May is Historic Preservation Month, an annual event that aims to elevate and celebrate heritage buildings and sites throughout Washington state.
South Sound history buffs have a special reason to celebrate.
A few dozen people gathered at the historic McMillin Bridge in Orting on May 15 for a ceremony to unveil signage honoring the bridge’s late designer, Homer M. Hadley.
If that name doesn’t sound familiar to you, consider this: If you have traveled across Lake Washington via Interstate 90 on either of the two floating bridges that connect Seattle to Mercer Island, you have Hadley to thank for this essential transportation connection.
Hadley was an experienced structural engineer with a fervent interest in the use of concrete in bridge construction. In the early 1920s, he proposed what seemed like a wildly impossible idea — he wanted to build a bridge across Lake Washington using floating pontoons made of concrete.
He presented the plan to Lacey V. Murrow, Washington state’s director of highways at that time, and the world’s first floating concrete bridge opened to traffic in 1940. Another floating concrete bridge on Interstate 90 opened in 1989. The earlier bridge is named the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge and carries eastbound traffic; the latter bridge is named the Homer M. Hadley Memorial Bridge and carries westbound traffic.
As for the 83-year-old McMillin Bridge, it’s much smaller in comparison (two-lanes, 170 feet long) but it still has its own sui generis engineering signature. Hadley didn’t want the bridge cluttered by overhead lateral braces, so he envisioned steel-reinforced concrete trusses instead. What’s more, he designed arched portals that would pass through those trusses and allow pedestrian access across the bridge.
As Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Executive Director Chris Moore observed, “There’s almost a cathedral-like experience when you walk through those trusses. There is an architectural element to the McMillin Bridge that is missing in other bridges. It doesn’t have the ‘Erector Set’ look that steel bridges have. It has this cloistered effect when you walk under those sculptured trusses. It’s just a cool, funky historic bridge.”
The McMillin Bridge once was part of State Route 162. But that changed a few years ago, when the Washington State Department of Transportation built a new bridge nearby and re-routed the highway. At one point, it appeared the old bridge, now out of commission, would be demolished. But local historic preservation groups rallied to save it.
Hadley died in 1967, but his legacy in Pierce County is the McMillin Bridge. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Washington Heritage Register, and the Pierce County Register of Historic Places.
Pierce County officials unveiled the McMillin Bridge Interpretive Signage during a public event on May 15 at the Foothills Trail — McMillin Trailhead in Orting.
Hadley’s grandson, Robert Hadley, attended the event. He lives in the Seattle area and, alongside his sister, Lisa, runs Hadley Properties, a company that was started by Homer and his son, Richard, in 1952. Robert recently spoke to South Sound about his grandfather’s legacy and the significance of preserving the McMillin Bridge.
Q: What did you learn about Homer Hadley while you were growing up? What did your family tell you about him?
A: It’s interesting. People think of engineers as being sort of one-dimensional. He was sort of the antithesis of that. He had a strong interest in life outside engineering, and he brought that feel for elegance and simplicity to what he did.
He worked in the Philadelphia Naval ship yards during World War I, and he designed concrete barges because steel was in short supply. They needed it for tanks and guns and so forth. Later, he lived on Holly Street in Seattle, which is just above Seward Park. Literally, he was looking out the window while shaving one morning and the realization came to him — the best way to bridge Lake Washington was to essentially string concrete barges together and put a roadway across it, which is kind of cool.
The fundamental problem was (Lake Washington) is a very deep lake, but there are a couple hundred feet of mud between the bottom of the lake and bedrock. To have a suspension bridge, or now a cable-stayed bridge, it was really expensive. It was way more efficient to go across the lake with these floating pontoons. That was the idea.
At our house, we’ve actually got the map (he used) that showed the proposed layout for the bridge. Everybody knows concrete doesn’t float — as if steel does, right? (laughing) — but he took the idea to Lacey Murrow, who was a really good engineer, and Lacey understood it.
Q: The McMillin Bridge doesn’t look like many other bridges. With all that concrete, as well as the open trusses people can walk through, it almost looks like a monument.
A: Exactly. That’s really cool. You don’t see that very often. But that walkway is the kind of thing that I was talking about. Homer would look for ways to make things elegant. The concept of the pedestrian walkway through the trusses is in keeping with the way he viewed engineering.
Q: At one point, there was some discussion of demolishing the McMillin Bridge as part of a project to build a new bridge and roadway through the area. But historic preservationists came forward to try to save it. Did you follow the issue? Did you get involved?
A: I was contacted early on, but I didn’t get involved. I have always felt if that’s what the community wanted, that was fabulous. But it shouldn’t be about the few, right? I’ve got an interest in it, obviously, but every bridge has a designer, right? We, as a family, appreciated it. But I didn’t think it felt right to be in the middle of that.
I will say that Homer’s wife, Margaret, would have been thrilled that (it was saved and) he was recognized for it. He was always in the background in his role. She felt like he never got the recognition in life that he deserved.
Q: Do you have any sense of what it will mean for you and your family members to attend the event this month and see the bridge’s interpretive signage officially unveiled?
A: I had a sense of that with the (naming of the Homer M. Hadley Memorial Bridge). I know it was inspiring to me, and I think it will have the same effect on our kids. Hopefully, it has the same effect on others.
That’s what I find so interesting, this idea that engineering doesn’t have to be one-dimensional. There is this ability to be creative and solve problems in amazing ways, and be appreciated for that. It’s not just about architecture and art and music — it can be in other fields, too, and I think that’s really cool. I hope that expands. I guess that would be my hope — that we take time to think about that more broadly.
Note: This story was originally published on May 4, 2018, prior to the unveiling of signage at the historic McMillin Bridge.