On December 18, 1962, the dedication of Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal Bridge is cut short when the ribbon is snipped before the ceremony begins. The snafu occurs when officials give a novice the honor of cutting the ribbon but forget to tell her that there will be several rehearsals before she is supposed to actually cut it. She instead snips the ribbon during the first rehearsal and before any of the dedicatory speeches are given, which brings the proceedings to a screeching halt as spectators rush to their cars to be the first across the bridge. The Seattle Times declares it "the quickest dedication ceremony in the memories of those present" ("Freeway Ribbon Cut ...").
An Enthusiastic Supporter
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 helped kick-start plans to build a freeway through Seattle, which became known as the Seattle Freeway (now part of Interstate 5), and the Lake Washington Ship Canal Bridge was to be part of the new highway. Construction of the freeway consumed thousands of acres of land and thousands of homes in the city, but many property owners cooperated with the process and willingly sold their property. Some were downright delighted to be a part of what then was considered progress, and Mrs. Effie Aldrich (1908-1973) was one of them. Even though her house was demolished as part of the freeway construction, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the project -- so much so that in 1958, the same year construction of the bridge began, she began saving newspaper clippings about the progress of the bridge and the freeway.
The first concrete was poured for the Ship Canal Bridge on September 24, 1958, and it was finished in 1961 at a cost of $14 million (equivalent to $130 million in 2022 dollars). At the time, the 4,429-foot-long double-decker bridge was the longest of its type in the Pacific Northwest. Because of the ongoing freeway construction, it was originally scheduled to open in the summer of 1963, and it sat unused over Portage Bay for more than a year. During this time there was serious consideration for using the span -- which could hold an estimated 2,500 cars -- as a parking lot for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition. This plan was scrapped at the last minute, so last minute that signs had already been put up for parking on the bridge.
In May 1962, the opening date was moved up to the coming November. It subsequently slipped to December 18, but this date held. The bridge would be opened in conjunction with the first section of the Seattle Freeway, a 2.2-mile stretch that ran north from East Roanoke Street over the bridge as far as NE Ravenna Boulevard. While the bridge has an eight-lane upper deck as well as a four-lane lower deck with reversible traffic lanes, only four lanes on the upper deck were slated to open on the bridge’s first day, two in each direction.
By this time Aldrich had accumulated five scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, and one day she took them to the Highway Department. Recognizing a good public-relations opportunity when they saw one, planners for the dedication ceremony invited her to cut the ribbon to open the bridge at the ceremony's end. However, in the excitement and hubbub of planning, they neglected to tell her that it was standard at such events for there to be three practice runs for photo opportunities before the ribbon was formally cut on the fourth run.
A Snip Too Soon
For December, the weather on dedication day wasn’t bad. The temperature was in the 40s and there was some wind and plenty of clouds, but it was dry. The ceremony was expected to last for up to an hour, and the dignitaries had speeches ready to go. A happy, expectant crowd gathered on the freeway near East Roanoke Street as 2 p.m. approached and the VIPs began to arrive. Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) and Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011) stepped up to the ribbon with a woman who no one recognized. The governor planned to introduce her in his speech before the ribbon cutting, but that was supposed to come later. Someone handed Aldrich, dressed in a hat and white gloves for the occasion, a pair of scissors. Rosellini and Clinton did a short practice run, and a beaming Aldrich reached out and snipped the ribbon. Rosellini’s jaw dropped.
So did a lot of others. The freed ribbon rippled in the breeze, and for a few seconds the officials simply stood there, still holding their speeches. The spectators reacted more quickly. Presumably most of them did not know the rehearsal process either, and as far as they were concerned, the ribbon was cut and the bridge was open. They turned and ran for their cars parked just behind them, determined to secure bragging rights to be among the first to cross the new bridge. But ever the master of ceremonies, Rosellini quickly recovered. He smoothly introduced Aldrich to the reporters, then hustled her into a car for the obligatory bridge and freeway tour.
After her moment of fame, Aldrich did not find herself in such a bright spotlight again. She remained in her Wallingford home until her 1973 death, and owned a nursing home in her later years. Interstate 5 was completed through King County in 1967 and through the state in 1969. In Seattle, the Ship Canal Bridge has reliably handled traffic through the city for 60 years; by 2022, it was serving more than 200,000 vehicles per day.