McMillin Bridge added to Pierce County historic register

Pierce County Council approved an ordinance Tuesday to place the 79-year-old McMillin Bridge on the county's register of historic places.

Pierce County Council approved an ordinance Tuesday to place the 79-year-old McMillin Bridge on the county’s register of historic places.

“For me, it’s a privilege to be one of the two sponsors of this bill because, personally, I think preservation of our past and our history in Washington is critical for our future generations that come along,” said County Councilmember Stan Flemming shortly before councilmembers voted on the ordinance. “It’s important that we do take the time to preserve what we have. We don’t do enough of that in our state, preserving our past for the future. I look forward to getting this thing passed.”

The concrete bridge, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), has a long history in Pierce County. Built in 1934, the bridge is part of State Route 162 that connects Orting to Sumner. WSDOT officials have said the bridge is functionally obsolete and a new bridge needs to be built. WSDOT plans to build a new bridge just east of the McMillin Bridge then tear down the historic bridge.

Historic preservationists throughout Washington State and beyond argue the bridge is historically significant because it was designed by Homer M. Hadley, whose work contributed to bridges spanning rivers, lakes and creeks throughout Washington State. Hadley pushed for the state to build a floating concrete bridge across Lake Washington. Today, the westbound span of the Interstate 90 floating bridge is officially named the Homer M. Hadley Memorial Bridge.

The McMillin Bridge’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is only an honorary designation with little regulatory bearing other than what is known as “Section 106” of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. In the case of the McMillin Bridge, Section 106 requires that a federal agency consult with a range of stakeholders to determine if demolishing the bridge will have any adverse effects. Because the McMillin Bridge crosses a body of water, the Puyallup River, the lead federal agency in this case is the United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). In the end, it’s the Corps that will get to decide whether to issue the permit allowing the new bridge to be built and the old bridge to come down. The ACOE is expected to make a decision later this year.

In February, Pierce County’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission approved a nomination prepared by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation to place the bridge on the county’s register of historic places. The nomination was then forwarded to Pierce County Council’s Rules and Operations Committee. That committee made a do-pass recommendation last month for the full Pierce County Council to officially place the bridge on the county’s register of historic places.

“I hope WSDOT doesn’t move down the pathway of demolishing this bridge,” said Councilmember Flemming. “It really is important that we preserve this bridge and do all we can do as a council and a county to convince WSDOT to do otherwise.”

“What took us so long?” asked Councilmember Connie Ladenburg. “It got on the national register in 1982 and here we are in 2013. I don’t have any problem approving this. I’m glad we’re doing it now.”

Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Field Director Chris Moore told councilmembers the process to determine the future of the bridge is long and still ongoing.

“For the last couple of years, there have been consultations about whether or not WSDOT can retain the McMillin Bridge while also constructing the new bridge,” said Moore. “Certainly, technically, that’s feasible. In fact, the new bridge would be constructed with the McMillin Bridge in place and providing transportation across [the Puyallup River]. The question is whether or not once the new bridge is in, WSDOT would be able to retain ownership and retain all the responsibilities of the existing bridge. We’re going through that process right now.”

Moore and other preservationists hope that adding the McMillin Bridge on the local register of historic places will raise awareness of its historic significance as it faces an uncertain future.

Pierce County’s historic McMillin Bridge. (PHOTOS COURTESY HISTORIC AMERICAN ENGINEERING RECORD / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of historic McMillin Bridge, click on the following links:

For more information about Homer M. Hadley, the McMillin Bridge, and WSDOT’s project, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.

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