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Building bridges: The history behind the Fremont, University, and Ballard bridges 

A person walking their dog across the Fremont Bridge. Photo credit: SDOT 

Seattle is full of history everywhere you look, including our movable bridges along the Ship Canal! Built in the early 1900s, the Fremont, University, and Ballard bridges are 3 of the many bridges we own, operate, inspect, and maintain throughout the city. The nearby Montlake Bridge is owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).  

Our work includes giving our bridges cool water baths in the summer and conducting routine and special inspections year-round to ensure the bridges can safely operate to accommodate travelers on land and by water. Keeping our bridges well-maintained supports our core value of mobility and our goal to reliably connect people, places, and goods. 

Blue and black graphic with yellow and white text that reads: Mobility. We believe transportation choices are critical to accessing opportunities. Our goal is to build, operate, and maintain an accessible transportation system that reliable connects people, places, and goods.
Mobility is one of our core values and goals. Graphic credit: SDOT 

These three movable bridges are technically “bascule” bridges, though they’re also commonly known as drawbridges. To open for boat traffic, they rotate in an upward direction through movement of a massive counterweight activated by gears and motors near the end of the span, also known as a leaf, similar to a seesaw. There can be single or double leaf openings. Read on to learn how these bridges were built! 

Fremont Bridge 

Photo of the blue and orange Fremont bridge on clear day. A white boat is in the water under the bridge to the right corner.
The Fremont bridge in 2015. Photo credit: SDOT 

Connecting the Fremont and Queen Anne neighborhoods, the Fremont Bridge was the first double-leaf bascule bridge built in Seattle. The stylization of the bridge came from city engineer Arthur H. Dimock, who had studied various bridge designs for two years to find the best fit for the bustling neighborhoods and busy Ship Canal.  

Black and white photo of the Fremont bridge, with a cars traveling across the bridge in both directions.
Photo of cars on the Fremont bridge in 1935, while new steel-grid decking was being installed. Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives 

Requiring over 100 tons of structural steel, construction for the Fremont bridge began in 1915 and was completed in 1917 with space for pedestrians, streetcars, and vehicles. Known for its bright blue and orange color, the Fremont bridge is believed to be the most frequently opened and closed bascule bridge in the United States – and one of the busiest bridges of this type in the world in terms of total span openings per year. (Source: HistoryLink). Fun fact: in 2021 alone, the Fremont Bridge also saw more than 715,000 bicyclists cross the bridge! Check out our Fremont Bike Counter web page for counts since 2012. 

University Bridge 

Photo of the University bridge taken from a boat on Lake Union, large body of water in front of the university bridge viewed from the side on a cloudy day.
The University Bridge in 2019. Photo credit: SDOT 

The University Bridge we know today has come a long way since its initial completion in 1891, when it was known as the Latona Bridge. Made from wooden materials, the heavily used bridge required frequent repairs over the years. After much debate in 1915, the city decided to rebuild the bridge to better accommodate travelers over the Lake Washington Ship Canal. 

Black and white photo of the university bridge taken in an aerial shot with the University District behind it.
The University Bridge back in 1933. Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives  

Introduced in 1917 as the University Bridge, it was not until nearly 13 years later that the bridge was renovated – including concrete, steel, and an open mesh steel deck. This open mesh steel design fortified the bridge and did not require active frequent replacements like its wooden counterpart did. The University Bridge was the first use of open steel mesh grating technology in the United States and is currently on the National Register of Historic Places, as of 1982. (Source: HistoryLink

Ballard Bridge 

Photo of the Ballard Bridge from the side, with Lake Union in front and a cloudy sky.
Ballard Bridge in 2016. Photo credit: SDOT 

As the longest bascule bridge on the Ship Canal in Seattle at 2,854 feet, the Ballard bridge connects Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Interbay neighborhoods to Ballard. Built in 1917, the bridge faced issues with its original wooden frame, despite its concrete and steel additions.  

Black and white photo of the Ballard bridge during construction, half-way built with an open end shown at the front of the photo.
Ballard Bridge under construction in 1917. Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives  

Even with the use of more durable material, such as the open steel mesh deck the Ballard Bridge approaches still had to be rebuilt due to its decaying wooden trestles. As the last bridge of the three to be rebuilt, it took one and a half years for completion. The Ballard Bridge has been faithfully operating for more than 100 years! (Source: HistoryLink

Recently, incoming SDOT Director Greg Spotts toured the University Bridge while the bridge was being sprayed during the heat wave. This tour provided Greg with an opportunity to see firsthand our bridge infrastructure and the proactive work our team completes to maintain our bridges.  

Several people stand on the underside of the University Bridge, overlooking the Ship Canal. The water is below the bridge, with a large boat and a paddleboarder also below.
Roadway Structures Director, Matt Donahue, giving a tour of the University Bridge to Greg Spotts, Councilmember Alex Pedersen, and members of the SDOT team. Photo credit: Jeanné Clark 
Six people stand facing the camera and smile on a bright, sunny day. The University Bridge is behind them, including a blue part of the structure.
Tour participants, from left to right: Matt Donahue, Kristen Simpson, Greg Spotts, Councilmember Alex Pedersen, Francisca Stefan, and Hannah Thoreson. Photo credit: SDOT 

Thank you for reading and learning a little more about Seattle’s transportation history! You can contribute to the future of Seattle’s transportation by filling out the Seattle Transportation Plan survey on our online engagement hub

Icon featuring the Seattle Transportation Plan, and requesting members of the public to help us imagine the future of transportation in Seattle.
Help us imagine the future of transportation in Seattle — visit our Seattle Transportation Plan Online Engagement Hub today! Graphic credit: SDOT