Uncovering the mysterious origins of the name ‘Aurora Bridge’

Jul 14, 2023, 9:05 AM | Updated: Jul 15, 2023, 9:32 am

aurora bridge origins name...

A major piece of transportation infrastructure in Seattle as it appeared in May 1931, a few months before it was given a name nobody would ever use. (Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)

(Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives)

Q: What do you call the big piece of transportation infrastructure which carries State Route 99 high over Fremont and the Lake Washington Ship Canal?

A: The Aurora Bridge

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The “Aurora Bridge” is indeed the common name for the structure, but its official name is the “George Washington Memorial Bridge,” as suggested by Reverend John N. Lyle of Fairview Presbyterian Church – and a few other unidentified locals back in 1931.

The bridge was opened to traffic and formally dedicated on February 22, 1932, which was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the father of our country and the namesake of our territory, state, and nearby big lake.

For some reason, the Aurora Bridge name is what caught on, and nobody has ever called it anything else or even given it a cute nickname like “The George,” “The Georgie,” or “The GW.”

But where does the name Aurora come from?

It’s answers to inane questions such as this that first inspired the creation of the weekly All Over The Map feature back in 2019.

Benjamin Lukoff is a local historian who writes a blog about street names called “Writes of Way.” He says Aurora Street was first named in 1888 by a dentist named Edward C. Kilbourne.

At the outset, Aurora Street was only about four blocks long and was pretty much right underneath the north side of where the Aurora Bridge is now, What was the original Aurora Street now leads directly to the Troll, and is known as Troll Avenue.

The “Aurora” name was extended from downtown to the city limits as part of the bridge construction project in the early 1930s, and nowadays, this name for the roadway goes all the way to the King-Snohomish County line.

Inspiration, says Lukoff, came from the name of Edward C. Kilbourne’s hometown of Aurora, Illinois.

But where did the name for Aurora, Illinois, come from?

Again, it’s an answer to inane questions . . . please see above!

KIRO Newsradio checked with the Land of Lincoln’s Aurora Historical Society, located (not surprisingly) in Aurora, Ill., which is about 40 miles west of Chicago.

Executive director John Jaros confirmed that Edward C. Kilbourne grew up in Aurora and that his parents and other relatives are buried there.

In an email, Jaros said that the name “Aurora” dates to 1837. It was suggested by a man named Elias D. Terry in honor of Aurora, New York, which was not far from where Terry was raised.

And how was Aurora, New York, named? Okay, you get the drill by now. No need to see the above.

Continuing this eastbound research trek, KIRO Newsradio spoke with Linda Schwab, village historian for Aurora, New York.

Schwab told KIRO Newsradio that Aurora, New York is on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, one of the region’s Finger Lakes – not far from Dave Ross’ old haunt of Cornell University and home to Wells College.

In 1795, Schwab says, a man named Benjamin Ledyard, who had been an officer in the militia during the Revolutionary War and served with George Washington at Valley Forge, was given real estate from Iroquois territory along that part of the lake as a reward for serving his country.

“During the American Revolution, Benjamin Ledyard served in two successive New York regiments,” Schwab told KIRO Newsradio. “And in the Fourth New York Regiment, he was by that time an officer, he was a major, so he was one of the field officers with Washington at Valley Forge.”

Schwab says the area where Aurora is situated along Cayuga Lake is backed by a steep ridge immediately to the east. This topography – along with the sunrise – inspired Benjamin Ledyard.

“It seems to take a long time for the sun to come up, you see it brightening the sky, you see its rays hitting the lake shore opposite, but you don’t see the sun itself until way into the morning,” Schwab said. “So it does seem as if dawn lingers.”

“Now, anybody could see this,” Schwab continued. “And this officer was well acquainted with the Classics, and he knew that Aurora was the Goddess of the Dawn in Roman mythology.”

Along with inspiring the name of Aurora, Ill., Schwab says her town also inspired the name of East Aurora, New York – which is actually west of the original Aurora, New York.

In review:

Aurora, New York, was named in 1795 by Benjamin Ledyard, who served with George Washington

Aurora, Illinois, was named in 1837 by Elias D. Terry, who grew up near Aurora, New York

Aurora Street was named in 1888 by Edward C. Kilbourne, who grew up in Aurora, Illinois

George Washington Memorial Bridge was named in 1931 by Reverend John N. Lyle

Thus, connecting the dots, there has always been a direct connection between Aurora, New York, and George Washington, and the George Washington Bridge and Aurora Avenue – no matter what the bridge has been called for more than 90 years.

One more fascinating factoid: both John Jaros and Linda Schwab say that the Indigenous place names for Aurora, Illinois (“Waubonsie”) and Aurora, New York (“Deawendote”) are, respectively, names or terms which translate as “dawn” or “break of day.” So, the meaning of “Aurora” may go back even further than a well-educated Revolutionary War general.

As to why the George Washington tribute never caught on for Seattle’s bridge, Benjamin Lukoff says he’s only speculating, but “it’s just not that distinctive … there are ‘George Washington’ bridges everywhere, probably.”

And some astute observers saw it coming.

As early as October 8, 1931, an editorial page writer for the Seattle Times accurately predicted what the bridge would come to be called by most people.

Elision is an American habit; most persons will drop a letter, or a syllable, or cut a corner, whether it be of a street or a two-dollar bill, if the slightest chance offers,” the unknown editorialist writes. “And so, while the great structure above the Lake Washington Ship Canal now has been formally designated as the George Washington Memorial Bridge, it will be Aurora Bridge or just ‘the big bridge’ so far as the public is concerned, and anywhere and everywhere except on the official maps.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Uncovering the mysterious origins of the name ‘Aurora Bridge’