On September 3, 1959, the final phase of the 3.8-mile long Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Subway project is opened to traffic. Constructed in three phases during the 1950s, the viaduct and tunnel are intended to alleviate traffic problems along Seattle's waterfront and through the downtown area. Although the viaduct is widely hailed in the 1950s as the solution to the traffic problem, by the 1970s it will itself be considered a problem; an eyesore to the Seattle waterfront and unable to withstand a big earthquake.
Growth and Growth of Traffic
The Alaskan Way Viaduct is a 3.4-mile-long freeway (2.2 miles of which is an actual viaduct) that starts at its southern end near South Nevada Street south of the West Seattle Bridge and runs north past Safeco Field and the Seahawks Stadium to the downtown waterfront. The freeway is a double-decker viaduct for about half of its total length. Traffic travels northbound on the upper tier of the structure and southbound on the lower tier. The freeway starts from its southern end as a side-by-side surface roadway; near South Holgate Street it transitions into a double-decker viaduct; farther north, as it passes Pike Place Market, the freeway segues back to a still-elevated side-by-side viaduct, then veers northeast and enters the Battery Street Tunnel (actually two side-by-side tunnels) at 1st Avenue and Battery Street. Traffic travels through the tunnel for four-tenths of a mile, making the entire route 3.8 miles, before exiting at the northern end of the tunnel on Aurora Avenue just north of Denny Way.
As Seattle grew during the early decades of the twentieth century, so grew its automobile traffic. By the mid-1930s, traffic through downtown Seattle and along the waterfront on Railroad Avenue -- renamed Alaskan Way in 1936 -- often snarled. A solution was needed, and the solution chosen was to construct an elevated roadway (viaduct) and tunnel (subway) to ease traffic congestion and to make a smooth connection to Aurora Avenue to the north. Planning slowly continued through most of the early and mid-1940s.
On June 2, 1947, Seattle mayor William Devin (1898-1982) announced plans for a double-deck viaduct for Alaskan Way, starting near 1st Avenue S and Dearborn Street and running nearly a mile and a half north to Western Avenue and Battery Street. The double-deck plan, with three lanes of travel provided on each deck, replaced an earlier, single-deck plan which would have provided for only two lanes of travel in either direction. Construction was slated to begin in the summer of 1948 with the cost of the project estimated at about $5 million.
Instead, the project was delayed for 18 months, and the cost estimate rose, first to $6.3 million, then to $8.5 million. Work finally began on the viaduct on Monday, February 6, 1950, when a power shovel ceremoniously scooped the first earth from a muddy bank on the east side of Western Avenue near Battery Street. But before long the power shovel got stuck in the mud, and a tractor and crane had to unceremoniously yank it out. It was not an auspicious start to the grand project, but work proceeded apace, and by July 1951, the first segment of the viaduct (from Battery to Pike Street) had been completed.
By the spring of 1953 the first phase of the viaduct had been completed at a cost of $8,164,000. It was officially opened in a gala -- though somewhat rainy and windy -- celebration on Saturday, April 4, 1953. “V-Day was Viaduct Day and Victory Day; a triumph in double measure!” crowed the Seattle Sunday Times the next day. The opening ceremony, held on the viaduct near its northern end at Western Avenue, came complete with an orchestra hired by Ivar Haglund (1905-1985), a performance by the Seattle Police Department color guard and drill team, dancing girls from Barclay Studios (wearing plumed hats and fishnet stockings) dancing the can-can and the Charleston, and various dignitaries, each with his own speech. Judging by the glowing press reports, a swell time was had by all.
But there was a glitch. When it came time to cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the viaduct, Seafair Queen Iris Adams arrived on a dogsled and presented a set of four-foot shears to Seattle mayor Allan Pomeroy (ca. 1907-1966). Smiling broadly, Pomeroy took the shears and snipped at the ribbon. Nothing happened. Pomeroy tried again. The ribbon held. Maintaining his grin, Pomeroy positioned himself for a third try while D. K. McDonald, master of ceremonies, produced a pocketknife and discreetly sidled up to Pomeroy’s left. While Pomeroy snipped, McDonald cut, and the offending strand parted. Motorists then roared up and down the viaduct, happily honking their horns in celebration.
