Everyone in town's been excited about the recent mammoth tusk find at South Lake Union. Such discoveries are unusual, but not unprecedented. The bones of prehistoric critters have cropped up in many Seattle construction sites over the years, especially when you get 30 or 40 feet down. The mammoth remains are now off to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington to be preserved and named.
Meanwhile Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine still stuck under the waterfront, finds itself at the center of a potential archaeological bonanza, which should pique the interest of anyone who cares about Seattle’s early history. As long as the tunnel's trajectory was deep beneath the city — at 60 feet or so — it was unlikely to plow through much of archaeological significance.
But Bertha is stuck at an interesting spot, historically speaking; that is, between Jackson and Main streets west of 1st Ave. along Alaskan Way. That area, in many respects, is ground zero for the city's history. It sits atop the city's mid-19th century shoreline, part of what was known as Piners Point or, because it was sometimes surrounded by water at high tide, Denny's Island, the piece of land where the city was first built. This area was also known by local Indians as “the little crossing over place.” (For a quick lesson on the evolution of the city’s shoreline, see the Burke’s Waterlines project and Paul Dorpat’s blog on the waterfront’s history.)
Denny's Island was home to native dwellings. Of interest too are the tideflats, used for millennia by Native Americans before the Dennys arrived. The flats around the island and wetlands along the shore were eventually filled in. The “island” was eventually absorbed into the growing landmass, an evolution aided by dumped debris that itself is part of the city's history: mill waste and sawdust from Henry Yesler's sawmill, remains from the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and a lot of other junk.
But junk is the archeologists's gold. As Washington Department of Transportation heritage expert Kevin Bartoy once observed, “What archaeology is, is other people’s garbage.”
The area, as the illustration below shows, was also the site of some of the city's first major commercial wharves, through which passed virtually every commodity essential to the early city, from timber and stone to feed and people. Homes and commercial buildings which backed up onto those docks likely used the shoreline as a dumpsite for liquor and laxative bottles and who knows what else. Moored ships dumped their ballast nearby, and the resulting Ballast Island was a favorite landing and campsite for Native Americans, who may also have used an adjacent beach and tide flats nearer to where Bertha is stuck.
Source: Paul Dorpat (historic map) and Robert Weaver (overlays).
In short, the ground just above Bertha has the potential to tell us much about pre- and early-Seattle. From the mammoths that wandered the plains before Puget Sound filled with water to the indigenous peoples who lived off the region’s shoreline. From the city's first days of Doc Maynard and settlement to the burn-and-renewal of the catastrophic fire that forged the city we know today. In some ways, it's hard to imagine a richer piece of city soil, historically speaking.
Nothing is guaranteed, however. To find something interesting, you have to look for it. And you have to be lucky. It is possible that a Bertha rescue shaft turns up little more than layers of coal, ash, sand, mud and other throwaway stuff. Core samples show lots of layers of 19th-century fill in the vicinity. WSDOT has done a lot of drilling and digging along Bertha’s path here already, sinking giant pilings to shore up the route of the deep bore tunnel for example. State archaeologists have examined what’s come up and found nothing of show-stopping significance. “Our mission is to support the project, not dither over every bottle — and there are a lot of them down there,” says Steven Archer, an archaeologist and WSDOT’s cultural resources manager for the megaproject.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!