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Construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on April 9, 1952.  Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

Construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on April 9, 1952. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

KUOW News

The Viaduct: Building It

Dominic Black
07/08/2010

No sooner was the ink dry on the city ordinance giving the viaduct the go–ahead than a special design team was assembled. One of the young engineers brought in was Daniel J. Evans, recently graduated from the University of Washington, and a future governor of Washington state.

TRANSCRIPT

Daniel [J. Evans] was the son of an engineer and remembers his father's influence fondly. His father at that time being the engineer for King County.

Evans: "That was during the time I was going to university and it was absolutely marvelous for me to ride with him to look at engineering projects that were being built by the county. And he was not only a father but a mentor in terms of engineering."

By the time Daniel Evans joined the city as an engineer, the excitement surrounding the Alaskan Way Viaduct was almost palpable. This was a big deal especially for him after years of studying design.

Evans: "It was really kind of fun to do calculations and translate those calculations into concrete and steel requirements for columns and for the connections between the columns and the flat plates that turned into the roadway. And then to go out and actually watch early construction and see what was done with your drawings and careful calculations when they were put together by a bunch of laborers out in the field."

Black: "Was there a buzz about the place?"

Evans: "Well, sure. The city engineering department had its large staff of engineers and technicians, but then suddenly this huge new project came and when the special design team was created I think there was a little bit of, I shouldn't say animosity, but there were probably some differences between the regular city engineering department and the special team that sat up there."

Black: "What's so special about those guys?"

Evans: "And of course we looked on ourselves as pretty special, so that probably didn't help."

As a route for the viaduct, the waterfront was a no–brainer. The railroads which had been thriving there weren't thriving any more, so it made sense to use the space for cars. And since the viaduct was double–decked for most of its length, it only took up half the space of a surface road. Six lanes for the space of three with parking underneath. Bonus. And the waterfront at that time was an entirely different creature to what it is now.

Here's a description from historian Murray Morgan's book "Skid Road," written at the end of the 1940s:

To know Seattle, one must know its waterfront. It is a good waterfront, not as busy as New York's, not as self–consciously colorful as San Francisco's, not as exotic as New Orleans', but a good, honest, working waterfront with big gray warehouses and trim fishing boats and docks that smell of creosote, and sea gulls and tugs and seafood restaurants and beer joints and fish stores. A waterfront where you can hear foreign languages and buy shrunken heads and genuine stuffed mermaids, where you can watch the seamen follow the streetwalkers and the shore patrol follow the sailors, where you can stand at an open air bar and drink clam nectar, or sit on a deadhead and watch the water, or go to an aquarium and look at an octopus.

Klingle: "When the first transcontinental railroads came to Seattle, they faced a major problem, which was that Seattle is built on an isthmus. Kind of looks like a toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle."

Matthew Klingle's the author of "Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle."

Klingle: "And with Lake Washington to the east and Puget Sound to the west, it's difficult to move traffic across the isthmus, not only because of the proximity of water but also because of the ruggedness of the topography on the land itself. And with the advent of the automobile they faced a similar problem."

Sheridan: "Construction progressed very rapidly once things got started."

Mimi Sheridan is the author of the historical field notes for the Alaskan Way Viaduct for the Department of Transportation.

Sheridan: "There was sort of a complicated process of getting the designs done and getting it approved because most of the parts of the viaduct had federal and state money as well as city money, so there was an approval process and things went back and forth. When you read the records, you can see there were disagreements and misunderstandings, but basically things progressed pretty quickly."

Inevitably there were some snags. Mimi's report records a national steel strike in 1952 that caused a major delay in finishing the section from South King Street to Railroad Way.

And to the north, the small matter of squeezing around the existing buildings proved a wee bit tricky when the Empire Laundry Building was found to be in the way. It must have been one of those cold sweat moments when somebody had to tell the chief engineer: "Em, you know that thing about not knocking down any more buildings —"

Lucky enough, they were able to just sneak past by making a space in the crash barrier. So if you are driving south out of the Battery Street Tunnel, you can still see it if you look to your right.

The tunnel came last, workers toiling hail, rain or shine — "Gophermen slugging soggily through a primordial sort of ooze, a greasy, slippery, soaking quagmire of puddled gumbo" as the Seattle Times described the scene.

By April 4, 1953, though, the main section of the viaduct was finished. It was the year of Seattle's Centennial, and the day of the opening ceremony dawned cloudy drizzly and cold. Politicians, engineers, reporters, the Barclay dancing girls, Seafair Queen Iris Adams and other dignitaries gathered by the Elliott Street on–ramp. Which is where I met up with Mike Peringer, at the time a young reporter for KUOW and the University of Washington.

Peringer: "Well, people today complain about it being an eyesore and that kind of thing. But then it was a thing of beauty. I think they were a little bit, not apprehensive, but a little bit concerned about how people would accept it. So they were looking at it and talking about it from a very positive standpoint. They wanted people to use it to justify the $8 million they spent on it. So when the ceremony was all over, and nobody had anything else to say, they just gave us the signal and we all went running back to our cars and headed south on the freeway."

Black: "So you were some of the first cars on the viaduct?"

Peringer: "We were the first 50 cars, roughly 50, that headed south on the thing and got off at Pioneer Square, didn't know how to get back on, cause there was no way to get back, you know. So that was it. It was all over."

The Post–Intelligencer called the viaduct "a royal necklace across the bosom of the Queen City of the Pacific Northwest." OK, that's the same viaduct I'm standing under right now. In the end, it seemed well worth the final cost of just over $10.5 million. According to a resolution of appreciation passed by the Seattle City Council, dollars that were found by making savings in other parts of the city budget, not by borrowing. All in all, it modestly noted, the viaduct was one of the greatest structural achievements in the history of Seattle. Something Harold Hill would probably agree with. He worked for one of the contractors building the Pike Street to King Street section. And nearly 60 years later, he's proud of his work. He just wishes it was better looked after.

Hill: "If you take a look at what we're looking at here, and say, why don't they ever clean it up or why don't they paint it or why don't they do something to make it look attractive? But, no, we want to make it look terrible. And they've succeeded."

Black: "You feel attached to this structure."

Hill: "I think it was a great addition to the city, and it still is, and I think it's going to be a sad thing to lose it."

Within 15 years of its opening, there were calls to pull the thing down. Even as Seattle was in the throes of plunging I–5 through its own heart, and displacing around 40,000 people in the process.

Tomorrow in the final part of our series, we'll look at how the reality of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and I–5 came to symbolize the past rather than the future, even at the same time as grand plans were hatched to encircle the city in yet more highways.

I'm Dominic Black for KUOW.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

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