Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from John C. Hughes’ upcoming book, “Julia Butler Hansen: A trailblazing Washington politician,” which will be published Nov. 1 by Legacy Washington. The book will be available at sos.wa.gov/store/#/home. The biography is being published in connection with “Ahead of the Curve,” a book and exhibit spotlighting remarkable Washington women, including the suffragists who secured equal voting rights 10 years ahead of the 19th Amendment. “Ahead of the Curve” is free online at sos.wa.gov/legacy/ahead-of-the-curve/.
IN THE 1960s, “Scoop,” “Maggie” and “Julia” were household names from Port Angeles to Pullman. Henry M. Jackson, Warren G. Magnuson and Julia Butler Hansen — the best of friends since their days as Young Democrats in the 1930s — were at the pinnacle of their power, shepherding through Congress bills worth billions for the Northwest.
The congresswoman liked to tease the senators that they had to run only every six years. She had been running every two since the Great Depression. Hansen won 42 consecutive elections, including primaries, between 1937 and 1974 — from the Town Council in tiny Cathlamet along the Columbia River to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill.
In 1967, Hansen became the first woman in history to head a congressional appropriations subcommittee. As czar of appropriations for the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies, her purview included the budgets of the U.S. Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Alaska Gov. Walter J. “Wally” Hickel, President Nixon’s controversial pick for Secretary of the Interior, was perplexed in 1969, when reporters cornered him at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and asked what he thought of Julia Butler Hansen’s views on fisheries, parks and public timberlands.
“Julia who?” he famously asked.
Hickel paled when informed that the Democrat from Washington headed the congressional subcommittee overseeing the appropriations for his department.
The story made headlines from Anchorage to Atlanta in the next day’s papers — the ’60s equivalent of “going viral.” Everyone who was anyone in Washington, D.C., knew who Julia Butler Hansen was. At 61, she was “a master of the legislative process,” the Los Angeles Times wrote, adding, “No Secretary of the Interior in his right mind would want to antagonize her.”
Hansen was already skeptical about Hickel, whose enthusiasm for oil extraction at Prudhoe Bay was well-documented. “You can’t let nature run wild” was one of his famous “Hickelisms.”
Hickel was rebuffed when he tried to schedule an appointment to make amends. The congresswoman was “too busy.” After several more calls yielded the same brushoff, he arrived unannounced one morning and begged to be heard. She relented.
“I want you to know how embarrassed I am,” he said.
The congresswoman smiled thinly. “I am a member of a minority,” she said, “the so-called woman’s minority. We’re accustomed to being discriminated against.”
She proceeded to inform him it would be unconscionable if the Nixon administration failed to allocate more money for fisheries and the Forest Service. There were rumors, too, about plans to transfer functions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to another agency. He’d better put a stop to that, she warned. And he did.
HANSEN CRASHED HEADFIRST through a whole series of glass ceilings during her half-century in politics. Famously, she could cuss like a logger. Her 21 years in the Washington State Legislature were also legendary. In 1949, she became the first woman to head the House Roads & Bridges Committee — front-page news in The Seattle Times. By 1951, she was chair of the 11-state Western Interstate Committee on Highway Policy. Columnists and editorial writers dubbed her “The Duchess of Cathlamet,” “The Little Old Lady in Logging Boots” and “Mrs. Highways.” One of the few battles she ever lost was a plan to span Puget Sound with a series of floating bridges.
Albert D. Rosellini, Hansen’s old friend, was elected governor in 1956. He shared her passion for transportation planning. With Hansen overseeing highway legislation, the activist governor from South Seattle pushed for a second floating bridge across Lake Washington and completion of studies for a floating bridge across Hood Canal.
Connecting the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas was seen as a crucial first step in the network of cross-Sound bridges and ferries Rosellini and Hansen advocated.
One of Hansen’s recruits was a young Seattle Republican, Daniel J. Evans.
“In 1957, during my first year in the state House of Representatives, I was thrilled and surprised to be asked to serve on Julia’s interim committee on highways,” the former governor and U.S. senator remembers. “I was a civil engineer. She wanted someone with expertise. But it was a Republican slot, and the Republican leader protested that a prestigious seat like that should not go to a freshman. ‘Appoint him!’ Julia ordered. And he did. There was no arguing with Julia. I quickly developed enormous respect for this savvy, disarmingly plain-spoken woman.”
