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Historic Salmon Bay railroad bridge is here to stay

The 1914 Salmon Bay Bridge, as it appears to hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to the Ballard Locks. (Feliks Banel)

At the end of a rough week for those who care about local history – with the sale of Bartell Drugs to Rite Aid, and then the imminent removal of the Elephant Car Wash sign – comes some good news about the historic Salmon Bay railroad bridge in Ballard.

Almost exactly two years ago, BNSF Railway announced that it planned to replace the iconic, appeared-in-a-million-pictures-taken-at-the-locks, vintage 1914 structure.

But now, earlier this week, BNSF announced a change in plans that will save the railroad roughly $50 million, and keep much of the original drawbridge in place, looking just as it does now.

“We know that we need to replace our counterweight system,” BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace told KIRO Radio, referring to the massive, elevated, and moveable one-million pound chunk of concrete that helps make the drawbridge easier to open and close, but that also creates heavy wear and tear on the machinery.

“Originally, we had proposed replacing the entire bridge, but after feedback from the community – maritime and a few others – we took a step back and looked to see if there was another direction we could go,” Wallace said.

That other direction, Wallace says, involves “replacing the trunnion bearings and then the concrete that accounts for most of the counterweight.”

And that means good news for those who may not know what a trunnion bearing is — but who do care about the visual landscape — especially looking west from the Ballard Locks.

“The bridge is going to look substantially similar to what it does [now] once we’re done with that project,” Wallace said, acknowledging how significant the bridge is to so many residents – not to mention tourists – while also pointing out that BNSF’s primary concern is safety for the trains that move freight and people across Salmon Bay.

“We understand that people really love this bridge and we want to be good neighbors,” Wallace said. “We want to make sure that it works from an engineering perspective and that it opens and closes” for the 35 to 50 trains a day that cross it, and the marine traffic that travels underneath it.

Timing of the bridge project remains to be determined.

“We haven’t submitted the permit applications because will still need to go through permitting for the bridge,” Wallace said. “We’ll be working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, [and] as part of the permitting process, there will be engagement with quite a few stakeholders throughout the region. We’re hoping to have more of those details to share in the near future.”

If and when permits are approved and construction gets underway, Wallace says, the Salmon Bay railroad bridge – looking pretty much like it has since 1914 – is here to stay.

“We’re hoping to get several more decades of use out of the bridge,” Wallace said.

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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