Jay and the Ballard Bridge: Part Two
There was a time period when I felt like the most hated man in Seattle. I was a Driver for Ride the Ducks of Seattle, while also a bridge tender for the City of Seattle.
After the accident I would drive tourists around downtown with the “Wacky Tour Guide” added for safety. I would get the stink eye and occasional middle finger, which was bad enough, but as soon as I crossed the Fremont Bridge I was on the constant lookout someone who would actually step into traffic so they could get close enough to call me a murderer because I was driving a Duck. I had bills to pay and the bridge tender job wasn’t full-time.
So on the days I wasn’t driving, I was on the drawbridges pissing people off. Everybody seems to think that when you do an opening it must be ‘cause you saw them coming in their red Acura and this time you were gonna get them because last week they managed to get through before you dropped the gate.
Which is crazy because when you’re determining when to do an opening you don’t even look at the passenger vehicles. You’re looking at the sailboat that’s been waiting for five minutes, the fishing boat off in the distance, the drunk pedestrian and cyclists who are going to try to run the gate and emergency vehicles who may be approaching.
Drivers seem to think the bridge going up is going to make them miss life. In reality, the typical opening of the Fremont or Ballard bridges is only about four or five minutes. It’s the cars that take too long to clear out afterwards that are the problem.
The City of Seattle operates five drawbridges in Seattle- the Ballard, Fremont, University, Spokane St and South Park bridges. The State of Washington runs the Montlake and First Avenue bridges because those are state roads. The South Park Bridge is actually owned by King County but they contract with the City to actually operate it.
The rebuilt South Park Bridge is the easiest, most boring bridge of all. It’s only about six years old and hardly ever breaks down at all. It also opens the least. It’ll open once a shift if you’re lucky. The Spokane Street Bridge, however, was nothing short of terrifying. It’s about thirty years old and designed in that space of human history just between common sense and advanced technology.
It’s a long elevator ride to the top of the control tower and when you get out it’s easy to imagine whoever designed it was a big fan of the Alien movies. It feels like you’re a thousand feet in the air and gives you an added element of fear. During the Nisqually earthquake the tower swayed so much that the bridge operator on duty hid under his desk and quit the second the shaking stopped.
The three City of Seattle canal bridges don’t have dedicated operators for the graveyard shift (charmingly in military time from 2300 to 0700 hours). Instead, one person is on call to jump between the Ballard, Fremont and University bridges as needed between eleven p.m. and seven am. For a long time this position was held by The Whopper, who earned his name by stopping at the Burger King every time he was driving between bridge openings. (This is the historical part).
I don’t have anything nice to say about the University Bridge but I loved working the Ballard and Fremont bridges. If I could have gone full-time on the Ballard Bridge I’d have done it in a second.
Connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound was first championed by Thomas Mercer in 1884, just two years after white settlers first occupied what is now Pioneer Square. They made several attempts over many decades and managed to convince the federal government that Lake Washington would be a perfect spot for the NW Naval Fleet, who footed the bill for building the locks when told they’d be named the Government Locks in their honor.
At some point, however, somebody pointed out that putting the entire NW Naval Fleet in Lake Washington was a horrible idea. All an enemy would have to do is bomb the locks and the entire fleet would be rendered useless. So they went to Bremerton instead, but not before paying for all the work. And the beautiful Ballard Locks, or Hiram Chittenden Locks, or Government Locks, whatever you want to call them, don’t cost Seattle a thing! The Locks are manned and operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers…and the botanical gardens are tended by volunteers!
Every so often you hear talk of automating the city drawbridges, speaking of horrible ideas. There is way too much going on to safely operate the bridges automatically, or even remotely. I hope the City of Seattle keeps the Ballard Bridge for as is for as long as this city exists. Unfortunately with Ballard Bridge now dropped from the list of retrofit budget, let’s hope the city allows the bridge to exist.
But if you get stuck by the bridge, just get out of your car and see what’s passing through, or check out the beautiful hundred-year old halibut schooners just below in Fisherman’s Terminal and be glad you live in such great city.
Jay Craig is a retired Duck Captain whose new obsessions are oil painting
and living off-grid in his tiny house. Do NOT ask him about his composting
toilet. Photo credit for last week’s accompanying bridge photo belongs to Phil Smith.