November 25

This Day in History

Automotive

Nov 25, 1990:

Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge sinks to the bottom of Lake Washington

After a howling wind- and rainstorm on Thanksgiving Day, Washington state's historic floating Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge breaks apart and sinks to the bottom of Lake Washington, between Seattle and its suburbs to the east. Because the bridge's disintegration happened relatively slowly, news crews were able to capture the whole thing on camera, broadcasting it to a rapt audience across western Washington. "It looked like a big old battleship that had been hit by enemy fire and was sinking into the briny deep," said one observer. (He added: "It was awesome.")

The Murrow Bridge was the brainchild of engineer Homer Hadley, who in 1921 proposed a "floating concrete highway, permanent and indestructible, across Lake Washington." Figuring out a way to cross that lake, between up-and-coming Seattle and its (at that time) sleepy small-town neighbors to the east, was a particular challenge because an ordinary "fixed-pier" bridge was out of the question: The lake was too deep, and its bottom was too mushy. Still, people scoffed at what they called "Hadley's Folly" (one civic organization declared that his "chain of scows across Lake Washington would stand out as a municipal eyesore"), but eventually, mostly because they had no other options, they came around to his way of thinking. Construction began on the bridge, named after the state highways director (and brother of famous newsman Edward R. Murrow), in 1939; it was completed 18 months later.

In November 1990, the 6,600-foot-long bridge, made of 22 floating bolted-together pontoons, was in the process of being converted from a two-way road to a one-way road. (A parallel bridge had been completed the year before, effectively doubling the amount of traffic that could cross the lake.) The state highway department alleged that construction crews had left the pontoons' hatches open, leaving them vulnerable to the weekend's heavy rains and large waves. (For its part, the construction company refused to accept responsibility for the disaster, countering that "the probable cause of the failure was progressive bond slip at lapped splices in the bottom slab...due to failure in bond." It did eventually agree to pay the state $20 million, however.) For whatever reason, at midday on November 25, the center pontoons began to sink. As they disappeared under the water, they pulled more and more of the crumbling roadway down with them. By the end of the day, the bridge was gone.

Fortunately, no one was injured in the incident. The Murrow Bridge was soon rebuilt.

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