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Could the Bertha boondoggle be a local history boon?

Excavation to rescue the stalled tunneling machine offers an unprecedented window into the city's rich history. Let's take advantage of the view.
Bertha stoppage: An archeological blessing in disguise.

Bertha stoppage: An archeological blessing in disguise. WSDOT

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.

What is down there becomes relevant if project managers employ the most likely Bertha rescue scenario. That involves building an enormous 120-foot shaft down to the stuck machine so that repairs crews can fix what ails her. The shaft would pass through 35 or so feet of historic layers of data that WSDOT was not intending to disturb. Excavators could encounter interesting artifacts along the way, and certainly collect useful information. Archer says what they’ve seen come out of the ground there so far has raised no red flags about digging, but the state has yet to receive a formal proposal from Seattle Tunnel Partners about what exactly they would do and where.

The tunnelers are engaged in what is, in effect, a mission to rescue their machine, an emergency procedure that amounts to a long and expensive attempt to save their deep-bore patient. In one sense, it’s fortunate that Bertha broke down before she got under major downtown structures, which would have made digging a rescue pit nearly impossible.

Still, the present crisis offers an opportunity to document any findings and attempt to learn something from them. Seattle archaeologist Robert Weaver, who did survey work in the area for the Viaduct Replacement Project back in 2007, says he’d like to see a more systematic recovery process. Think of it as data recovery from an ancient hard-drive.

Archer says that much of what is down there is simply too jumbled to provide much good information. It doesn’t have “much data potential.” Still, he acknowledges, that you never know until you look. “The ground doesn’t lie.”

About the specific areas atop stalled Bertha? "This is the heart of original Seattle,” says Weaver. “There are plenty of research questions to answer. And from my experiences elsewhere (Sandpoint, Tacoma, Fairbanks) there should be a pretty rich deposit."

Weaver has supervised historical archaeology projects such as one in Sandpoint, Idaho that revealed the richness of the frontier Northwest, including artifacts from an early Chinatown and the remains of a brothel district that was burned over. Such artifacts paint a more human, intimate picture of the lives people led — the perfumes, coins and combs used by prostitutes, for example. Given the location of Bertha, Weaver believes it might be worth posing questions about what we might learn about Seattle’s famous early hotelier and madam Mother Damnable whose establishment, the Felker House, was nearby at Jackson between 1st Ave and the waterfront.

Weaver also points to the 1884 Sanborn map of the city, which shows a “Chinese wash house” in the vicinity. “There clearly could be a Chinese component,” he says. The Chinese fall into the category of minorities that are ‘under represented in the historical record.” Asian artifacts were also uncovered in early work in SoDo, including during construction at the Starbucks headquarters.

“Another big concern,” Weaver says, “is that in early Seattle, arriving Native Americans were relegated to the lower shore lands. The main place mentioned in history is Ballast Island, which is nominally at the foot of Washington Street. But the dock/wharf just south has a similar configuration and who is to say whether the encampments stretch along the waterfront for a bit of a ways away from the ‘known’ site.” The composition and exact location of the island are not entirely confirmed, though WSDOT says its geo-technical work indicates that Bertha’s current location is just to the West of Denny Island, and still south of Ballast Island.

Author David Williams is writing a book titled “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography” for the University of Washington Press. The book, which looks at Seattle’s physical and underground evolution, points to an interesting article in an 1877 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The article's author notes that, to one observer, Ballast Island appears to be composed of rock from San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill brought north as ship ballast. Knowing what really came in on those ships could be interesting, though Bertha’s operators want to avoid this possible pile of buried stone like the plague.

Weaver notes that the Bertha area was near waterfront complexes that included saloons, a barber shop, a gunsmith and other businesses that might well have tossed junk “over the bank.” An analysis of the debris used as landfill could reveal details about the possessions of residents and businesses in the frontier city before it was burned to the ground.

Archer says the project so far has only turned up one bone fide Native American artifact, some cedar cordage found amongst other fill. But the pre-Seattle tidelands could yield other cultural treasures, including those from pre-European settlement — ancient fishing weirs, for example.

