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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Getting There: The Monroe Street Bridge – all three of them – have stood the test of time

The Monroe Street Bridge will be completely closed to cars this weekend, but the traffic jam begins Monday.

Beginning Friday at 9 p.m., the city will close the bridge so workers can pave a number of streets around the ongoing two-year, $25 million project to build a 2.2-million-gallon sewer and stormwater tank by the downtown Spokane Public Library. The bridge will reopen next Monday at 5 a.m., in time for the week’s commuters, but it’s just the latest motoring woe for downtown travelers related to construction of that massive tank.

Traffic impacts begin Monday as the city reduces Monroe Street to one lane from the south end of the bridge to Riverside Avenue. Congestion and backups are a sure thing – as can be expected when a five-lane road goes to one – and motorists should find other routes.

All of that work snarling traffic is heading toward an end-of-October anticipated completion date, when the tank will almost be done, but the roads will be open and so will the new plaza atop the tank.

A river free from sewage is something to look forward to, but so is a traffic-free bridge where, to be clear, no streetcars, no elephants and definitely no automobiles will be allowed to cross. Only pedestrians will be allowed, which is a bit odd, considering that the Monroe Street Bridge was never built exclusively for walkers.

That goes for all three of them.

Three Monroe Street Bridges. The wooden one, the steel one and this one, the elegantly arched concrete affair that is, let’s be honest, the greatest span in all the land.

Why engineers deemed the bottom of a roaring waterfall a good place to build a tall wooden bridge is no mystery, even if it seems like a bad spot to build a bridge.

In 1888, the Spokane Cable Railway Co., the first cable car company in town, was incorporated Like the city’s other early public transportation efforts, the cable line was built by real estate speculators to connect downtown to their developments.

Work on the line began quickly, starting at the intersection of Monroe and Mallon Avenue. From there it went north to Boone Avenue, headed west to the city limits, then crossed the Spokane River to the Twickenham Addition development. The double-decker Twickenham bridge was built, but Twickenham wasn’t. The bridge washed out in a few years.

The line also went south, where it cruised through downtown on Monroe, headed up the South Hill to 14th, then to east Bernard. This was the location of the Cable Addition, where homes designed by famed Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter were being sold.

Of course, to get downtown, it had to cross the Spokane River gorge at Monroe. So in 1888, the first iteration of the Monroe Street Bridge was built. It was wooden, designed to carry cable cars, wagons, horses and people. It cost $45,000 to build, according to an article in the Nov. 29, 1888, edition of the Spokane Falls Review, $15,000 of which was raised by popular subscription and the rest shared by the city and cable car company.

It was also doomed.

Much like its sibling to Twickenham, the wooden bridge couldn’t fulfill its charge. A cable car soon caused a fire, torching the timber structure and putting the first Monroe Street Bridge out of commission. It was inevitable, considering the rise of the streetcar.

A cable car, as its name suggests, runs by cable. A continuous cable circulated in an underground conduit. A car moved by “gripping” the cable, and releasing it when it needed to stop. Cable cars were great for steep hills, as San Francisco and Seattle had proven, and the steep climb of Monroe up the South Hill was made by this cable car.

They also had problems. A broken cable stops the entire system. Those problems were alleviated with the invention of the electric streetcar.

Spokane’s first streetcar, drawn by horses, arrived the same year the bridge did. The bridge wasn’t built to carry them, so they brought passengers to either end, according to the book “Bridges of Spokane” by Jeff Creighton, where they could walk or hop on the cable car.

But in 1889, the electric streetcar came to Spokane, replacing all its competitors in short order.

The second Monroe Street Bridge, a $60,000, heavily trussed steel structure, was built to carry these streetcars. Construction began in 1891, with the help of an overhead crane, and was paid for by the city and Washington Water Power Co., which had started its decades-long effort to buy every electric streetcar company in the city under its Spokane United Railways subsidiary.

When complete, the steel cantilevered bridge carried double-tracked streetcars. It was big, it was steel, it was impressive, but it wasn’t pretty. It did the job, though. Photos show an alternate Spokane reality, where the Review Tower stands where it always has, but the Monroe Street Bridge is an industrial behemoth supporting streetcars, wagons, horses and bicycles.

The steel bridge, while inspiring more confidence than the wooden version, “vibrated badly” as streetcars trundled over its top, according to an article on HistoryLink.

In 1905, William H. Burr, a famous engineer with the National Good Roads Association who would later write a book called “The Design and Construction of Metallic Bridges,” criticized the bridge, saying the steel was too weak, the foundations questionable and the bridge unsafe.