THE LEGISLATURE APPROVED a $75 million bond issue to speed construction of the Everett-to-Tacoma freeway. That summer, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the Hood Canal floating bridge. And, in an opinion sought by Hansen, the attorney general said there was no constitutional barrier to the Legislature appropriating funds from the Motor Vehicle Fund to subsidize ferries, or to pledging gas-tax revenues to guarantee a bond issue for a network of cross-Sound bridges.
In 18 public hearings around the state in 1958, Hansen’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Highways heard testimony on dozens of transportation issues — everything from log-truck licensing to high school driver’s education. But the big crowds, armed with charts and maps, came to quarrel over a new report on an old controversy: Could a network of Puget Sound bridges substantially reduce the need for increasingly expensive ferries?
The committee’s engineering consultants recommended construction of a 2-mile floating bridge from the Fauntleroy neighborhood in West Seattle to the north tip of Vashon Island. Including its elevated approaches, the cross-Sound bridge would span 3.2 miles of saltwater, with the floating portion perched atop concrete pontoons “as long as a football field and half as wide.” From there, a suspension bridge would connect Vashon Island to Point Southworth on the Kitsap Peninsula. Another bridge was projected to the north to connect the Kitsap Peninsula to Bainbridge Island. Yet another would span Sinclair Inlet between Port Orchard and Bremerton. Work was already underway on the enormous pontoons for the 1.4-mile Hood Canal floating bridge.
The new network of bridges and four-lane “expressways” would allow the state to terminate the Seattle-Bremerton, Seattle-Winslow (Bainbridge Island) and Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth ferry routes, the consultants said. Tolling would be confined to the cross-Sound floating bridge and the suspension bridge between Vashon Island and Point Southworth. Those revenues were projected to be sufficient to pay off the bonds in a timely manner. Out-of-pocket costs for travelers who had relied solely on ferries would be higher at first but diminish annually. However, if ferries remained “the major method of traversing Puget Sound,” fares would need to be at least 40% higher by 1965, the consultants said. “Indeed, with or without the Puget Sound Bridge, rising ferry operation costs must be matched by increases in the tolls (fares) to ensure solvency of the Ferry System operations. … Continued ferry operation will always require tolls.”
The consultants estimated the cost of the cross-Sound project at $200 million, around $1.8 billion today. If work got underway in 1961, they said, the new network of bridges and connecting highways could be completed by 1965 and toll-free by 1983. Every month of indecision would take a higher toll, literally and figuratively. Rising construction costs could make the project financially infeasible if it were delayed beyond the early 1960s, Hansen warned. Gov. Rosellini strongly endorsed the plan.
A NEWLY FORMED group, the Gasoline Tax Protective League, announced it would oppose any legislative effort to guarantee toll-revenue bonds for the cross-Sound bridges by pledging motor-fuel tax collections as collateral. Though the low-interest rates were tempting, the League was opposed on principle to this “dangerous” plan to “mortgage” the Motor Vehicle Fund.
Delegates to the 1958 convention of the venerable Washington Good Roads Association also announced their opposition to the bridge-funding plan. Given her track record as one of the group’s staunchest allies, Hansen was stung by the news.
“The association says it wants to safeguard the Motor Vehicle Fund. What for?” she fumed. “To concentrate on building highways in Eastern Washington? Western Washington has been paying the lion’s share of costs for building highways in Eastern Washington long enough. Certainly, we must provide adequate roads east of the mountains. But we are providing them. The big problems remaining are in Western Washington, and more particularly in the heavily populated areas around Puget Sound.”
She also rebuked the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce for muddying the waters. It had supported the original cross-Sound plan. Now it wanted the state to fully finance additional toll-free suspension bridges.
The 1959 legislative session adjourned after 74 days with little to show for its labors other than a duct-taped grab bag of controversial tax increases. Hansen said her party had only itself to blame for multiple acts of ineptitude.