Once STP presents WSDOT with a rescue plan it will be evaluated by the state’s archaeologists in consultation with the local tribes, the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and Pioneer Square stakeholders. Archaeologists would monitor the dig and have the power to stop excavation if tunnelers encounter anything significant.

For archaeologists like Weaver, the potential to learn more about the last 150 years is far more exciting than recovering a single mammoth tusk. Such prehistoric finds do fire the public imagination, but Seattleites show an intense interest in our own urban past. Witness how speculation earlier this year about what was “blocking” Bertha became a favorite local parlor game.

As I have written before (here and here), Seattle’s major construction projects — the tunnel, 520, the waterfront makeover, the sea wall, the de-development of Colman dock — offer an unprecedented opportunity to unearth more stuff that will fill in our history in important ways. It’s important that these materials be gathered as systematically and thoughtfully as possible and then analyzed and interpreted, rather then left to sit on shelves at the Burke Museum like leftovers from a garage sale. Art Skolnik, the man who first ran the Pioneer Square district, likens Bertha’s pit to a potential “jackpot,” and advises that the “site be supervised carefully at every moment of digging.”

Mayor Ed Murray recently created an office to manage the waterfront projects — a very important move to help ensure that everything works and make sense when it’s all done. Here’s another idea for the mayor: Appoint a city archaeologist or heritage advocate to make sure the city takes full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Part of the mayor’s central management approach should include proactive guidance regarding the public benefits of what we can learn about our history during this spate of citywide construction. The seemingly ubiquitous digging might not produce an iconic artifact, but we could gather a lot more detail on how the city itself was constructed and a more detailed environmental history.

I would also suggest an aggressive effort to publicly document and disseminate what is found and what it means. Too much archaeology, as Weaver and Williams both point out, gets lost in government reports that never make it back to the public that funded them. We need to hire archaeologists just to dig through the deep layers of reports and Environmental Impact Studies to re-excavate information for popular consumption!

Bertha’s bust, if nothing else, offers a chance to repay the public with a highly visible search for buried knowledge we would not have otherwise. Instead of worrying about how to stay out of the engineers’ way, the state’s archaeologists should dive right in and get as much out of the dig as possible. That kind of enthusiasm could turn this engineering boondoggle into a boon for local history.

To read more articles by Knute Berger, check out our Mossback page.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I hope you'll change your characterization of the State Highway Tunnel as a boondoggle when Seattle has reclaimed its waterfront. As an enthusiast of Seattle's rich heritage, I'd expect no less.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Let us hope that the attempted Bertha rescue does unearth significant parts of Seattle's past. If it does, it will constitute a hugely expensive and cost ineffective way of doing so. It already has put on display a present-day aspect of Seattle's life---the consumption of massive amounts of tax dollars by ambitious capital projects eating an indefensible share of public resources, Think light rail, downtown trolleys, the Mercer Mess redo.

If Bertha is rescued, does anyone believe she will proceed smoothly northward and that the project will be completed on time and on budget?

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Good comment, and no I do not believe this project ever will be on time, near budget or wise.

What is likely to happen is that the project will morph to $10 billion or more, and result in so much traffic snarls that a new viaduct will need to be built on top of it.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

I stopped reading at "peak the interest" in the second paragraph, as my interest in the story was no longer piqued.

oldgaloot

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

:-)

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Ted_Van_Dyke,
It is entirely appropriate that we spend money where the vast majority of tax revenue is generated, and we endeavor to create a pleasant environment that serves the concentration of earners producing this revenue rather than the urban blight of the AWV we've been living with these many decades. We've spent enough money on gold plated roads to bring apples from the Yakima valley to be exported to Asia. Time to work on where we need people to live if we aren't going to turn this state further into a suburban sprawling nightmare.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

The bore tunnel does nothing to increase housing density.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Sure it will, it will make for more desirable housing and increase demand in the area. That will lead to higher density. A rebuilt viaduct would have kept it the way it is now, a terrible place to be where no one really wants to live.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:09 a.m. Inappropriate

The mystery to me is how anyone can think the new tunnel would "replace" the viaduct. I drive the viaduct often on my way to Ballard and never once traveled on Aurora Avenue. But the tunnel project has no exit ramps, and thus will only take me to Aurora Avenue, an awkward detour on the way to Ballard. I will have no practical choice but to drive the toll-free surface route to reach my destination.

