Sound Transit is bringing up Seattle's past

The excavation for the downtown to Capitol Hill line has led to intriguing artifacts just east of the Paramount Theatre.

Crosscut archive image.

A cup recovered from the Sound Transit dig.

The excavation for the downtown to Capitol Hill line has led to intriguing artifacts just east of the Paramount Theatre.

It was a little reminder of Seattle’s not-too-distant “Here Come The Brides” past when archaeologists working for Sound Transit turned up a 38-foot long segment of wooden sidewalk 40 feet below Pine Street last week. The well-preserved artifact of the city’s pioneer times was found just east of the Paramount Theatre.

The sidewalk is believed to date to the late 19th century, and was likely covered with fill dirt from the Denny Regrade sometime after 1905, according to Paula Johnson of Paragon Research Associates.

Johnson, whose firm is working with Sound Transit as the agency builds a light-rail connection between downtown and Capitol Hill, says she was surprised to learn that Denny Regrade fill had been used in this part of downtown. Johnson says that the land in that area appears to have been marshy, and that the Regrade fill functioned as a reclamation project of sorts.

Johnson also said that finding the sidewalk was not a complete surprise; earlier excavations to the west of the current site had also turned up evidence of the hearty boardwalk. However, the section uncovered last week was about four feet deeper than the team anticipated, and for a while late last Thursday (April 7), it looked as if it wasn’t there at all.

A roughly 10-foot section was lifted to the surface this morning (April 14) by a work crew using a crane, and was laid out near the excavation site alongside a similar piece brought out earlier.

Close inspection shows a sturdy structure like a long and skinny box, made from long pieces of roughly hewn log stringers about 18" high, with heavy 3-by-12” milled planks on the upper surface as well as on the bottom (the wood is thought to be cedar, but this has not been confirmed). Heavy nails are spaced a few inches apart on the planks, and the space between the stringers and the two layers of planks appears to be filled with concrete.

Also uncovered by the dig were 31 shoes; pieces of broken chairs and other furniture; fragments of a child’s ceramic cup; a bottle marked “Pacific and Puget Bottling”; and the neck and hinged cap of a beer bottle (Rainier, of course). Johnson says more research is necessary to determine what specific building occupied the site prior to 1905, but says that the area was mostly residential at that time.

Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray says the agency is working with the Burke Museum and MOHAI to plan for preservation and interpretation of the artifacts.

Classical archaeologists whose work focuses on more ancient civilizations and perhaps more elegant artifacts might look down their noses at old chunks of wood pulled from the mud. After all, just about anyone who lives in Seattle and has a deck or a fence could probably pull old chunks of wood from the mud in their own backyard.

But it’s this very recentness — accentuated by the un-elegant quality of those times and the practical nature of the infrastructure — along with the rapid rise of the city in the past 120 years or so that makes urban archaeology in Seattle so tantalizing. So much of our metropolitan DNA is probably just waiting there to be dug up and put to work filling in the blanks of the Seattle story.

Until then, just gaze at the old wooden sidewalk and you may think you can hear the footfalls of Bobby Sherman and David Soul.


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