In 1907, the Ringling Brothers Circus was in town. Part of the show entailed having the elephants parade around town. When they got to the bridge, they stopped, offering proof, perhaps, that one land mammal is wiser than the other.

Alas, but thankfully for all people who like pleasing architectural forms, the second Monroe Street Bridge didn’t last 20 years at the bottom of those pounding falls, even if it did provide an incomparable vantage of the water.

A mudslide later triggered a partial collapse. In 1908, onlookers observed the raging waters of the Spokane River from the deck of the Monroe Street bridge, which within two years would lead to its dismantling.

“Last night many people gathered on the Monroe street bridge to watch the foaming water on the rocks below, where it was flecked with moonlight at the times when the moon was not obscured by the clouds,”a March 1908 article in The Spokesman-Review read.

The city closed the bridge in January 1910, and over the next two years the public was witness to one of the city’s biggest infrastructure undertakings.

“I can assure the public that when the work is completed the bridge will stand as a model for years to come,” said Spokane Mayor N.S. Pratt in an April 1910 Spokane Daily Chronicle article.

City engineer J.C. Ralston and his staff designed the concrete structure, and the four small pavilions decorated with concrete bison skulls were designed by Cutter, the architect who played a role in the raising of the first Monroe bridge.

It wouldn’t be the city’s first concrete bridge. That designation belongs to the Mission Avenue and East Olive Avenue bridges. Those bridges stand to this day, but the East Olive Avenue Bridge – now called the East Trent Bridge – won’t be around much longer. The Washington State Department of Transportation plans to replace the decrepit, 109-year-old span, with work expected to begin in the spring.

With a height of 136 feet and length of 896 feet, the third Monroe Street Bridge also was much more expensive than its predecessors, costing $500,000.

Its construction was “truly a home grown achievement,” according to the HistoryLink article. “City engineers designed it and supervised its construction, a local architectural firm provided ornamentation, and Spokane day labor crews built it.” Historic photos show the complex falsework built to support the concrete arches, an illustration of the monumental task the city undertook more than a century ago.

On Nov. 23, 1911, 3,000 people attended the bridge’s opening ceremonies. This time the bridge was ready for all comers, streetcars and automobiles alike.

It wouldn’t last. In 1934, the last streetcar crossed the bridge. Motorists took the bridge in increasing numbers and made it their own, though that has become less true as time goes on. In 1982, the city projected that the bridge would carry 48,000 vehicles a day in 2000. Instead, it carried half that, with 24,100 vehicles crossing the bridge on a daily basis at the turn of this century. In 2012, that number dropped to 21,200. In 2018, it was 19,900.

For most of its life, the concrete bridge had no wall separating vehicles from people on the sidewalk. That changed in 1984, when concrete block walls known as “Jersey barriers” were installed between the traffic lanes and sidewalks after a toddler was killed. A motorist had jumped the curb, hitting the 18-month-old’s stroller.

Though clearly built stronger than its predecessors, almost 100 years after it was constructed the bridge once again had come to its structural end. Trucks and other heavy vehicles were no longer allowed to cross it at the beginning of the 21st century. Instead of demolishing and completely replacing it, in 2003 the city embarked on a two-year, $18 million renovation of the bridge. The bridge was completely closed to traffic for the entire two years. The griping was kept to a minimum.

“People apparently listened to the media accounts about the bridge closing and planned accordingly,” city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said in 2003 following the first day of its closure. “We didn’t have major backups anywhere.”

Again, Spokanites were treated to the spectacle of a massive infrastructure project, as the city took the bridge down to its basic structure and built it back up again.

When the bridge reopened in 2005, the Spokesman didn’t spare the embroidery.

“The Monroe Street Bridge has inspired artists and lovers, served as a dramatic backdrop for public declarations and private whispers, seen much death and even new life,” an article about the 2005 reopening begins. “The mammoth, 94-year-old concrete Monroe Street Bridge has borne witness to Spokane history from the Roaring ’20s, through the Great Depression, World War II, Expo ’74 and beyond. But by the turn of the 21st century, years of spraying water and pounding traffic had battered the bridge to just a shadow of its former glory. This weekend Spokane will celebrate the bridge’s rebirth as it reopens after a 2 1/2-year restoration project that stripped the structure down to its bare bones and rebuilt it sturdy enough to last another 75 years.”