I'm all for a viaduct-free waterfront too, Aaron, but this tunnel thing is a poorly-thought-out way to get there. I expect they contractor will find a way to get the machine going again, but the next time it breaks down will likely be under a 30 story building in Belltown, where no such fix will be possible.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Agreed. I currently get on and off 99 at Elliott and Western — I use it to get from East Magnolia to my aunt's place in Beacon Hill, or as a way to avoid I-5 through downtown on my way to the airport. It won't make sense for me to take Mercer or Denny from Elliott or Western over to Aurora. I don't think it'll make much more sense for me to take Nickerson and Westlake around the other side of Queen Anne Hill and get on Aurora that way. Depending on how traffic ends up being affected, I can see myself still taking Elliott, but turning onto Broad and then onto Alaskan Way itself. We'll see.

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree, without exits the tunnel is not a replacement.

Now that the toll panel has recommended a toll of $1 to $1.25, could we please have a reprise of the finances of this project, even assuming there's zero cost increase to the public as a result of the several month delay in Bertha's tunneling? How much was tolling supposed to bring in at the original projection levels, how much will it bring in at $1 or $1.25, and what were and are the traffic usage projections?

sjenner

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

"what were and are the traffic usage projections"

It has always been known that the bore tunnel will move far fewer vehicles than the viaduct, and that the surface streets will be clogged with people trying to get where they need to go.

What kind of lame project creates this type of mess? A WSDOT project!

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 12:08 p.m. Inappropriate

What I meant by "traffic usage projections" is how many users do they anticipate having at 80 percent? How much revenue is this toll actually going to generate?

I am referring to this:

http://mynorthwest.com/11/2462164/Toll-of-1-recommended-for-Seattle-tunnel
--
Advisory committee co-chair Mawd Daudon tells KING 5 they tried to find the "sweet spot" for the toll that would keep 80 percent of drivers on the highway in peak times without diverting to downtown streets.
--

Here is another word as well that should alarm people: "expedient". The premise for continuing this project is "it is expedient." Read it right here:

--
Preedy says there are no plans to scrap the tunnel and it's the "most expedient way" to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
--

As the writer of the original story wrote, we are very lucky Bertha is not stuck underneath a building where access would basically be impossible.

If we had the revenue projections at the time we made the decision that we now have, would we still be doing this project?

sjenner

Posted Fri, Feb 21, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Maud Daudon is dreaming. The only "sweet spot" for tolling is no tolls. Whatever they're projecting will likely be wrong since the projections will be intended to be supportive of this project, not revelatory at this early point of the fact that people will avoid the tolls and find other ways to get where they need to go.

I haven't heard much about any huge success from the 520 bridge tolls, nor do I expect to, because I suspect they are far below any early projections. Tacoma Narrows bridge now asking for $5 per trip, I believe, and no end in sight, I'm sure. Toll roads simply aren't going to take off and succeed here I don't think.

mspat

Posted Fri, Feb 21, 9:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Maud Daudon is dreaming. The only "sweet spot" for tolling is no tolls. Whatever they're projecting will likely be wrong since the projections will be intended to be supportive of this project, not revelatory at this early point of the fact that people will avoid the tolls and find other ways to get where they need to go.

I haven't heard much about any huge success from the 520 bridge tolls, nor do I expect to, because I suspect they are far below any early projections. Tacoma Narrows bridge now asking for $5 per trip, I believe, and no end in sight, I'm sure. Toll roads simply aren't going to take off and succeed here I don't think.

mspat

Posted Sun, Feb 23, 4:29 p.m. Inappropriate

What we need is for Big John to join in union with Big Bertha. He can clear the way for her, so she can continue with her chores. As was foretold by the prophets of Fordor.

Djinn

Posted Thu, Feb 27, 3:58 p.m. Inappropriate

I once got from Queen Anne to the airport in 17 minutes. I will not say what mode of transport I was using, as you might be able to use distance vs. time calculations to determine average or top speeds.

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