Great Northern Overpass near Burlington in Skagit County opens on November 25, 1936.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/04/2018
  • Essay 20644

On November 25, 1936, the Great Northern Overpass opens. The bridge, which carries U.S. Highway 99 over the Great Northern Railway tracks some three miles north of Burlington, is built as part of the Lake Samish Highway, which runs between Burlington in Skagit County and Bellingham in Whatcom County. The highway is part of U.S. Highway 99, the West Coast's main north-south highway, and both the Lake Samish Highway and the overpass prove to be critical connections between Skagit County and points north for local farmers and tourists alike. The 1,182-foot-long trestle bridge, renamed the Burlington Northern Overpass in the 1970s, will survive into the twenty-first century before being demolished in 2017.

Lake Samish Road versus Chuckanut Drive

The Lake Samish Road connected Burlington and Bellingham by the early 1910s. It was named after Lake Samish, a lake southeast of Bellingham that the road paralleled for several miles. For a few years it was the primary road between the two cities, though there was also a rail connection and, beginning in 1912, a trolley connection. Then Chuckanut Drive to the west opened in 1916, and it quickly became the preferred automotive route with its scenic bay vistas and exciting hairpin curves along its northern section. By 1921 it was almost completely paved, another plus in an era when most country roads were dirt or gravel.

But Chuckanut Drive proved to be a victim of both its own success and advancing technology. By the late 1920s, it was no longer able to adequately handle increasing traffic on the road. Further, the vehicles of the late 1920s were heavier and more powerful than the vehicles of a decade earlier and they needed sturdy roads that could handle speeds up to 60 miles an hour. This ruled much of Chuckanut Drive out. However, improving the Lake Samish Road was an attractive option.

For its first 15 years Chuckanut Drive had been part of the Pacific Highway, the West Coast's main north-south route between the Canadian and Mexican borders. In 1931 Chuckanut Drive was designated an alternate route on the highway, by then known as U.S. Highway 99, and the Lake Samish Road became the main route. This spurred state action, and in 1934 preliminary work began for the new Lake Samish Highway.

A New Highway, a New Bridge

Preparation work for the Lake Samish Highway continued through 1935, and by late in the year the state was soliciting bids for the paving work in Skagit County. The state was also soliciting bids for work on the Great Northern Overpass, and in December 1935 H. S. Steffensen of Seattle was awarded a contract to build the bridge. It was to cross over the Great Northern Railway near the small settlement of Belleville, several miles north of Burlington. A brief description of the project in a late-November issue of The Seattle Times noted that it was to include approximately 753 cubic yards of concrete, 66,000 pounds of structural carbon steel, 152,000 pounds of steel reinforcing bars, nearly 230,000 board feet of timber and lumber, and more than 22,000 lineal feet of treated piles.

The Great Northern Overpass was designed by Otto Rae Elwell (1890-1935), a state engineer who is known for designing the Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges that connected Island County's Whidbey Island to Fidalgo Island in Skagit County near Anacortes. He designed a wooden-trestle bridge, 1,182 feet long and 33 feet wide. Its concrete deck was 29 feet wide, and its roadway had two 11-foot driving lanes with one-foot shoulders. There was a sidewalk on the west side of the bridge, and there were metal guardrails on both sides of the bridge.

The overpass and the Lake Samish Highway were constructed in 1936, with the latter getting the most attention. The paving work in Skagit County was divided into three segments. By August that year, one three-and-a-half mile segment between the state gravel pit (located near the overpass) and the state fish hatchery was completed, but two other segments -- a three-mile stretch from the gravel pit south to Burlington and a six-mile stretch from the fish hatchery north to Lake Samish -- were still under construction. It was the six-mile stretch that created an issue when workers there walked off the job on August 14, demanding an increase in pay and that all the workers on the job be union members. The strike lasted for 16 days and threatened to delay the project to the point where it would not be completed before winter weather became a problem. An agreement was finally reached late on August 29 when the contractor agreed to provide pay increases and also to staff the job exclusively with union members. Work on the highway resumed, with an anticipated completion date during the latter half of October.

It took a bit longer than that, but the highway -- and the new Great Northern Overpass -- quietly opened to traffic on November 25, 1936. A formal dedication ceremony followed on December 1 in Alger, a small community in northern Skagit County near the Whatcom County line. Between 250 and 300 people attended, including state Director of Highways Lacey Murrow (1904-1966).

A Key Role

The Lake Samish Highway and the Great Northern Overpass played a key role in transportation in northern Skagit County between the 1930s and the 1960s. The county's agricultural production, especially in seed crops and later in tulips, blossomed during these years. The crops were transported along the highway and over the bridge in heavy trucks, and they were harvested by heavy combines that also used the highway and bridge. A good road and a good bridge were essential to handle this traffic. They were also essential just to handle traffic from locals and tourists alike, given the road's status as the West Coast's major highway.

By the late 1960s Interstate 5 had replaced U.S. 99 as the West Coast's main traffic artery, but the overpass served for another 50 years on what became known as Old Highway 99 North Road. Like the road, the bridge got a new name around this time: The Great Northern Railway and three other railroads merged and became the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1970, and the bridge was soon thereafter renamed the Burlington Northern Overpass.  

By 2015 the bridge was still handling an estimated 6,000 vehicles a day, with 15 percent of this traffic representing truck and freight traffic. At the time, the bridge was the second-longest bridge with timber supports in the state, and it was considered eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But a decaying substructure meant the end for the overpass, and it was torn down in 2017. A new overpass replaced it the following year.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Burlington Northern Overpass (Skagit County)" (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed October 4, 2018); "Samish Highway Is Dedicated by 2-Counties Group," The Bellingham Evening News, December 1, 1936, p. 1; "Samish Paving Project Is Halted," The Bellingham Herald, August 15, 1936, p. 1; "Samish Highway Workers Win Pay Boost," Ibid., August 30, 1936, p. 1; "Highway to Open," Ibid., November 25, 1936, p. 3; "Notice to Contractors," The Seattle Times, November 22, 1935, p. 24; "$550,510 Road Work Awarded," Ibid., July 1, 1936, p. 8; "Seven Contracts on Highway Work Awarded in State," Ibid., July 29, 1936, p. 20; "Samish Highway Opening Celebrated," Ibid., December 2, 1936, p. 9.

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