skip navigation
Support KUOW

The Viaduct: The Politics

Dominic Black

Trying to trace the roots of the Alaskan Way Viaduct is about as easy as trying to have a conversation when you're standing underneath it: it's murky, indistinct and kind of confusing.


Historian Paul Dorpat has a couple of suggestions [to trace the roots of the Alaska Way Viaduct.] One is the city's first traffic engineer R.W. Bollong, who sees Chicago's Wacker Drive that opened in 1926, a kind of viaduct on steroids, and comes back to Seattle and thinks what's good enough for Chicago is good enough for us — we should get one of them. And the other is the transcendently–named councilwoman, Catherine A. Miracle, who early on has the dream of building a highway to bypass downtown.

Dorpat: "Her idea along the waterfront was really the fulfillment of ideas that had been around for decades, going back even to the development of Western Avenue to the west of First Avenue after the great fire of 1889, when it was described as a way of getting around the Central Business District."

By the early 1920s, all the talk is of a Pacific Highway stretching from Canada to Mexico — the forerunner to what the Argus newspaper called "a checkerboard of highways, over which will flow the traffic of the continent." Keep that word "flow" in your mind's eye here by the way, because that's what this is about: the flow of traffic, the flow of money, the flow of ideas, the flow of time.

By the mid–1930s, in downtown Seattle, traffic wasn't flowing, and the cause of the congestion lay upstream. If you were driving in a car through the local streets, tangling your way north from downtown and zigzagging around railways, streetcars, buses and pedestrians, you'd eventually have reached the Aurora Speedway.

That stretch of highway running up across the Aurora Bridge, and smack through the middle of Woodland Park, opened in 1933 after massive controversy. Putting it through the park was so contested, it took a referendum to give it the go ahead. It wasn't so contested, though, that people didn't use it. Traffic doubled in seven years. Where's it all going? Eh, south, to downtown.

So from the late thirties, it runs like this: congestion, something must be done, something viaducty is suggested, the war comes, the war goes, congestion again, cue a big report. Top solutions: number one, the Viaduct. Number two, what would become I–5?

Now, enter veteran councilmember and former coal miner, Robert H. Harlin. Seattle writer and historian Junius Rochester tells how his father, Francis R. Rochester, worked alongside Harlin on the Seattle City Council.

Rochester: "He used to come home and tell some of the stories at City Hall and I remember him coming home, whether it was after the vote or a couple of weeks later, discussions on the vote on the viaduct, and he said if there had never been a Bobby Harlin there would never have been an Alaskan Way Viaduct. Now, Bobby Harlin was a member of the city council like my father, but Bobby Harlin's residence was in West Seattle."

By this stage the former coal miner Harlin had been on council for 15 years, mayor for one year during the mid thirties, director of the Department of Labor and Industry, and, get this, a representative of the US mining industry at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I. So, politically, a heavy hitter.

Rochester: "And so the city council, I believe, did of course approve Bobby Harlin's suggestion that the Alaskan Way Viaduct be put down on the waterfront to initially help his West Seattle people get in and out of the city and to their jobs in the north end and the south end."

The final vote on council was 7–0 in favor of the viaduct with two absentees. So on June 15, 1948, Mayor William Devin signs the ordinance giving the viaduct the go ahead.

Now, for the money to buy the cement.

Klingle: "Really, Washington begins to get increasingly powerful traction in Washington, DC, during and after the World War II era."

Matthew Klingle is the author of "Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle" and he's also associate professor of history at Bowdoin College in Maine.

Klingle: "Beginning with Senator Homer T. Bone and then his successor Warren G. Magnuson, and then of course Scoop Jackson — this congressional delegation, this senatorial delegation is particularly powerful at bringing federal money into Washington state and in particular into the greater metropolitan Seattle region."

Since the city's throwing in $1.5 million, and the state $2 million, that just leaves $1.5 million from the federal government to finish things off. So the timing couldn't have been better.

To this day, Scoop and Maggie, as Jackson and Magnuson were known, are legends of pork–barrel politics. Walter Mondale said of Magnuson, "He's scrupulously fair with federal funds. One half for Washington state and the other half for the rest of the country." And as for Jackson, his advocacy of military spending didn't just mean hardware at Boeing.

Klingle: "It also happened to coincide that not only was building planes good for the regional economy as well as good for America's Cold War effort to fight communism, but it also linked very much with the growing importance of wanting to build highways nationwide."

So everything's falling into place, and everybody's onside, including the unions, which are dominated in large part by the legendary figure of Dave Beck. Described in Murray Morgan's 1951 book "Skid Road," Beck is "a plump and successful businessman... his voice is high, almost boyish, but his tone is one of command. He is the big boss." And this big boss's style was all about working with big business, not against it. It's this attitude that's the final piece of the viaduct jigsaw.

Klingle: "In large part, it's this conservative period of Seattle politics, one where you're seeing cooperation between organized labor, which no longer has that radical edge for the most part, downtown business interests, elected officials and eventually state officials. This is the political environment you see give rise to the viaduct and the completion of State Route 99 through downtown Seattle."

This is starting to sound like the most agreed upon, wisest and beneficial public works project ever undertaken in the city. Something about it almost doesn't feel right.

Mimi Sheridan's the author of the official historical field notes for the viaduct, for the Department of Transportation. It's a report that's particularly important because the viaduct is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of that, any alterations, like, say, demolishing it, have to be mitigated for. I asked Mimi Sheridan how the viaduct itself was sold to people.

Sheridan: "I'm not sure it was sold. I mean it was just agreed that we had to have transportation through the city. There were not a lot of activist groups really either for it or against it. Because the waterfront was over towards the edge of the city, it was an area that was more commercial and industrial and not an area where people went that much. So there weren't big groups organizing for it, other than business and the people that were directly involved there."

There was one lonely dissenting voice though, and it was that of architect Paul Thiry. The man who went on the design the Seattle Center was quoted in the Seattle Times of November 1947 saying that he'd never seen an overhead construction in any city that didn't create slum conditions underneath it; adding for good measure that since you actually have to live in the city, you shouldn't ruin it just to make it easier to get to work.

But grand construction projects like this take on a life of their own, and so it was with the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Its momentum was unstoppable. Tomorrow, our series continues with a look at how the long dreamed of Alaskan Way Viaduct was designed and built in part by Daniel J. Evans: a rookie designer, working for the city, a future governor of Washington state, and the future successor to Scoop Jackson in the US Senate.

I'm Dominic Black for KUOW.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW