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.
Crosscut archive image.

Bertha stoppage: An archeological blessing in disguise.

Excavation to rescue the stalled tunneling machine offers an unprecedented window into the city's rich history. Let's take advantage of the view.

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.Crosscut archive image.
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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.