A Book Review: Bridges of Seattle

Maureen R . Elenga’s new book Bridges of Seattle was released by Arcadia Press on January 27, 2020.  The book gallantly fights the constraints the press imposes on its huge list of history picture books and outdoes itself.

12 Ave S. 1912
Dearborn St. &  12 Ave. S. Bridge in 1912. SMA 6079

An architectural historian, Maureen Elenga creatively mines the rich photographic resources of Seattle’s Municipal Archives.  Many of the images selected for the book have not been previously published.  She has an incredible knack for hitting topics that may have been previously neglected.  The various troughs that preceded the Lake Washington Ship Canal are examples.  The First Avenue South bridge is another.

In one concise paragraph, Elenga notes that the bridge is a double-leaf bascule type trunnion bridge just like the early designs on the Ship Canal, was designed by Bruce V. Christy of the (then) Seattle Engineering Department, and is the “only floating pier bridge in the world.”

Just as she writes about the innovative aspect of the First Avenue South Bridge, Elenga ties the various threads of the book together —  highlighting how the designs of Seattle’s bridge builders, who she never fails to name, fit the now-celebrated meme of Seattle as a creative center of the world.   You know:  Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Filson and others.   It is a clever way to write a cohesive text within the almost Haiku-strict rules of the Arcadia Press.   But those rules also get in the way.

Elenga book review
!st Ave. S. Bridge. 1955 Aerial view of the first span. SMA 130316

Using that First Avenue South Bridge again as our example, Arcadia’s constraints apparently forced Elenga to omit important facts including the curious history of its construction and reconstruction.  Wikipedia briefly mentions that the bridge consists of “a pair of double-leaf bascule bridges built between 1956 and 1998 that carry State Route 99 over the Duwamish River,” but Elenga does not have room to tell us about the two dates of construction or even the rebuilding of the bridge required in 2001 by damage from the Nisqually earthquake.

Arcadia gives local historians rare opportunities to tell unknown stories, but just like Dorothy Laigo Cordova‘s Filipinos in Puget Sound, Elenga never has room to tell the full story, and readers have to remember that the books are really all about the photographs.   After all, the Arcadia series is called ‘Images of America’ and is more about sharing pictures than telling us a lot about them.

The Queen Anne Historical Society is delighted that Elenga  has served on its Board beginning in 2017, and that she continues to make important contributions to what we know of Seattle’s rich and diverse history.   Her encyclopedic knowledge of our built environment and the incredible patience and perseverance that go into producing a book like The Bridges of Seattle are phenomenal.   The reviewer hopes Elenga finds the time and energy to morph this story into a full-fledged history of civil engineering in Seattle.  It would be a wonderful tale.

Reference:  KING5 interview with Maureen Elenga, January 2020
Reference:  Structural Engineers Foundation of Washington Fall Forum, November 2020:  “Bridging Washington:  The History,  Structure, and Innovation of Washington Bridges”  with Maureen Elenga and John Stanton