BNSF Train Bridge over I-90

Drive from Seattle past the suburban blight of Mercer Island into the savage wastelands of the Eastside.  Drive from Issaquah or farther east towards the urban hell-hole across the big water.

Either way, you’ll find yourself approaching the place where I-90 and I-405 meet, right next to Bellevue’s Mercer Slough.  You’ll enter a landscape of parking lots and shopping malls known as Eastgate.  You might even see Enatai Beach Park beneath you, as you speed through the wilderness at 70mph.

What you won’t see is an unassuming train bridge, one of many overpasses and underpasses crisscrossing the mighty I-90 in this area.  It’s just an ordinary piece of rusted BNSF metal, a thing hidden in plain sight among similar things.  You won’t see it.

Rust never sleepsHold the line

The only aspect of the bridge slightly out of place?  A touch of graffiti on the western side.  This is unusual in Bellevue, a city that makes of whitebread not just sandwiches but an entire lifestyle.  So if you’re unusually perceptive, you might see the word seared in white paint:  Emre.

Perhaps you’ll wonder what the nameless speaker of an ancient Turkic dialect found poetic about the setting, hanging off a train bridge at 3AM, spray paint can in hand.  Most likely you won’t care.

Night trainInto the distance

When the world began, to each trade and profession a special charge was given.  For photographers, it was a simple thing:  to notice the ordinary

To do this well, an alert gaze is required.  Often this will lead to nothing:  the veil of the world may remain securely in place, or further matryoshka shells of mediocrity may be found underneath.  But every now and then, a doppelgänger is unearthed.  Maya is Devi, but alas also Kali.

Then the alarm may be raised, the hatches battened down, the torches lit to ward away the dark.  And in this way, the photographer defends civilization from the other.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

For this reason, we decided to examine the abandoned BNSF train bridge and, if possible, cross it on foot.  We climbed the embankment at SE 32nd St and walked along the tracks.  What we found was not quite ordinary.Abandoned train bridge over I-90

The train bridge is literally covered in graffiti.  Nothing so organized as a mural or structured composition, but many isolated instances of graffito, some overwriting others, covering walls that would otherwise have been a uniform rust red.

Abandoned paletteTetris

Spent spray cans litter the ground, rivaling broken beer bottles as the most common accent to the BNSF-laid gravel.

Canned art

No particular theme presents itself to the observer.  Instead, the painted walls exhibit many different messages, mixed by happenstance and accretion as one contributor built on the work of his predecessor.

It's the thought that counts

Another kind of fish

One can imagine the first graffiti artist venturing onto the bridge, perhaps decades ago.  He keeps a a wary eye out for passing trains, as he chooses a likely swathe of rusted sheet metal to begin his composition.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

After that, the broken windows theory comes into full effect, or so the modern criminologist might observe.  Word of mouth travels quickly in the underground.  A legend is created, a place where paint can be sprayed without fear, condemnation or notice.  Spray cans are purchased, using false papers, pseudonyms and unmarked bills.  The vandals sally forth to sack Rome, or to leave a mark on the world – any mark.

Simultaneous concepts

And so the bridge undergoes a metamorphosis.  From pristine object of industrial function, slightly decrepit, to a site where the imagination literally runs wild.

Layers

One can envision frantic attempts to complete a night’s work, as the torchlight threat of rolling liquid metal death rolls towards the young artist at ever-increasing speeds.  And as the roar in their right brains matches the din in their ears, both streams finally climax into the only raison d’être anyone can possibly imagine:  to create, or die trying.

Eris and eros

Why this place, one might ask?  In all the Eastside, why did this insignificant train bridge become such a popular counter-cultural destination?

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

One reason is abandonment.  Despite the tracks being in beautiful condition, no trains have braved their way through this corridor since 2007 and usage was light for quite some time.  This bridge is on the same train line with the Wilburton Trestle, known as the Eastside railroad or, in BNSF parlance, the Woodinville Subdivision. After the demolition of the Wilburton Tunnel, the train line is no longer even intact.

