By Kristin Kendle
Right in downtown Tacoma is an often unsung landmark — a landmark that has stood for nearly 100 years, a symbol of Tacoma’s determination to preserve and protect its history, a steadfast emblem of workers’ rights and a vital link between the Port and downtown. You may have driven past it for years and never thought twice about it. Or you may have used it for your daily commute and wondered why you had to go out of your way after it closed to the public in 2007.
The Murray Morgan Bridge is a Tacoma icon. The bridge is listed on the city, state and national historic registers and is unique — an early vertical-lift bridge designed by Waddell and Harrington, the designers of other well-known area bridges including the Puyallup River bridge just a few blocks away, and the Hawthorne and Steel bridges in Portland, Ore.
“They (the designers) were pretty well known,” said Reuben McKnight, Tacoma’a historic preservation officer. “Murray Morgan Bridge is one of the biggest and highest ones they designed and it’s interesting because it’s on a grade; it’s high on one end and low on the other. So — as far as bridge nerds go — it’s pretty important.”
Murray Morgan Bridge closed to traffic in November 2007. After a bridge in Minnesota collapsed, the Washington Department of Transportation inspected many bridges in this area — and found Murray Morgan had issues.
“That opened everybody’s eyes and the Washington Department of Transportation did inspections of a lot of their bridges,” said Tom Rutherford, project manager for the city. “They saw enough in the critical elements that they decided they couldn’t allow traffic to continue over it anymore.”
The bridge remained closed for years, but in early 2011 — after much debate over whether to preserve the bridge or tear it down — work began to rehabilitate the historic landmark.
Original replacement estimates were in the neighborhood of $150 million, according to Rutherford. The cost of rehabbing the bridge is about $55 million and is expected to give it another 80 years.
Ultimately, the rehabilitation is set to provide essential access to the Port of Tacoma and drive economic development. Because the bridge provides direct and quick access to the port, the city estimates the bridge will save $100,000 a month in emergency-response costs alone. Although the bridge will give access to the port, it won’t connect commuters to Northeast Tacoma because 11th Street doesn’t continue that far.
Eventually, the bridge will connect to the nearby walkway along Thea Foss Waterway by the Museum of Glass, providing a scenic pedestrian area.
History of the Bridge
As the years went by, bridge traffic grew to include two streetcar lines and later four lanes of car traffic. In the 1930s, the bridge became a place where longshoremen and lumber workers protested, fighting for union representation and better working conditions. Following WWII, the bridge again played a crucial role in port development as its main link and in the 1950s it became part of an integrated road system, connecting Tacoma to King County via Highway 509, before the modern 509 bridge was built.
In 1997, the bridge was renamed Murray Morgan Bridge to honor bridge tender and local historian-writer Murray Morgan. Morgan served as a bridge tender in the 1940s. He was a regular columnist for The News Tribune and taught history at Tacoma Community College. Morgan had many articles published in national publications as well and wrote several books, including “Puget’s Sound” and “Skid Road.”
“Our plan is that the bridge will last for another 75 or 80 years with proper maintenance,” says Rutherford. “Most bridges last about 75 years … This one is already 100; so essentially we’re at least doubling its lifespan.”
- 1.5 million pounds of steel was replaced on the bridge (that’s about 10 percent).
- An elevator has been added so pedestrians can get to the bridge from Dock Street.
- Storm-water treatment systems will help the bridge be more environmentally friendly — on the Port side, there will be a rain garden.
- It’s more walker- and biker-friendly thanks to the addition of sidewalks/bike lanes.
- The bridge was painted black — its original color.
- Since the mid-2000s, the bridge was home to a couple of Peregrine falcons. With the help of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the birds were encouraged to nest nearby on top of the Key Bank Center Tower at 12th and Pacific.
Top photo by Linda Sok; middle and bottom photo courtesy Tacoma Public Library