Historic Gearheads Tour

It came from beneath the Montlake Bridge.


324-1126 or e-mail MOHAI at membership@seattlehistory.org

You’re probably thinking . . .

Why would I willingly climb onto a rickety metal catwalk over the Ship Canal, my breakfast sloshing uncomfortably in my stomach, while an ebullient tour guide rattles on blithely about engines, gears, and “double-leaf trunnion bascule” bridge mechanics?

Here’s what you get

From my vantage point above the water, I peer (carefully) at a massive counterweight—250 tons of concrete painted institutional green, which hangs under the Montlake Bridge like a fat kid on a seesaw, waiting for someone to flip the switch that sets the bridge’s gears in motion. Normally, the only people who get to enjoy this view are the painters, engineers, and bridge workers with access to the bridge’s twin Gothic Revival towers. Those towers lead—along a treacherous spiral staircase, down a rickety metal ladder, and through a dungeonlike subterranean corridor—to the catwalk, a narrow metal platform that sways almost imperceptibly in the late-morning wind. And one Saturday every summer, Museum of History and Industry registrar Matthew Houle leads 30 or 40 foolhardy history and engineering buffs across it and through the bridge’s inner workings, on a tour that leads from the museum’s main building across the Montlake Cut and onto the University of Washington campus.

The tour takes us through the tower’s control room, replete with the mysterious blinking red lights and electronic gizmos that operate the bridge itself. Here, as often as 20 or 30 times a day, a technician activates the bridge’s surprisingly diminutive engine, which turns a set of big, greasy gears that starts the hexagonal counterweight in motion. Once the weight tips about 43 degrees, momentum carries it the rest of the way, slowly swinging open the bridge’s 77-year-old span.

During rush hours, traffic on the heavily traveled route can back up all the way to the University Village shopping center when the bridge opens. But, according to the tour guide, it almost didn’t get built. Back in the 1920s, about the only people who wanted to see a bridge over the Montlake Cut were at the UW or Montlake-area football fans; in those days, almost no one but students lived on the northern side of the Ship Canal. But all that changed with the Dartmouth-UW game in 1920, when graduate manager Dar Meisnest lined up barges on the Ship Canal to allow football fans to walk across. The makeshift bridge was so heavily traveled, it demonstrated the need for a permanent structure; the current Montlake Bridge was finally approved, then finished in June 1925.

Save this one for . . .

Jaded Seattle friends who think they’ve seen it all: Even they might get a kick out of the UW’s ’30s-era wind tunnel, designed for the eccentric German inventor Frederick Kirsten by prolific architect Carl Gould (who also did the Gothic Revival towers and many of the buildings on the UW campus). Kirsten wanted a place to test his experimental cycloplane, a flying machine whose propellers could rotate as they turned. The plane turned out to be aerodynamically impossible, but the wind tunnel—a Depression-era product of the Works Projects Administration built for $150,000—is still in use at the UW’s aeronautics department.

Who knew?

Turns out the university is home to a once-prized nuclear reactor, deactivated in 1988. (Since it was built in 1960, Houle says, the reactor has had just “one little accident,” which resulted in a cross-country manhunt for a technician whom scientists feared was radioactive.) Today, the tiny reactor sits idle and empty, an academic relic of America’s Cold War race for scientific superiority. But it’s interesting to consider that there was once a time when a nuclear reactor was THE must-have accessory for an aspiring world-class university.

It’s not you, it’s me

People who love to walk and look at big shiny things (like me) will think this tour is nearly perfect. But come July, the lengthy tour route—almost none of it shaded—could prove wearying for even the hardiest Seattle gearhead.

Erica C. Barnett