What history lurks beneath Seattle highways?

The 520 bridge expansion crosses an Indian burial ground, and the Viaduct replacement in SoDo has dug up artifacts from early boom-town Seattle. Here's a two-part preview of what we could learn from our two transportation mega-projects, and some of the cultural challenges they face.
The Highway 520 bridge crossing Portage Bay

The Highway 520 bridge crossing Portage Bay Joe Mabel/via Wikimedia Commons

The current Highway 520 bridge under construction east from Foster Island into Lake Washington in 1962.

The current Highway 520 bridge under construction east from Foster Island into Lake Washington in 1962. Seattle engineering department archives/via Wikimedia Commons

The Pioneer Square Underground Tour tells most of us all we know about what lies underneath Seattle. It's a touristy exploration of the city's oldest basements, a jokey excursion through an urban underbelly filled with commentary about the foibles, and drinking habits, of the city's lusty pioneers. It's the closest many of us come to seeing firsthand the archaeology of the city.

You pass under sidewalks and see where old storefronts used to be before the streets were raised. You see the layers of cobbles, bricks, beams, and concrete that hold up our historic buildings. You learn how Seattle was rebuilt after the fire of 1889, how filling in the tideflats, re-grading the hills, and building the new on top of the old started us down the path where we are today. One thing certain: post-fire Seattle was not a city slowed by civic gridlock, nor daunted by re-engineering the landscape.

Once, years ago, the Underground Tour billed itself as taking visitors to see ruins larger than Pompeii's. If your archaeological expectations are set there, you'll likely be disappointed. Nevertheless, the tour gives you an idea of how complicated and layered the past can get, even while it forms the literal foundation of today.

Urban archaeology is complicated because of this layering of living city upon the buried iterations that came before. This isn't landscape where one can dig easily, or without economic consequence. But occasionally we do get a peek at what's under our feet, below the basements, sewers, utility lines, and shorelines. Often it's due to major public projects, like Metro's West Point Treatment Plant where in 1992 archaeologists found evidence of 4,000 years of habitation and use by native peoples. Archaeological finds have turned up during many Seattle projects, including those of Sound Transit, the Port of Seattle, and the World Trade Center, to name a few.

Such projects are required by federal and state laws to assess their impact on cultural resources, which often means sites of historic and archaeological significance. Such laws did not inhibit our ancestors, who built canals, highways and washed away hillsides will nary a thought for heritage, let alone the environment as we think of it today. But the National Historic Preservation Act (pdf) and the National Environmental Policy Act now lay out a process for taking such impacts into account, and taking them seriously. Failure to do so can have huge financial, political, and cultural consequences.

Seattle currently has two complicated multi-billion-dollar state mega-projects underway that have to be careful of what they do and where they do it. Archaeologists and cultural resource specialists are actively working to figure out what's at risk, and what opportunities the projects might offer for learning about Seattle's early history. The focus of this two-part series are the archaeological opportunities and challenges.

Even before major construction is underway, clues about what might be underground or under water are being assessed, and local tribes are being consulted. The archaeological sites are by no means only connected to Native Americans but include more than a century of habitation covering Seattle's birth, settlement, and emergence as a city.

The two projects are the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement project and the highway 520 bridge replacement at Montlake. Even though major components of each project remain undefined or debated (bridge and tunnel financing, the final design of 520 through Montlake, possible lawsuits,etc.), some archaeological impacts and possibilities are coming into focus. Here's an overview of what's on the radar screen.

The Highway 520 bridge replacement and highway expansion's most problematic section is on the Seattle side, between I-5 and Lake Washington. The final design and, therefore, the scope and impact of the project aren't yet determined, but a draft EIS by the Washington Department of Transportation outlines some of the areas where cultural resource issues are significant: the Montlake and Roanoke Historic Districts, the Arboretum, the Olmsted boulevard, even the mid-century modern 520 bridge itself. Of course, those are above ground.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 11, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

I just hope if WADOT finds any indian artifacts or bones, they don't waste 60 million dollars like they did in Port Angeles before calling a halt to the project. Maybe WADOT learned some big lessons from the Port Angeles debacle but if indeed history is our guide.....they didnt.

hlongan

Posted Tue, May 11, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Fascinating article. I'm looking forward to part two. One question: Why are there archaeologists on the staff of the DOT? Do other departments have their own archaeologists as well? Wouldn't a lot of efficiency (not to mention exchange of knowledge) be gained by having a standalone historical and archaeological agency to handle investigations of this sort?

dbreneman

Posted Thu, May 13, 7:24 a.m. Inappropriate

I find these articles by Knute Berger on the early days of my native city most interesting- especially when they relate what's been there all along to what's being put forward as completely brand new. The Past is always with us- even on Mercer Island where I've lived, practiced for many years.

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA

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