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Viaduct work digs down to the heart of Seattle’s history

Seattle tideflats and peninsula circa 1898 Credit: Anders Wilse, Museum of History and Industry/courtesy of WSDOT

Seattle dodged a bullet when it dropped the cut-and-cover tunnel option for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project. That’s because the project would have sliced through Seattle’s waterfront at a point where it is virtually one long archaeological site.

And that tunnel would have been at a depth where it would have done damage to anything in its path (from possible native burials to the tailings from Henry Yesler’s sawmill), forcing builders to pick their way through boobytraps of important finds. The deep-bore tunnel, which is now planned, would have a big impact underground, but most of it would be too deep to have an adverse impact on the archaeological layers that document human history. In short, it detours around many problems.

But there could be archaeological issues at both the north and south ends, where the tunnel goes into and comes out of the ground, according to Kevin Bartoy, WSDOT’s cultural resources specialist for the mega-projects. Digging here passes through the shallow layers of prehistoric and historic Seattle. The North end comes out in an area that was a major native route linking Lake Union and Puget Sound via what we know as Lower Queen Anne.

This was also an important area in the pioneer period and early industrial Seattle, and some of the area was filled in from the Denny Regrade project, meaning it could contain a revealing mix of historic materials. The jumbled fill itself could yield some interesting finds because a lot of stuff was left behind and washed away with its hills. But also, fill can protect layers that came before.

That said, the area where things are going ahead is at the south end, the so-called South Holgate-to-South King (H2K) section of the project. This is where old Viaduct sections will be removed and the new Highway 99 built, where utility lines are being relocated, surface improvements made, and where the south tunnel portal would be, assuming there is a tunnel. Digging, pile driving, soil work: all could impact potential historic and archaeological sites.

From an archaeological standpoint, this stretch of SoDo, just south of Pioneer Square, and mostly west of First Avenue South, typifies many of the opportunities and complexities that signify how what lies under urban Seattle can be so, well, complicated, confusing, and ultimately so interesting. It’s best summed up this way, in the words of a WSDOT archaeologist: “Seattle’s on top of everything.”

First, consider that this area is where the city of Seattle was actually founded, early structures being built on a small point of land called Denny’s Island, a peninsula that was sometimes cut off from the mainland at high tide. It was roughly where First and Jackson is now. In addition to early commercial buildings, there were native village sites there, according to old maps. A wharf was built and eventually docks extended into Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River Delta. What we think of as SoDo was water and a vast tideflat.

At the bottom level, then, you have the old delta, and likely remains of prehistoric activities, covered with sand and mud, and later debris. As docks extended southward, the flats underneath eventually filled in with garbage from the ships and the businesses that sprouted, like sawmills and warehouses. Fill dirt also came from surrounding areas, dug out of Beacon Hill during an aborted ship canal dig project to Lake Washington.

Remains of the 1889 Great Fire were dumped onto the flats to clear the way for the new Pioneer Square. Railroads extended lines and trestles out, and people built homes and shops on the docks and the new land that filled in around them. And those structures were replaced by subsequent generations of warehouses, rail yards, industrial buildings, and residences.

In 1875, the Holgate-King project area was virtually all underwater. By the turn of the century, dry land extended south of Royal Brougham to Atlantic. By 1916, it was almost all dry land. And that land was a mix of everything that made Seattle: sawmill tailings; ship’s ballast; urban garbage; building foundations; remains of railroads and sailing ships; the debris of Japanese laundries, whorehouses, saloons, blacksmith shops, brewery outlets, turn-of-the-century restaurants, and homes; and the detritus of global trade and boomtown growth. (Check out the wonderful “Waterlines” project at the Burke Museum for a quick overview of the changing shoreline and infill progression.)

Test digs by archaeologists have confirmed the complexity of the material. Some 6,000 artifacts have been recovered in testing. Now, keep in mind than an old China plate is an artifact. A smashed China plate is 100 artifacts. In other words, the nature of the stuff is not that it’s particularly valuable in and of itself, but that the mapping of the finds and the information retrieved from the collected artifacts could tell us a good deal about how early Seattle was shaped, and who shaped it.

