Alaskan Way Viaduct, Part 1: Early Transportation Planning

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 9/13/2011
  • Essay 9925
See Additional Media

Seattle's steep hills and the city's hourglass shape created by Lake Washington and Puget Sound on either side of the central business district have posed difficulties for overland transportation since its establishment. In the early years, trestles over tidelands provided routes for railroads and planked streets and the city regraded hills to provide more gradual and even slopes. About the time motor vehicles became more common, in the 1910s and 1920s, the city began to outgrow its existing street grid, as it grew clogged with automobiles, streetcars, interurban trains, and railroads. City engineers began to look for a bypass route around downtown. An elevated roadway along the waterfront emerged as a solution in the 1910s and the concept slowly developed in the 1930s and 1940s as traffic congestion worsened in the central business district, leading to high accident rates and limiting economic development.

Geography and History 

Seattle's topography did not present an ideal situation for a city when the Denny Party located their claims on the eastern shore of Elliott Bay in 1852. Aside from a small point of level land where Pioneer Square is now, the land sloped steeply away from the waterfront and on the bay side tidelands covered thousands of acres. The site's positive attributes -- access to a deep water harbor and seemingly unending hinterlands teeming with natural resources -- outweighed any topographical difficulties, however, and the town began to grow.

Henry Yesler (1810-1892), who operated Seattle's first steam-powered sawmill, built a pier over the tidelands to the west of the settlement, which allowed ships to dock for loading and unloading. Within a few years, as the level land on what was known as Piner's Point filled with development, new piers and trestle streets grew to the north of Yesler's wharf. 

Age of the Railroad

In 1876 a trestle built for the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad stretched across the tide flats from the mouth of the Duwamish River to King Street. This track shifted to the base of Beacon Hill soon afterward because the burrowing teredo (a member of the mollusk family commonly called ship worm) ate through the pilings faster than the railroad could replace them. 

On the central waterfront a web of railroads grew out from the shore in the 1880s and 1890s as various railroads, including the Columbia & Puget Sound, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern, and the Northern Pacific jockeyed for spaced at the foot of the bluffs that ended at the beach, where Western Avenue is today. In January 1887 the City Council passed an ordinance establishing Railroad Avenue, a street created, according to historian Kurt Armbruster, to provide space for the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern franchise to the west of the Northern Pacific's franchise along the shoreline. 

The Tunnel and Thoughts of More Tunnels

The Great Northern, the first transcontinental railroad to locate its terminus in Seattle, arrived in 1893. The railroad entered the city from the north and faced great difficulties in gaining a right-of-way along the waterfront so that it could reach its terminal at Jackson Street on the south side of Seattle. R. H. Thomson, Seattle's city engineer, and the Great Northern's James J. Hill (1838-1916) reached an agreement whereby Hill would get the right-of-way he needed near the terminal but he would have to build a tunnel under downtown to reach Jackson Street. After further maneuvering and planning, the tunnel was built in 1903 and 1904. The tracks entered the tunnel on the waterfront below Virginia Street and reemerged at 4th Avenue and Jackson Street. 

By 1910 Seattle had grown into a city, its economic development fueled by the Klondike Gold Rush and the shipment of natural resources around the world. It had a parks plan developed by John C. Olmsted (1852-1920), but little else in terms of city planning. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement, city leaders began to think about how to develop Seattle to support its future growth. 

In April 1910 The Seattle Times reported on a city plan on display in the public library. The architecture firm Gould & Champney had created a plan for Seattle that featured a civic center and improved transportation routes. For the waterfront, Gould & Champney suggested that, "Railroad Avenue be widened and raised on its western side by an elevated boulevard on the second story dock level, with overhead crossing at First Avenue. The lower level could thus be retained for freighting and hauling, while the upper roadway would be free for pedestrians, automobiles, carriages, etc. Examples of this duplex arrangement for the reception of freight and teaming at different levels exist at Algiers, Budapest, Geneva and Paris, and have been adopted in the proposed improvements of the waterfront of Chicago" ("Civic Center").

Seattle's first official comprehensive city plan, the Plan of Seattle, created in 1911 by engineer Virgil Bogue (1846-1916) for the Municipal Plans Commission, looked to street widening and tunnels to create space in the crowded downtown corridor. According to Bogue, "The future will demand better access than can be had by surface streets and the following routes are suggested as being suitable locations for tunnels in order that future traffic requirements may be met" (Municipal Plans Commission, 40). 

