The historic Great Northern Train Bridge connecting Magnolia and Old Ballard over Salmon Bay has served the community well over the last 100 years.

“It’s a great bridge,” BNSF Railroad Company spokesperson Courtney Wallace said. “But it’s time for it to retire.”

Built in 1913, the drawbridge provides passage for 40 to 50 BNSF, Amtrak and Sounder trains a day. A number of maritime vessels, from cruisers to cargo ships, float through the area regularly.

BNSF is proposing to replace the bridge in the next few years with a 155-foot-tall bridge adjacent to the current bridge, which would then be torn down.

“We are working with the Coast Guard to get feedback,” Wallace said. “So we know 155 feet would work for current and future vessels. We are looking at the submitting permit process sometime next year. Actual construction would be about three years from now.”

BNSF Railway is the combination of older rail companies, including the Great Northern Railway and Northern Pacific.

Great Northern built the Salmon Bay railroad bridge in 1913-14. It became a necessary project after the construction of the Ballard Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed in 1917. According to local historian James Jerome Hill’s website,, the bridge was designed in 1912 by The Strauss Bascule Bridge Co.

Magnolia Historical Society member Monica Wooton said the bridge was a popular place for Magnolia children to play and explore in the 1940s and ‘50s.

The bridge has a historic look to it, since it was built while steel was a new construction commodity, Wallace said.

The steel is part of the bridge’s fatal flaw.

In June 1948, railroad workers heard a large cracking noise and a splash, before noticing concrete pieces of the bridge’s counterweight falling into the water below. The bridge’s counterweights failed, causing the bridge to be stuck in the up position for six months. The bridge’s failure brought large detours and headaches for the local rail companies.

“We are concerned what happened in 1948 could happen again,” Wallace said. “What we have seen in the last few years, the counterweight pieces are making popping sounds; they are very loud. We can keep replacing the train bearings but they are going to keep wearing out. The bridge is going to get stuck again.”

Wallace said the current project proposal is estimated at $200 million. Taxpayers have no need to fret the bill; BNSF is planning to pay for the entire project.

“This project will be privately funded,” Wallace said. “No taxpayer dollars are associated. The bridge is a critical link for our network. We move everything from A-Z. We have grain, port and maritime equipment, plane parts for Boeing and Washington goods.”

Wallace said the new bridge would not be a drawbridge, but a standing bridge that would be tall enough to allow most boats and ships to pass under with no problem.

“We looked at doing another similar bridge,” Wallace said. “The thing is, when we are building the new bridge we have to keep the current bridge open. If we were to build another drawbridge, the old design that we had, having the counterweights would cause safety issues during construction.”

Wallace said BNSF looked at a reverse design, but found it would take away navigation for the channel.

“That would hurt the maritime history,” Wallace said. “When we looked at going to the vertical lift span, we made sure the channel was maintained.”

When BNSF moves onto the permitting process, public comment from the local maritime community and neighborhood will be welcomed.

“Of course we’ve been hearing from the maritime community,” Wallace said. “We want to make sure their voices are being heard. For other residents there is a love for the bridge and questions about construction.”

The Coast Guard is currently reviewing an application from BNSF for this project, and had set an Oct. 31 deadline for comment from mariners and maritime stakeholders.

For now, the historic icon continues moving trains of people and goods between Magnolia and Ballard, but the bridge’s retirement is in the imminent future.