Art Skolnik makes a vital point, which is the need to communicate with the public the excitement of what is being learned as these large projects go forward. Building the future, if it’s done right, can teach us valuable lessons about the past.

It’s a data recovery project, though I’m sure if someone uncovered one of Doc Maynard’s whiskey bottles, it would be considered a sacred relic at the Museum of History and Industry. Otherwise, the scraps would likely be stored by the Burke Museum. Some of what’s come to light so far includes flasks, and bottles, jugs and flatware, jars, pipes, bowls and buttons, bones and shells from frontier meals, and lots of old shoes.

To really make sense of it, archaeologists will have to dig in the most data-rich areas, and dig up enough to analyze it for trends. Specialty tests could also be done, like testing pipes and bottles for DNA to see if the ethnicity of the original user can be identified. Testing can be done on the contents too, the manufacture, tracing the source of objects. How was early Seattle supplied with goods, what did people eat, drink and smoke?

Such work in Western towns and cities has told us a lot that the history books have left out, including the role of women, Asian workers and saloons that catered to different ethnic and racial groups. The data can also help quantify bigger picture stuff, like economic development, Seattle’s foodways, and the extent and nature of trade networks, especially from the years just before the Klondike Gold Rush through the boom times before World War II when Seattle was the fastest growing city in America.

One interesting thing, observed from turn-of-the-century photos of the area, is that among the wharves and warehouses, the docks and tracks, there was a significant residential population here: seasonal Indian encampments, shacks and houseboats, hotels and flophouses, and private homes. If a Hooverville privy could tell us much about the industrial area’s Depression-era transients, digging into the complexities of SoDo could give as a new picture of people who lived amid the burgeoning, rough-and-tumble, globalizing city.

The decisions on archaeology are supervised by WSDOT’s team, and reviewed by the state’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. The public will have some input during the EIS process and stakeholders (like tribes, neighborhood and historic groups) are usually part of hammering out of an agreement for how the project work will proceed and be monitored. But the extent of the opportunities to learn more about Seattle, and the need to protect heritage, would suggest that the city itself ought to be monitoring progress carefully. The city’s office of historic preservation is concerned with the built environment, but there is no chief urban archaeologist on city staff to look after our underground heritage.

In addition, a problem with public archaeology is that projects generate lots of interesting data, but the general public rarely hears about the results. Recently on Crosscut, Art Skolnik, the former head of the Pioneer Square Historic District, suggested that the old Elliott Bay Book Co. space be employed to engage the public with new discoveries from the Viaduct Replacement Project:

Tens of thousands of artifacts will be itemized and documented from paleontological periods, prehistoric native settlements and historic archaeological periods such as the first white settlements and the 1889 Seattle fire. It has been recommended that a sampling of these artifacts with intrepretive displays and lectures should be put on exhibit in Pioneer Square. That is what needs to fill this pivotal recently vacated space. It would be a major economic generator for the District as a destination facility.

Skolnik makes a vital point, which is the need to communicate with the public the excitement of what is being learned as these large projects go forward. Building the future, if it’s done right, can teach us valuable lessons about the past, and that’s a major public benefit.

Coping with cultural resources isn’t only a legal requirement, it’s a valuable part of city-shaping. Despite stereotypes about preservationists wanting to stop progress, I’ve encountered virtually none who do. Only rarely will projects be brought to a screeching halt for archaeological reasons (though disasters do happen). The laws are trying to ensure that cultural impacts, like environmental ones, help shape change by ensuring that history and progress are integrated and strengthen culture, or at the very least, that heritage is not irreparably harmed.

Seattle historian Coll Thrush quotes Lake Washington Ship Canal engineer Hiram Chittenden as observing that critics of projects like his opposed them “simply because they destroy old associations,” an attitude frequently dismissed as “nostalgia.” But good design and engineering must be compatible with the need of people to be connected, to live locally, to be sustainable.

Today’s transportation mega-projects, whether you like them or not, can be done better or worse. And if they help add to the richness of our understanding, if they help Seattle deepen its connections with its roots and with those who came before, that’s a good thing.

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