The Alaskan Way Viaduct is being replaced. But before the iconic piece of infrastructure comes down (all or most of it), a look back at its humble beginnings and sometimes difficult past…
Plans for what would eventually become the Alaskan Way Viaduct began in the early 1930s. Neither of Seattle’s original waterfront thoroughfares — Railroad Avenue in the 1920s and Alaskan Way Street by the mid 1930s — seemed able to handle the congestion that ran through that part of the city.
Railroad Avenue, ca. 1934
The viaduct project began as the George Washington Memorial Bridge (known also as the Aurora Bridge), which opened in 1932. It brought traffic down Aurora Avenue to Denny Way at the edge of downtown. However, the Depression and World War II delayed further work on the waterfront highway project.
Planning would resume after the war. By 1949 the design was finalized and the city, state and federal governments combined efforts to raise enough cash to fund the project.
Alaskan Way Viaduct construction, ca. 1949
Alaskan Way Viaduct construction, ca. 1951
Between 1949 and 1951, the first and most challenging phase of the project took place from Battery Street to Pike Street. During this time, the second phase was already in the works linking Pike Street to King Street and was completed in 1952.
Alaskan Way Viaduct construction, ca. 1952
Alaskan Way Viaduct, ca. 1952
By April 4, 1953 all three phases were complete. While the south end ramps did not open until 1960, the Alaskan Viaduct was deemed a citywide success for the first few years.
But in 1959, traffic along the stretch of waterfront had again become an issue. Seattle residents demanded more access to the downtown corridors, which prompted the city to begin entertaining the idea of building downtown ramps.
Alaskan Way Viaduct, ca. 1959
Taking action, the Seneca Street off ramp was created in 1961 to allow flow to enter from the south.
Design drawing for the viaduct’s Seneca Street ramp, ca. 1960
By 1966, the Columbia Street off ramp was also completed.
The first few decades of travel proved to be more than the structure could handle. Originally built to accommodate 60,000 vehicles per day, the Alaskan Way Viaduct now sees more than 110,000 vehicles traveling up and down it daily.
Alaskan Way Viaduct, ca. 2015
Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr
Along with the high traffic, a 2001 earthquake permanently damaged the viaduct, which caused it to settle into the ground below.
In 2013, due to increasing safety hazards, the City of Seattle decided the viaduct would have to come down. To kick off the Alaskan Viaduct replacement program, the city submerged the world’s largest tunneling machine, known as Bertha, into the ground with the plan to dig the SR 99 tunnel to replace the viaduct.
Bertha tunneling machine
Photo: Ben Brooks/Flickr
But due to system malfunctions, Bertha got stuck.
While the machine continues to undergo repairs, the south end of the viaduct has already been demolished one year ahead of schedule. The viaduct replacement program continues to progress even as a multi-million-waterfront renovation is taking place.
Still, some residents continue to fight to save at least a piece of the mid-century icon. As was reported last week, tens of thousands of signatures have already been collected in support of a proposal to turn a portion of the viaduct into an elevated park. But despite those efforts, for now at least, all signs seem to point to a complete demolition.