The Purdy Bridge: Gateway to the Key Peninsula


Frank Slater

The historic Purdy Spit Bridge has been in service since 1938. Photo: Beth Porter

In 1884, Horace Knapp bought 19 acres from Isaac Hawks on the east side of Burley Lagoon for $23.75 and turned it into a town site to encourage settlement. Joseph Purdy, a Tacoma grocer, told Knapp he would pay for a school if they named the town after him.

 By 1886, a mill had been built that supplied timber to Cleveland (now called Bremerton) and Purdy was known as a rough, brawling mill town.

The Knapps were often called upon to ferry people across the channel dividing their property and the spit. In 1892, the county authorized a drawbridge. The center span swung on a pivot to permit tugs to pick up log rafts at the Wilson Logging Co. Tugs blew one long and two short whistles near Dead Man’s Island (Cutts Island) on their way up Henderson Bay. Knapp or one of his sons would open the bridge to let them through.

Henderson Bay faces the prevailing southwest wind. Wave action along the shore washes gravel toward Purdy. About the time the first bridge was built, settlers borrowed fill from the hillside at the Springfield (Wauna) end of the spit to make it an all-weather route. Before that, the spit flooded when high tides and winter storms coincided. They set posts to hold driftwood and brush and the occasional shipwreck to stop erosion, an ongoing process as cracks in the road and traffic cones still bear witness.

A tall, wooden bridge was constructed in 1905, but collapsed when the tide swept some of the pilings away. The county rebuilt it.

In 1920, the county replaced that third bridge with an ungainly steel swing-span barged in from Puyallup. Citizen complaints about its appearance led to a lawsuit demanding certain aesthetic changes when it came time to build yet another replacement.

The current bridge was built in 1938 and was the first in the United States to use reinforced concrete box girders. Considered an engineering landmark with a unique design for its era, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The lagoon has been used as an oyster farm since the early 1900s. “Purdy Oyster Co. was owned by Mr. Yamashita,” remembered local man Fran Pinchbeck recently. “In 1957 or 1959, three young men drowned in the channel. A younger Yamashita and two Anderson brothers. I would have been with them, but the previous afternoon, I quit to go commercial fishing with the crew on the Shenandoah (a fishing trawler now being restored at the Harbor History Museum).

“The accident occurred after dark, when the crew was heading back to shore. The channel was rough and windy. The small barge flipped, dumping all four men into the water. Richard Morgan, who was in my class, lit on the bottom of the channel and his boots filled with water. Richard said he just started to walk while underwater, not knowing where he was going, and soon he felt something on his head—the wake of the water. Richard just kept walking and soon was on shore.”

Increased traffic has led to public complaints about the Purdy intersection and calls to replace the state-owned bridge with something bigger despite its historical significance.

Annie Bell, of the Peninsula School District transportation office, said PSD works closely with the fire and police departments to keep an eye on traffic on the bridge and the Wauna curves. The school district has over 20 buses and most of the routes are on the Key Peninsula. State traffic monitors adjust the light at Purdy to favor the buses, she said. They do their best to clear the intersection before the evening commute gets heavy.

Bob Janes, raised in the Purdy area, said there have been rumors about a new bridge to be built across the upper Burley Lagoon and connecting with State Route 302 since the current bridge was completed.