Bogue recommended a 2,380-foot tunnel from Elliott Avenue and Blanchard Street to Westlake Avenue and Virginia Street. A ramp would connect it to Railroad Avenue on the waterfront. He rejected the idea of an elevated street that would replace Railroad Avenue. In his view, the resulting "hill" that would have to be crossed by traffic traveling south of Yesler Avenue, the cost, and the disruption caused to businesses below the elevated street all made the plan unfeasible. 

Bogue's plan failed a vote by Seattle residents in 1912 and the problem of how to move people and freight through an ever-growing Seattle remained. 

Traffic Congestion Suggestion

Four years later, in 1916, the Superintendent of Public Utilities Albert L. Valentine (1868-1931) created a report for the Seattle City Council about relieving congestion on Railroad Avenue. Valentine, like Bogue, recommended a tunnel, this one a mile long, from the waterfront to 8th Avenue near Lake Union, running under Broad Street. He envisioned a manufacturing district on the surface above the tunnel, with elevators for transporting freight and finished goods between the trains and the factories.

Having transferred a large percentage of the freight handling to the tunnel, Valentine argued that the middle two sets of railroad tracks on Railroad Avenue could be removed and replaced with a roadway. Additionally, he recommended elevated walkways to handle pedestrian traffic on the waterfront, particularly at the Yesler Way and Madison Street intersections, which each had more than 3,000 pedestrian crossings per day. Ideally, the separation of trains, automobiles, and pedestrians would improve traffic flow and safety. The plan does not appear to have received serious consideration.

Age of Horse, Streetcar, Train, and Auto

By the time of Valentine's report in 1916, motor vehicle traffic had become an urgent issue for city engineers. In just two decades, between 1900 and 1920, Seattle's automobile count increased from exactly one car to nearly 40,000 motor vehicles. Traffic volumes on Railroad Avenue between King and Dearborn streets increased 273 percent between 1915 and 1920. 

The changeover from horse-drawn vehicles to motor-driven cars and trucks advanced rapidly. A study conducted by the Department of Streets and Sewers found that the ratio of horse to motor-driven vehicles at Jackson Street and 4th Avenue changed from one to eight in 1917 to one to 73 in 1920.

The business district's streets faced the same congestion. Streetcars, interurban trains, horse-drawn wagons, trucks, and cars shared the same streets without the benefit of lane striping, traffic lights, or well-established rules of the road. When traffic increased exponentially, traffic flow slowed and became more hazardous. 

Ideas Bypassed, Bad Conditions Build

The Department of Streets and Sewers' annual report for 1928 reiterated the need for a bypass street for traffic that needed to pass through the central business district. In particular, heavy trucks carrying cargo to and from the docks needed a route to connect with U.S. 99 and the industrial district south of downtown. The report suggested the construction of several elements that would carry traffic from East Marginal Way to U.S. 99 north of Greenwood. First, 4th Avenue S needed to be extended to East Marginal Way, then a viaduct from the intersection of Seattle Boulevard and 4th Avenue would carry traffic over to Railroad Avenue, which would have a 72- or 90-foot strip of pavement in the middle of Railroad Avenue between Railroad Way and Broad Street. At Broad Street another viaduct would carry traffic to Elliott Avenue, which traffic could follow to 15th Avenue and then on to Holman Road in Ballard, finally connecting with the highway at N 105th Street. 

None of the plans for relieving traffic in downtown Seattle had been realized by the 1930s. Conditions on the trestle on which Railroad Avenue rested grew dire. The tide flowed daily under the street, causing the pilings to rot and be weakened by teredos. After bubonic plague caused a death in Seattle in 1907, health inspectors visited the elevated neighborhood and were appalled by the conditions they found. A Health and Sanitation Committee report stated, "Between Railroad and Western Avenues there is a vast amount of rotting timbers, planks, boxes, and all kinds of garbage, the waste of commission houses, restaurants, and markets. Within this district are broken sewers and cesspools. One cesspool in particular is thirty feet long, fifteen to twenty feet wide, and from eight inches to two feet deep, filled with the most horrible filth that it is possible to imagine" (CF #34450). 

The Seawall

The city had built a seawall between the mouth of the Duwamish River and Washington Street in the 1910s. The wall provided protection for fill on which streets and buildings could be built. North of Washington, seawall construction proved more problematic. Between Washington and Bay streets the sea bottom drops off precipitously close to the shore. In many places the water measured 25 feet deep at low tide. The wall would also have to hold back high tide, which could rise as much as 12 feet more. The cost proved too high for adjacent landowners, who would have to pay a portion of the cost of any improvements made to Railroad Avenue. Railroads owned a large percentage of the property adjacent to Railroad Avenue and they had the political clout to stop any plans the city attempted to implement. 