All true. This weekend, take a moment to ponder this city monument that has been so useful for so long, with a beauty matched only by the falls it frames.

Other closures around the library tank

There’s more. As the city gets nearer the end of one of the largest public works project it’s ever undertaken – the $300 million effort to stop sewage and polluted water from entering the river – there will be traffic impacts beyond the bridge closure and one-lane Monroe. This weekend will see the closure of Spokane Falls Boulevard starting at Howard Street, northbound Wall and Howard streets will be closed from Main to Spokane Falls, Post Street north of Spokane Falls will be totally off limits, and getting into Peaceful Valley via Main Avenue will be accessible by northbound Lincoln Street.

Spokane in Motion

Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs launched Spokane in Motion this spring to show “what might be possible for bicycling in Spokane.” The first event of the project brought Troels Andersen, a Danish cycling planner, to the city to to help lead discussions about making Spokane a bicycling city. Andersen also took part in a daylong brainstorming session with a number of cycling advocates, city planners and city engineers to make bike commuting as easy, enjoyable and commonplace as it is in Denmark.

Using what was learned in the spring, the project has two more events this fall.

On Friday, Oct. 4, at 5:30 p.m., it is showing the film “Motherload,” a documentary about a California mother who found new freedom after she bought a cargo bike that could fit her two children, allowing them all to get out and explore. Before the film, local bike shop Wheel Sport will have cargo bikes on hand for test rides.

What’s a cargo bike? Basically, it’s a big bike with lots of room for kids, groceries and everything else. As Momentum Mag puts it, a cargo bike is “a workhorse that you don’t have to feed. They enable the transportation of many more pounds of goods than you could possibly carry on a regular bicycle, with much more economic and environmental efficiency than (you) get from a car. They’re your family vehicle, your work truck, your moving van, your party bus.”

Tickets for the film are free. For more information, visit the Spokane City Council’s Facebook page.

Spokane in Motion is also bringing a temporary “pop-up” protected bicycle lane to the University District. As The Spokesman-Review previously reported, the cycle track will be installed on Spokane Falls Boulevard, connecting Spokane’s new bicycle and pedestrian bridge to the incomplete Cincinnati Greenway. The demonstration will begin Sept. 28 and last a week.

In the city

Work has begun on the Francis-Alberta “intersection geometric improvement” project. The $241,000 project is rebuilding the southwest corner of Francis Avenue and Alberta Street, allowing easier turning for buses. Eastbound Francis is limited to one lane at the intersection with Alberta, and the intersection will be intermittently limited to one lane in all directions.

Beginning Monday, city workers will begin a grind and overlay project on Cowley Street, from Fourth to Seventh avenues. Similar work is finishing up on Indiana from Monroe to Division, with continued lane and road closures.

Also beginning Monday are multiple traffic calming projects installing sidewalks, driveways, wheelchair ramps and storm sewers. Motorists should be aware of work on 10th Avenue and Rockwood Boulevard, and 18th Avenue and Bernard Street. Work on 43rd Avenue at Conklin, Arthur and Ivory streets will construct traffic circles at all the intersections.

Crack sealing work will have minor impacts on Lyons Avenue from Perry to Napa, and on 53rd Avenue and Laurelhurst Court.

Potholes galore

As of Friday, Sept. 20, the city of Spokane has filled 3,430 potholes since Jan. 1. In 2018, the city filled 4,610 potholes, and in 2017 it filled 4,795 potholes.

In the county

Work continues on the Aero-Westbow roundabout. The road is open, but motorists should watch for equipment, flaggers and delays. It’s expected to wrap up by the end of October.

Major work is ongoing on Bigelow Gulch Road, where workers are clearing and grubbing, and adding culverts, guardrail and pavement. Traffic is shifted to the southbound direction, where flaggers are out and controlling traffic. In coming weeks, traffic will shift to the northbound lane, and work is expected to be complete the end of November.

The Euclid Road Bridge north of Airway Heights is completely closed after inspectors found two critical failures in the substructure. The bridge is owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and any repairs or replacement are the company’s responsibility.

Improvements to Geiger Boulevard related to the Amazon distribution warehouse continue between Hayford Road and Soda Road. Work includes roadway excavation, curbs, signing and signals, and is expected to be complete next month. Hayford between 53rd Avenue to Geiger is closed to through traffic. Geiger from Thomas Mallen Road to Soda is intermittently closed and motorists must watch for flaggers.

Hazard Road fulfills its name and is completely closed from Dartford Drive to Rivilla Lane due to washouts.

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