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All Over The Map: Twisted tales of the West Seattle Bridge

The West Seattle Bridge over the Duwamish River and Harbor Island – the roadway that was closed earlier this week when cracks were discovered in its concrete – is officially known as the “Jeanette Williams Memorial Bridge.”

Jeanette Williams died in 2008 at age 94. She was a member of the Seattle City Council from 1970 to 1989. As chair of the council’s Transportation Committee, she was a strong advocate for what was then called the “high-level West Seattle Bridge.”

The high-level bridge first opened to traffic in late 1983 and is one of the busiest traffic corridors in Seattle. City council named the bridge in Williams’ honor in July 2009.

The need for a high-level West Seattle Bridge went back to at least the 1960s, and planning got underway in earnest in the early 1970s. But scandals and other long delays in getting the project started even inspired a West Seattle secession movement in early 1978 when the city wouldn’t allocate any money for it.

Before the high bridge was built, the main route to West Seattle was the Spokane Street Viaduct and two side-by-side drawbridges built a few years apart in the 1920s. These bridges carried a total of four lanes in each direction over a narrow channel of the Duwamish River on the west side of Harbor Island. The drawbridges were opened to marine traffic several times each day for commercial vessels using that busy stretch of industrial waterway, which meant frequent delays for West Seattle drivers.

Early on the Sunday morning of June 11, 1978, a southbound 550-foot long freighter called the M/V Chavez was headed up the Duwamish to the Kaiser Cement Plant with a load of gypsum. Both the north and south bridges were opened to allow the Chavez to pass.

On the southbound ship, an 80-year old Puget Sound Pilot named Rolf Neslund was at the helm when something went wrong, and the vessel hit the east side of the north bridge.

And the Chavez hit it hard.  So hard, in fact, wood, metal, and concrete sections of the eastern half of the drawbridge were splintered, bent, and shattered. Worst of all, the east half of the drawbridge was now stuck in the up position. It would remain that way for a couple of years.

Quipsters joked that “the ship hit the span” (there may have even been t-shirts available with that slogan) and pundits wondered if maybe West Seattle bridge boosters had finally found a way to get the city to build a new bridge – by hiring Neslund to ram the old one.

After the accident and still in the early hours of Sunday morning, the story goes that the bridge tender frantically dialed the number for the mayor’s house to let the city’s chief executive know what had happened.

The phone rang, and Wes Uhlman picked up. The only trouble was, Uhlman had left office earlier that year and Charley Royer was now the mayor.

“Call the gosh darned Mayor,” Uhlman apparently told the bridge tender, though not in so many words.

With the north bridge knocked out of service, vehicle traffic was temporarily rerouted, with both directions now crossing the south bridge, and then a whole set of changing detours in what stretched into years of inconvenience.

Though there were fewer people in Seattle in 1978, it was a huge mess at times, especially when the still-functional south bridge opened to marine traffic. There was also no pandemic underway, of course.

It took a few years of legal battles, but the city ultimately received $2 million from the owner of the Chavez in compensation for damage to the old bridge. At the same time, the city and King County battled over funding of the new high bridge but ultimately hammered out a deal.

Jeanette Williams is credited with getting Senator Warren Magnuson’s help to get federal dollars, and with getting the Port of Seattle to chip in as well. After the design phase and bid process, construction began in late 1981 and the new bridge was formally dedicated in 1984. The low-level bridges were eventually replaced with a modern swing bridge in 1991.

Meanwhile, Rolf Neslund met a bizarre fate. He retired to his Lopez Island home a few weeks after the wreck, and was last seen in 1980 when, according to his wife Ruth Neslund, he told her he was going to visit family in his native Norway.

The details are grisly – a commercial-grade meat grinder and a backyard burn barrel are involved – and Ruth Neslund was convicted in 1985 of murdering her husband. His body was never found; she died in prison at the Women’s Correctional Center in Purdy in 1993 at age 73.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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