Mayor John F. Dore (1881-1938) resorted to blocking all maintenance projects on the planked street, ordering the Engineering Department's Traffic Division to close off any unsafe portions, which greatly inconvenienced the dock owners and other users of the street. In a 1933 veto of a maintenance plan, Dore wrote, "This Railroad Avenue is a death trap. It is a menace to the life of all that use it. The improvement [a seawall and new street] should be made because daily the hazard is run of taking human life by inaction" (Mayor John F. Dore). 

Finally, in 1934, with the advent of work relief programs during the Great Depression, the city received partial funding for the project through the State Emergency Relief Fund, which was supplemented with money from the city's general fund and assessments on the adjacent property owners. Between 1934 and 1935 the city built a seawall, filled the beach behind it, and paved a four-lane road on top. 

One Big Bottle Neck

Not surprisingly, once the improved roadway, named Alaskan Way in a nod to Alaska's importance in Seattle's economic development, opened in 1936, it became a bypass route for travelers passing through Seattle. The number of through travelers had increased with the construction of the Pacific Highway in the 1920s. Renamed U.S. 99 in 1926, the Pacific Highway was the first highway to extend from the Canadian border to the Mexican border on the West Coast. 

In 1932, construction of the George Washington Memorial Bridge (known also as the Aurora Bridge) completed the limited access portion of the highway from North 72nd Street to Denny Way. When drivers reached Denny Way from the north, they turned onto 4th or 1st avenues and made their way through the central business district to 4th Avenue South and then on to East Marginal Way. Drivers from the south reversed the route. The addition of increased through highway traffic to the city street traffic of streetcars, delivery trucks, passenger vehicles, and freight traffic from the waterfront and industrial areas led to severe traffic congestion, particularly during rush hours. 

In 1939 the Propeller Club of the United States, Port of Seattle Chapter, a maritime commerce organization, sent a letter to the mayor and city council of Seattle seeking relief from traffic congestion on Alaskan Way. Their president, Carl J. Nordstrom, wrote, "The use of the waterfront as a traffic 'bypass' is gravely harming our most vital industry -- shipping. Relief must be obtained promptly if irreparable damage to the city's maritime commerce is to be avoided" (Report Propeller Club).

A report accompanied the letter that outlined the importance of maritime commerce on the waterfront, comprising, as it did, "practically all of the Alaska trade, the intercoastal trade and the local Puget Sound trade is handled" (Report Propeller Club, 1). The club argued that the streets on the waterfront needed to be reserved for handling the five million tons of cargo that crossed over the piers each day and the 2.5 million passengers that used the port each year. 

In particular, the Propeller Club objected to traffic blocking pier access and to two signs, one at each of the U.S. 99 entrances to the downtown district that said, "Through Trucks Take Alaskan Way." The signs served to direct much of the through traffic to the waterfront. The Propeller Club estimated that 60 per cent of the traffic on Alaskan Way was using the roadway as a bypass route. Photos accompanying the report show near complete gridlock along Alaskan Way, with very few freight vehicles in sight. 

The traffic congestion increased the time it took to handle cargo and increased traffic hazards. The Propeller Club members feared that maritime businesses would move to other Puget Sound ports that offered easier access for trucks and railroad cars if something was not done to limit the bypass traffic. 

The signs that routed trucks to the waterfront were placed by the Engineering Department's Traffic Division. In a traffic survey report from 1937 the Engineering Department identified a bypass on either side of downtown as the best solution to the "bottle necks" that occurred daily. 

The Engineering Department emphasized the costs incurred by having overcrowded and inadequately designed streets. Between 1926 and 1936, 922 people died in accidents on Seattle's streets. In that same decade, there had been 27,151 injuries and 179,167 accidents -- all in a city with about 115,000 licensed vehicles in 1937. 

Nonetheless, the Engineering Department recognized that motor vehicles played a key role in the city's economic development. The report recommended a viaduct for Alaskan Way, because, "As a future by-pass, the construction of a viaduct on Alaskan Way from Stewart Street to Holgate Street would greatly assist in solving the congestion not only in the central business district, but on Alaskan Way itself; and would serve to separate the through passenger car traffic from truck traffic to and from the docks. This viaduct might be turned a limited way (sic) to that proposed on the North Lake Shore in Chicago and on Riverside Drive in New York" (Report of the W.P.A Projects). The report also recommended a general program of improvements to Seattle's streets to accommodate more traffic. 

