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In 1940, Tunnel Vision Created a Connection to the Eastside

By Clay Eals

THEN: This nighttime view of the eastbound Mount Baker tunnel shows that the original twin
tubes had two lanes apiece. The photo was taken at least a few weeks after the tunnel’s
July 2, 1940, opening because the 3-foot wide interior sidewalks, with high curbs and pipe
guardrail, were not installed until later that month.

( University of Washington Special Collections)

As spooky as it is ethereal, our “Then” photo suggests Seattle barreling through a spacey cylinder to meet the future. The scene typifies our city’s bent for transforming its topography to satisfy urban dreams.

Eighty years ago, on July 2, 1940, an audacious dream — twin tunnels drilled through Mount Baker Ridge to connect Seattle to Mercer Island and the greater Eastside via an innovative bridge with floating concrete pontoons that crossed Lake Washington — became a reality that countless motorists take for granted today.

From the outset, the inextricably linked tunnels and bridge personified popularity, drawing 11,611 vehicles in the first 10-1/2 hours alone. To sustain this full-to-bursting stretch of what became an interstate artery, a companion tunnel and span were added a half-century later while, astonishingly, the original bridge sank and was quickly rebuilt.

Time was, Seattleites traveled east only by ferrying across or circumnavigating the elongated next-door lake. Some, including James Wood, Seattle Times associate editor, wanted to keep it that way.

“Just about the wildest dream ever to afflict an engineering mind is the proposed 8,000-foot concrete fence,” he wrote on Aug. 13, 1937. He called the tunnel-bridge project “a gross and wholly unnecessary obstruction.”

Prevailing, however, were campaigners for commerce. “The future prosperity of Seattle depends upon removing the barrier of the lake in order to gain easier access to the hinterland,” wrote Medina mogul Miller Freeman in the Jan. 9, 1938, Times. “It will providentially afford Seattle room for expansion in the only direction it can grow successfully.”

Thus the bridge and tunnels joined Seattle’s indelible identity. We of a certain age recall holding our breath through all 1,465 feet when parents drove us through one of the tunnels. Sometimes our elders humored us, generating a riotous echo by honking the car horn. But all was not childish fun.

As the neon indicates in our “Then,” when crossing the bridge to Mercer Island, drivers faced a variable toll of 25 to 45 cents, which ended in 1949. The curved arrow pointed to an abrupt “Lake Shore” entrance/exit opportunity tucked between the tunnels and bridge both east- and westbound at 35th Avenue South. A treacherous invitation to high-speed fender-benders and worse, it was curtailed in 1989.

NOW: Repeating the original path of our “Then,” this daytime view shows only two of the
Mount Baker tunnel’s four present-day eastbound lanes for auto traffic. The other two, not pictured,
emerge from the formerly westbound tunnel immediately to the

Image by Jean Sherrard)

Other tunnel-bridge idiosyncrasies, inconceivable today, triggered repeated fatalities. An awkward mid-bridge bulge to allow boat crossings was mercifully removed in 1981. Unprotected reversible lanes, instituted in 1960 to ease commuting, finally were eliminated in 1984.

Momentarily inattentive to the latter, as a fledgling 16-year-old driver in 1967 I barely avoided a head-on crash one afternoon. The prospect still spooks me.

Clay Eals is a contributing writer for “Now & Then.” Check out Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard’s blog at pauldorpat.com for info on their award-winning book, “Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred.” “Now” photographer Jean Sherrard shares his 360-degree videos at the YouTube channel Seattle Now & Then 360.

This article reprinted by permission.