Copyright 2000 Park Projects. Please feel free to use the article and photos below in your research. Be sure to quote the Jet City Maven as your source.

How the Fremont bridge got to be blue and orange


A recently published article in the Seattle Press mused about how the Fremont Bridge got to be painted orange and blue and bemoaned that "much of Fremont history has never been written down," with the author suggesting that this tale was one of them.

As editor of a community newspaper in 1984-1986 called The Forum, which covered Fremont and Wallingford, I can attest that the controversy of selecting the new color for the bridge was not only well chronicled by my paper - we even went so far as to invite readers to cast their votes in a mail-in survey.

To our surprise, our little mail-in survey garnered more votes than a survey conducted during that same period by the Seattle Times on who the Seattle SuperSonics should select with its lottery pick in the 1985 NBA draft (the Sonics eventually chose Xavier McDaniel over Detlef Schrempf).

For the record, Forum readers were fairly evenly split over what color the Fremont Bridge should be: 50 picked "Fremont Orange," 54 picked "Canal Blue" and 19 picked other colors. (No, "Ralph Nader Green" wasn't one of the contenders.)

But that's getting ahead of the story.

The controversy arose when the City announced its plans in 1984 to repaint the Fremont Bridge, which had been painted orange in 1972 and was badly in need of a fresh coat. But when the City asked visitors at the Fremont Fair that year to cast their ballots, orange was not among the choices listed. "Canal Blue" (1,153 votes) was the landslide winner over the likes of "Sky Grey" (124), "Nutmeg" (120), "Gold" (65) and "Pickle Green" (53).

The reason for the omission of orange on the ballot, according to the City's Engineering Department, was that it had been determined that the chemical properties of orange paint were unsuitable for withstanding the wear and tear of the bridge's conditions. Fremont's then-honorary mayor, Armen Stepanian, cried foul, suggesting that the City's excuse for excluding orange was a sham, with the REAL reason being objections from business owners who viewed orange as synonymous with the neighborhood's lingering image in those days as a hippy haven.

To the surprise of possibly nobody, the second-leading vote-getter in the Fremont Fair voting was orange, which got 253 write-in votes.

When I interviewed Seattle's then-Mayor Charles Royer a month later, he remarked half-jokingly that the City had been "prepared to capitulate" if Fremont Fair voters had shown overwhelming support for retaining the bridge's "orange glow."

The controversy was pretty much relegated to the back-burner for the next several months as it seemed a fait accompli that the new color for the Fremont Bridge was going to be "Canal Blue."

In April 1985, with the scheduled painting of the Fremont Bridge fast approaching, I decided to raise the subject once again in an interview with the Seattle Engineering Department's bridge maintenance manager, Bill Couch.

He surprised me when he candidly acknowledged that, contrary to the City's official party line, the Fremont Bridge's problems with peeling paint and exposed rust spots had nothing to do with its orange hue.

The actual culprit, according to Couch, was the "lousy workmanship" that took place when the bridge was last painted 13 years before.

He also admitted that "Canal Blue" as a paint was no more "tried and true" in terms of bridge usage than orange was. "Blue would probably fade or oxidize just as fast as the orange," he said. "The fact that the bridge is going to be blue is just a result of the poll. I couldn't care less if it was chartreuse," he added. "Well ... maybe I could."

Couch then revealed the real reason orange was not included on the ballot: aesthetics. Nothing more or less. "We (the City) tried orange and didn't like the results," he said.

Upon informing Stepanian of Couch's comments, the honorary Fremont mayor urged me to reopen the issue by asking Forum readers to cast a revote on the issue, this time including "Fremont Orange," along with "Canal Blue."

In the Forum's May 1985 issue, we did just that. The results were published the following month.

The City was incensed by the audacity of our little paper to suggest a new election. Couch was quoted in The North Central Outlook as complaining that "They've (The Forum) let the votes keep coming in and it's changed the outcome ... we're going by the original cut-off date." (Shades of George W. Bush!)

In the weeks that followed, I learned that new petitions, straw polls and letter campaigns were being mounted over the orange-vs.-blue controversy, with vocal supporters on both sides of the fence. A number of meetings were also held, with support for orange growing beyond the original circle of Stepanian and his friends.

Terry Denton, the past-president of the Fremont Neighborhood Council that year, explained why he decided to come out in support of orange: "This is not a fight over what color is going to be painted. It is a symbolic battle over what people think the history and future of Fremont is."

An open letter signed by Denton and several other Fremont residents and business owners, made the following statement: "We believe the bridge should continue to be Traditional FREMONT ORANGE. Many of us remember when 'Fremont' was identified all over the city as bar-room brawls and bikers - the little community we now call home ...

"The bridge ought to be orange, not because it is the prettiest color, but because the orange bridge is a symbol of Fremont's continuing renewal and development."

On Oct. 25, 1985, I was one of some 50 Fremont merchants and residents who gathered at the north entrance of the Fremont Bridge to witness the official dedication ceremony for the bridge's new paint job: blue with orange highlights. Fremont Arts Council members Irene Ingalls and Tom Gorton provided the winning design, beating out proposals from several other artists as well as from the engineering department itself.

Mayor Royer was on hand to proclaim "Fremont Bridge Day in Seattle," joined by Bill Couch who helped present a commemorative plaque to the Fremont community depicting blue and orange paint brushes next to a painted drawbridge.

Jim Daly, the then-president of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, aptly described the bridge's new two-tone color scheme as "the paint of compromise."

Stepanian, who was one of the few to express disappointment at not achieving an out-and-out victory, drove by in his pick-up truck, honking his horn in an attempt to disrupt the proceedings. "Enjoy your gloom!" he shouted as he headed for his newly adopted neighborhood in South Seattle.

Fortunately, the rest of us managed to ignore him.

This, after all, was truly a day for celebration. The scruffy little neighborhood north of the Ship Canal dared to stare City Hall straight in the eyes and got it to blink.