The Viaduct and the Freeway

The Great Depression and World War II hampered efforts to improve the street system. Wartime rationing and the military's control of the waterfront during the war reduced civilian traffic in downtown Seattle. In 1945, as the war drew to a close, the city began planning for postwar infrastructure projects. Building a bypass and modernizing Seattle's streets were a high priority as property values declined in the downtown core. Retail shoppers began to take advantage of the increased mobility they gained with automobile ownership. Shopping districts that offered easy access and convenient and ample parking lured customers away from downtown Seattle, which had previously benefited from public transit systems that brought people into the city's core. 

One of the provisions of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 provided funding for planning and building urban highways. Using these funds, the Washington State Department of Highways and the United States Bureau of Public Roads conducted a traffic study of the metropolitan Seattle area in 1945. After interviewing 62 per cent of the occupants of the nearly 100,000 vehicles that traveled in and out of Seattle each day, ferry riders, and the residents of nearly 190,000 "dwelling units" about their traveling habits, they summarized their findings in a report. The report highlighted the two types of trips that needed to be accommodated: those beginning or ending in downtown Seattle and those that passed through the city. The latter made up half of the drivers entering downtown.

To meet these needs, the Traffic Division recommended the construction of two expressways and two east-west circumferential routes connecting Lake Washington with Puget Sound, one at the north end of downtown and one at the south end, to ease Seattle's downtown traffic flow. With the detailed traffic study in hand, the Traffic Division began planning for Seattle's new expressways -- the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Seattle Freeway, which we know today as Interstate 5.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Kurt E. Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1999); Mimi Sheridan, "Alaskan Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel," 2008, Historic American Engineering Record (HAER No. WA-184), Library of Congress American Memory website accessed September 12, 2011 (; Municipal Plans Commission, Plan of Seattle: Report of the Municipal Plans Commission Submitting the Report of Virgil G. Bogue, Engineer (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1911), 32, 114-117; City of Seattle Department of Streets and Sewers Annual Report, 1920, Folder 1, Box 2, 1802-I7 Department of Streets and Sewers Annual Reports, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle; City of Seattle Department of Streets and Sewers Annual Report, 1928, Folder 5, Box 2, 1802-I7 Department of Streets and Sewers Annual Reports, Seattle Municipal Archives; City of Seattle Department of Streets and Sewers, "Traffic Flow, Seattle, 1929," Folder 1, Box 2, 2609-01 Traffic Engineering Subject Correspondence, Aurora Avenue -- Bus Line Warning Signs, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle; City of Seattle Department of Streets and Sewers, "Traffic Flow, Seattle, 1931" map, Folder 1, Box 2, 2609-01 Traffic Engineering Subject Correspondence, Aurora Avenue -- Bus Line Warning Signs, Seattle Municipal Archives; City of Seattle Engineering Department and Works Progress Administration, Report of the W.P.A Projects #310 and #4163 of the Traffic Survey of the City of Seattle from November 1935 to September 1936 and from January 1937 to July 1937 (Seattle: Engineering Department, 1937); City of Seattle Engineering Department Traffic Division, Annual Report, 1940, Folder 1, Box 7, 1802-G2 Engineering Department Annual Reports, Seattle Municipal Archives; City of Seattle Engineering Department Traffic Division, Annual Report, 1943, Folder 1, Box 7, 1802-G2 Engineering Department Annual Reports, Seattle Municipal Archives; William F. Devin, "City Advances Postwar Plans During Year," Daily Journal of Commerce (Seattle), February 28, 1947; R. H. Thomson, That Man Thomson (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1950), 131; Washington State Department of Highways and United States Bureau of Public Roads, Origin-Destination Traffic Survey: Seattle Metropolitan Area (Olympia: Washington Department of Highways, 1947, binder available at Seattle Municipal Archives); "$5,425,000 in War-Delayed Improvements Are Scheduled for City Action During Year," The Seattle Times, February 26, 1947, p. C-47; "Civic Center for Seattle Outlined," The Seattle Times, April 24, 1910, Part III, p. 9; Communication of Commissioner of Health & Sanitation relative to sanitary conditions along the water front and recommending the construction of a sea wall, Comptroller File No. 34450, Seattle Municipal Archives; Mayor John F. Dore veto of Council Bill 54043, Comptroller File No. 138325, Seattle Municipal Archives; Report Propeller Club re: waterfront traffic conditions, Comptroller File No. 162733, Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 804, "An Ordinance to lay off and establish a Public street along the shore and over land covered by waters of Elliott Bay, extending from the north boundary line of the City of Seattle to Columbia street, in said city, to be known and called Railroad Avenue," approved January 25, 1887; "Tunnel Under Broad Street is Suggested," The Seattle Times, June 4, 1916, p. 5. 

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You