So there has been no risk of encountering a train in close quarters for some time. Perhaps there never will be again.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

But neglect alone is an insufficient explanation.  Unless graffiti, like rust, is to be understood merely as an agent of the second law of thermodynamics, its spray-painters merely automata in the grand old state machine that is the universe.  This might explain why not all of the writing would pass a Turing test of intelligibility.

Riveted, graffitied wallRiveted wall

But at its core, the train bridge is an example of a public space abandoned by the custodians of such spaces.  On the train bridge, the forces of entropy reacted by inviting in not only oxidation but a few intrepid souls who made it their own place.  A place that they cared about, in their own way.  A place where they were willing to invest their time and souls towards creating something unique.

Riveting

These days, too much of our civilization’s urban space has become limbo on Earth, a set of places we don’t care about.  Or care about just enough to provide the perfunctory, standardized, mass-produced kind of maintenance for which minimum wage is sufficient compensation.

Whether it’s the corner gas station, the parking lot next to the chain store, or the neighborhood street where it’s no longer safe for children to play, what we’ve seen is a continuous devaluing of our living space’s currency, a withdrawal of our interest in creating and interacting to the private sphere of our houses and yards – which have become miniature gated communities, Roman villas from which private cries of pleasure can occasionally be heard.

Railing

Protected by the bridge walls from observation, by BNSF’s budgets from erasure, the bridge has become a unique concept of what a public space might look like, an antidote to the antiseptic monotony and uniform aesthetic that our identical towns and cities have come to be.  A place where furtive bacchanals and the fertility symbols of gangs have become something more:  a kind of railroad chic that, given the right kind of focused madness that creates pop culture worldwide, might be mainstreamed into something your father might trendily appreciate.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

Naturally, the industrial immune system has not remained, well, immune to this development.  As of 2009, the Port of Seattle has become the new owner of the rail corridor, which strongly implies the possibility of future development.

So like the Wilburton Trestle, the fate of the train bridge is in the hands of the bureaucrats.  It is they who will decide whether the other will be suppressed or embraced into the fold.  My money is on suppression.

Hobo says goodbye

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Wilburton Trestle

The Wilburton Trestle is a wooden train trestle on the East Side, just southeast of downtown Bellevue.  According to Wikipedia, it’s 102 feet high and 975 feet long, which makes it the longest wooden trestle in the Pacific Northwest.  Although it belongs to BNSF, like most of the railway infrastructure in these parts, it hasn’t been used since 2007, when the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train went out of business.

Did I mention it’s made out of wood?

Wilburton trestle

Wilburton Trestle

 

Aside from walking under it, there are two ways to approach the trestle.  The first involves a climb up a steep muddy slope to the south side of the trestle.  This path involves pathfinding through a thicket of Himalayan Blackberry, while probably trespassing in some unsuspecting neighbor’s yard.  However, it offers a fine view of downtown Bellevue and, if you’re there at the right time, a nice romantic sunset view.

Wilburton trestle track

(If you can persuade your significant other to risk the mud and brambles, that is…)

Wilburton trestle track

The second is simpler:  park somewhere around 118th Ave SE & SE 5th St, ignore the sign promising DANGER, and walk along the tracks until you reach the north side of the trestle.

Danger

Walking the trestle from here is fairly dangerous and is clearly not for the acrophobic.  My constant companion couldn’t make it more than ten paces out.  The wood feels flimsy, and has enough gaps between the slats that the ground below is always visible.  The handrail consists of two flimsy wires, and there are pools of tar in places.  In short, it’s exhilarating.

Train's-eye view

One step beyond

The future of the Wilburton Trestle is unclear at this point.  It will likely depend on what happens with the proposed new light rail line that will connect Bellevue to the rest of the Sound Transit line sometime in the distant future.

Last train to Bellevue

Rumor has it a new trestle may be built to handle a local light rail line, with the old trestle kept around and used as a pedestrian path for hikers.  If confirmed, this would be a great use of a beautiful historic structure.

End of life

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