Year In Review: Saving McMillin Bridge

EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting today and through the end of this year, the Tacoma Daily Index will feature its annual “Year In Review” series, which recaps an important story covered earlier this year in the newspaper according to reader interest on our Web site. Enjoy!

In November, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation submitted a nomination to the Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission to place the 78-year-old McMillin Bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but faces demolition by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), on the Pierce County Register of Historic Places.

The concrete McMillin Bridge, which is owned by WSDOT, has a long history in Pierce County. Built in 1934, it is a vital section of State Route 162 that connects Orting to Sumner. It also sits right next to an old railroad bridge that is now part of the Foothills Trail. For several years now, WSDOT officials have said the McMillin 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 and tear down the McMillin Bridge.

The proposal concerns many historic preservationists throughout Washington State and beyond. The bridge was designed by Homer M. Hadley, a man who is famous to bridge engineers and local historians, and whose work contributed to bridges spanning rivers, lakes and creeks throughout Washington State.

WSDOT appears confident that it will eventually receive a permit and move forward with the project. In August, WSDOT project manager Steve Fuchs told the Index the bridge design was nearly completed, there are some right-of-way properties to acquire, and utilities still needed to be relocated. WSDOT was “still working to obtain all the permits needed to build the project,” said Fuchs. “We are following the Section 106 process to evaluate alternatives that avoid impacting this historic structure. The Army Corps of Engineers is guiding us through the process because they will ultimately issue the permit to build the bridge.” He added that WSDOT expected to begin construction in Spring 2014, and noted $15 million had been set aside for the project.

Meanwhile, historic preservationists and bridge engineers have sent letters and e-mails urging WSDOT and the Army Corps of Engineers to save the bridge. They argue the McMillin Bridge, reported to be the longest concrete truss bridge in the country, is an engineering marvel for its time. The nomination prepared by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation notes the bridge is an example of “engineering in its most creative, artistic expression.”

The McMillin Bridge's concrete trusses are monumental in scale and allow pedestrians to walk through them. "There's almost a cathedral-like experience when you walk through those trusses," says Chis Moore of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. "There is an architectural element to the McMillin Bridge that is missing in other bridges. It doesn't have the ‘Erector Set' look that steel bridges have. It has this cloistered effect when you walk under those sculptured trusses." (PHOTOS COURTESY HISTORIC AMERICAN ENGINEERING RECORD / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)