The construction of the second phase of the project, the Battery Street Subway (now known as the Battery Street Tunnel), began in September 1952 and was about 20 percent complete when the first phase of the viaduct opened in April 1953. The tunnel, measuring 2,134 feet long and connecting the northern end of the viaduct to the southern end of Aurora Avenue, was completed in June 1954 at a cost of $2,839,000. It opened to another gala ceremony at the northern entrance to the tunnel on Saturday, July 24, 1954.
The weather was more cooperative for this event, as was the ceremonial ribbon; Mayor Pomeroy, perhaps having learned his lesson from the first fiasco, graciously awarded the ribbon-cutting honors to Seafair Queen Shirley Givins, who smoothly cut it on the first try ("a handy kid with scissors," noted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the next day). Then the Seafair Pirates appeared and stole the show, putting on a picnic and insisting that the subway be named Seafair Lane, at least until August 9, 1954, when that year’s Seafair ended.
Construction on the third, final phase of the project -- and also the longest at just shy of two miles -- began in October 1955, and was completed in August 1959 at a cost of $7,626,100. The final phase, called the Spokane Street Extension or simply the southern extension, extended the viaduct from its previous southern end near Dearborn Street to just north of S Nevada Street.
On Thursday, September 3, 1959, the new extension opened in ceremonies held on the West Spokane Street overpass. The 1959 opening ceremonies seem to have been slightly more subdued than the first two. Still, there was a band, pontificating speakers, and Seafair Queen du jour Diane Gray, resplendent in white gloves, who cut the ceremonial ribbon. Also featured was an enormous newspaper “page” with cutout windows featuring a bevy of beauty queens, as well as a large door through which the ceremonial first car, a white 1908 Buick convertible, drove to officially open the extension (the running board of this car was used as a speaker’s stand during the dedication ceremonies). Six more antique cars followed the 1908 Buick on its drive along the new extension to share honors at being first over the new extension. Afterward, William A. Bugge (1900-1992), state highway director, was named 1959 “Motorist Man of the Year” at a luncheon for his leadership in highway progress in Washington state, which included supervising the building of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Royal Necklace ... or Eyesore
“The viaduct looms like a royal necklace across the bosom of the Queen City of the Pacific Northwest,” cooed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the day after the first phase opened in 1953. When it was finally completed in 1959, most applauded: It seemed a triumph for Seattle’s can-do, hardworking team spirit in confronting its traffic problems. Though there were some doubting Thomases, during the 1950s their voices were few and far between. But within 10 years of the viaduct’s completion that would begin to change, and by the 1970s many would consider the viaduct a royal eyesore along the city’s waterfront. Criticism only increased in the 1990s when engineers announced that the viaduct would probably not withstand a magnitude 7.5 or greater earthquake.
By the end of its first 50 years the viaduct was showing its age and needing repairs, and had also been damaged by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. It was also overworked: Expected to carry about 65,000 vehicles a day, it was averaging 110,000 vehicles a day on its aging spans. During the early years of the twenty-first century a prolonged debate raged on whether to repair, replace or eliminate the viaduct.
Eventually in 2009, the City of Seattle, the Port of Seattle, and the State of Washington entered an agreement that authorized construction of a bored tunnel under downtown followed by removal of the viaduct. Further debate followed until 2011, when Seattle voters passed a referendum approving the city's participation in the tunnel project. The southern mile of the viaduct, part of phase three that had opened in 1959, was demolished later that year. Construction of a deep-bore tunnel to replace the remainder of the viaduct began in 2013. However, that December the tunnel-boring machine ran into problems and was halted for two years while repairs were made. The tunnel was eventually completed in mid 2017 and work got underway to build the double-deck highway inside it, with the entire viaduct scheduled to close permanently once that new highway was finished in early 2019.