This Week Then: Saying Goodbye to the Viaduct

Plus: Port Townsend turns 159
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  • Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, Washington

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Farewell, Viaduct

This week, a new chapter of Seattle history begins when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closes permanently, three weeks ahead of the planned opening of its replacement, the SR-99 tunnel. This is the longest major highway closure the Puget Sound region has ever seen and, needless to say, the traffic squeeze is going to be tough during the transition. So if you're biding your time while waiting for the next bus, we present you with this look at the viaduct's past.

The first section of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct opened in 1953, offering a limited-access route through Seattle that removed some traffic from city streets. Thousands attended a huge ribbon-cutting celebration, which included a parade of vintage cars that were as old as the dreams of the viaduct itself. Seattle had been considering a downtown bypass as early as the 1910s.

Planning and design of a waterfront viaduct involved a strengthened seawall, which wasn't completed until the 1930s. Funding for the roadwayitself took another 10 years, and construction didn't begin until 1950. The final phase of the viaduct opened in 1959, and in 1966 the last piece put into place was the sole on-ramp from central downtown. Other connections were planned but never implemented, partly due to a shift in emphasis to Interstate 5, then being completed.

Soon, a Tunnel

Since its opening the viaduct has had its critics, many of whom felt that the elevated roadway had a negative impact on the city's central waterfront. The debate raged for years, but with no viable alternative for shifting traffic to a different route. It wasn't until the 2001 Nisqually Quake damaged the aging viaduct's joints and struts that serious consideration was given to either removing, rebuilding, or redesigning the roadway.

After another decade of extensive debate, replacing the viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel garnered enough support and the first phase of demolition, of the southern end of the viaduct, began in 2011. Construction of the tunnel began in 2013 and, following a two-year halt to fix problems with the tunnel-boring machine, the pathway was completed in 2017. Since then, workers have been busy building the double-deck highway within the tunnel.

All of this endeavor has had an impact on some of Seattle's historic structures -- such as those in Pioneer Square -- and because the National Historic Preservation Act requires agencies to take into account the effects of their projects on historic properties, mitigation efforts were devoted to capturing the history of the viaduct. HistoryLink has been proud to assist the Washington State Department of Transportation in that work, which has led to many of the articles linked above and also includes interviews with Governor Dan Evans, who worked as a structural engineer on the viaduct's design; Alaskan Way Viaduct Program Manager Ron Paananen; Mike Fleming, who shared his childhood memories of the construction; and reporter Mike Peringer, who was at the 1953 opening.

NEWS THEN, HISTORY NOW

Ready to Go

On January 16, 1860, the Washington Territorial Legislature incorporated the city of Port Townsend, and a year later on January 14, 1861, the legislature created Snohomish County by carving it out of the then-larger Island County. This week also marks anniversaries for the cities of Walla Walla, which was incorporated on January 11, 1862, and Colfax, whose residents voted to incorporate on January 14, 1879.

In the Know

On January 13, 1892, the opening of a solitary building on a treeless 25-acre campus near Pullman marked the first day of classes at the Washington Agricultural College. Since then the college has blossomed into Washington State University, one of the top public research universities in the United States. The university has undergone many changes, especially during the past half century, while remaining faithful to its mission of expanding access to higher education for Washingtonians on both sides of the state.

Let It Flow

On January 10, 1901, Seattle residents began receiving water from the city's new Cedar River watershed. Exactly four years later, the Cedar Fallshydroelectric plant began lighting Seattle street lamps for the first time. This week also marks the anniversary of the Seattle water department beginning fluoridation on January 12, 1970.

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