EVANS HAD JOINED Hansen as a co-sponsor of the legislation authorizing the $200 million cross-Sound bridge project. Nat Washington from Grant County, the chairperson of the Senate Roads and Bridges Committee, sponsored a companion bill.
Three other state senators, Democrats Ralph Purvis of Bremerton and Edward F. Riley of Seattle, and Republican William Shannon of Seattle, filed alternatives that were combined. The “Purvis Plan” advocated just one new span — a bridge between Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula at Brownsville, a site 4 miles north of Bremerton. The Bremerton-Seattle ferry run would be eliminated, and more-frequent, 24-hour ferry service instituted between Bainbridge Island and Seattle. The trio touted the plan as a more-direct route between Bremerton and downtown Seattle than the proposed cross-Sound floating bridge. Better yet, they said, their plan would cost only $20 million and not require the Motor Vehicle Fund as collateral for construction bonds.
A hearing on the dueling bridge bills attracted 1,000 people. Bremerton was worried about losing its ferry. Bainbridge Islanders had mixed emotions. Some were resistant to urbanization; others were anxious to protect property values. Testimony was about 60-40 in favor of the cross-Sound plan.
In the House, Hansen had votes to spare. In the Senate, Nat Washington was treading water. The opposition of the highway-user groups and a bloc of Eastern Washington senators further weakened his position.
Evans acknowledged that for several years, bridge tolls would cost cross-Sound motorists more than ferry fares. “But the good outweighs the bad,” the up-and-coming Republican said. The network of new bridges would provide greater access to the Olympic Peninsula, eliminate long waits for ferries and do away with state subsidies for the ferry system. And the additional gas-tax revenue would spur construction projects, a timely boost for the state’s economy. If the traffic on the new bridges turned out only half as robust as the consulting engineers estimated, Evans said, there still would be no need to dip into the Motor Vehicle Fund to back up the bond issue.
With the Legislature still stalemated over new taxes, the governor called a special session. Hansen, Evans, Washington and Purvis participated in a “peacemaking” meeting. They tentatively endorsed a plan to have out-of-state engineers and financial consultants study all aspects of cross-Sound transportation — including monorails and hydrofoils — and recommend a plan to the Toll Bridge Authority. But the Hansen-Evans bill to finance the study never made it out of committee. During the dying days of the special session, the bill fell one vote short of making it to the floor of the Senate, Evans remembers.
HAD THE CROSS-SOUND bridge been built, would they have come to regret it?
Evans, 95 in October, muses that fate is fickle, and man-made marvels don’t last forever. The Alaskan Way Viaduct he proudly helped design in 1949 as a member of the City of Seattle’s Engineering Department is now gone, dismissed as a seismic and visual albatross. And floating bridges have met with expensive misfortune. Hansen was a member of the Washington State Transportation Commission as an Evans appointee on Feb. 13, 1979, when the western half of the Hood Canal Bridge sank during a howling storm. And in 1990, the original Lake Washington floating bridge broke apart while it was closed for renovation and sank in a storm. A post-mortem revealed its hollow pontoons had been compromised by the construction work.
“I think that the cross-Sound bridge over open saltwater would have faced far more difficult weather problems than the Lake Washington or Hood Canal bridges,” Evans said. “Who knows? But we are now committed to ferries for a long, long time.”
Hansen always said it was the most galling defeat of her 21 years in the state Legislature. Characteristically, she aimed higher. After winning Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District seat in 1960, she was reelected six times, averaging 63.8% of the vote. By her third term, she was the most powerful woman in the House of Representatives. As chairperson of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, she championed self-determination for Native American tribes. She also sponsored the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act and helped pass the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Equal Rights Amendment and the landmark Title IX amendments to the 1972 Higher Education Act.
After retiring from Congress in 1975, Hansen went on to become the first woman to head the Washington State Transportation Commission.
She died at Cathlamet in 1988 at the age of 80. Saluting her as Washington’s “grand lady of politics and transportation,” the Legislature and Transportation Commission voted to rename Wahkiakum County’s historic Puget Island Bridge in her honor. “No one ever represented her people better than Julia Butler Hansen,” said Sen. Magnuson.