used on the project. The Wallace Equipment Company of Seattle began fabricating the steel trusswork in early 1926 while workers were busy building reinforced-concrete approaches on both sides of the river. 

The roadway of the Puyallup Avenue Bridge is 36 feet wide with a five-foot pedestrian walkway on either side, and its 2,833-foot length is divided into sections. Five separate truss spans are incorporated along its length, one each over the railroad tracks on either river bank and three linked spans that carry traffic across the river. These three central sections are Pennsylvania petit trusses, a variation of the Pratt truss, but with a parabolic, as opposed to flat, profile along the top chord. All five steel sections are through-truss spans: The roadway travels between and under the truss framework, which rises on both sides and is cross-braced overhead. 

The approaches to the bridge on the west start on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma's industrial area south of Commencement Bay. For reasons that are unclear, Puyallup Avenue is called Eells Street as it crosses the bridge, but remains so for only a short distance on the other side before becoming Pacific Highway East in Fife. Besides being a crucial link in the interstate Pacific Highway, the bridge greatly eased travel between Tacoma and Fife and Tacoma and Seattle, replacing the meandering High Line Road in the latter case.

Grant Smith and Company brought the span to completion within budget and two months earlier than forecast. Regular inspection reports by the federal Bureau of Highways consistently indicated high satisfaction with both the progress and quality of the work. When all was added up, the federal government paid for somewhat more than half the total cost, which, including design and engineering, was $765,000.

Dedicated Then Deserted 

The good citizens of Pierce County had waited a long time for the Puyallup Avenue Bridge, and they were eager to celebrate even before the last scaffolding was dismantled. Although the finishing touches would not be completed until late February, 1927, the county chapter of the Automobile Club of Washington sent out invitations on December 30, 1926, for a dedication ceremony to be held nine days later, on January 8. Obviously, much of the planning had already been done, and a number of government officials and members of the public who had promoted the bridge were slated to be on hand.

The day dawned fair and cool on Saturday, January 8, as the first crowds gathered for the ceremony on the long, central span of the bridge. The festivities began with a concert by the Pierce County Firemen's and Policemen's Band, followed by a benediction by the Reverend C. Oscar Johnson of Tacoma's First Baptist Church. Appropriately, the men who actually designed and built the bridge were introduced first by Clifford L. Babcock (1866-1934), president of the Washington State Good Roads Association, former state representative and state treasurer, and a member of the board of the Pierce County chapter of the Automobile Club of Washington. Among those brought forward by Babcock were Bert Noble, Grant Smith & Company's superintendant of construction; D. W. Andrews, the primary designer of the bridge; and C. H. Purcell, the U.S. government's highway engineer assigned to the project.

Next up were the politicians, some of whom had only the most glancing relationship to the project and next to nothing to do with its planning or construction. They paraded through one by one, first the mayors -- M. G. Tennent (d. 1969) of Tacoma, who in 1948 would try and fail to become Seattle's mayor; Bertha K. Landes (1868-1943), who had been elected as Seattle's first woman mayor months earlier; and J. A. Smith, mayor of Marysville. His presence at the ceremony had some symbolic significance: This was the dedication of the southernmost bridge on the Tacoma-to-Marysville link of the Pacific Highway, and the Ebey Slough Bridge, which would open in August 1927, at Marysville, was the farthest north. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, one politician couldn't make it -- Mayor J. H. Smith (1858-1956) of Everett (not to be confused with the aforementioned J. A. Smith of Marysville) was hospitalized on the big day. He recovered and went on to live to the age of 98.

After a brief musical break, the introductions continued: Louis F. Hart (1862-1929), the immediately previous Washington governor; Automobile Club of Washington President J. W. Maxwell (1864-1951), a Seattle banker who, although he didn't quite live to see it, was the maternal great-grandfather of Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates (b. 1955); C. L. Stinson, vice-president of the Washington State Good Roads Association; and a smattering of state legislators and bureaucrats.

The featured speaker was State Senator Oliver Hall (1852?-1946) of Whitman County, who, as head of the senate's roads committee, was one legislator who was early to see the need for a good state highway system and worked tirelessly to drag many of his colleagues into the twentieth century. He was followed by Governor Hartley, who made a speech accepting the bridge on behalf of the State.

His oration finished, Hartley settled behind the steering wheel of an automobile (the year, make, and model of which was not recorded) and drove slowly across the bridge from west to east, starting on the Tacoma side and followed by the assembled, on foot. In the very center of the span his vehicle pushed gently through a satin ribbon, symbolically opening the bridge. He and the crowd then proceeded slowly on to leave the span at Fife and disperse. No one bothered to publish a count of the attendees, but the event was big enough news to draw newsreel photographers from both the British company Pathé and the American company Kinogram. Copies of those films apparently no longer exist.

After the day's events, the Puyallup Avenue Bridge sat unused for more than eight months. Workers did a little touch-up, patching a few cracks here and there and cleaning and dressing some of the concrete on the bridge's railings and curbs. But the job was for all practical purposes complete. What wasn't yet complete was much of the Pacific Highway between Marysville and Tacoma. As explained by The Tacoma News Tribune,

"Only the road grade north of the bridge is completed, hence the highway is not open to traffic. The next Legislature, convening next Monday at Olympia, is expected to appropriate sufficient funds to complete the highway by paving at least a 20-foot strip the entire distance from Tacoma to Marysville. The cost of completing the highway is estimated at $2,700,000" ("Bridge Ceremony Plans Complete").

Enough highway was paved by August 1927, to allow traffic at last to access the new bridge. It was put into service that month, with little or no additional fanfare, or at least none that was covered by the local press. Eighty-six years later, in 2013, the City of Tacoma, now the owner, was far along on plans to replace the sturdy old span at an estimated cost of $38 million, almost exactly 50 times the original price tag.


"The Automobile Industry, 1920-1929," Bryant University History of American Technology website accessed July 8, 2013 (http://web.bryant.edu/~ehu/h364/materials/cars/cars%20_30.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Sam Hill and other visionaries organize the Washington State Good Roads Association on September 14, 1899" (by David Wilma), and "Alaskan Way Viaduct, Part 2: Planning and Design" (by Jennifer Ott), and "Puyallup Avenue Bridge" (by John Caldbick, http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 8, 2013); "Autoists Organize Highway Association," The Seattle Daily Times, September 20, 1910, p. 9; "All Set to Dedicate New Tacoma Bridge," The Tacoma News Tribune, December 30, 1926, p. 1; "Bridge Ceremony Plans Complete," Ibid., January 7, 1927, p. 13; "Dedicated $765,000 Bridge," Ibid., January 8, 1927, p. 1.

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