These curiosities have outlived their usefulness but still make us stop and stare.
AT THIS VERY moment, hundreds of thousands of drivers are clogging Northwest roadways. They fall into two distinct camps: gazers and lasers.
The gazer is really more of a scanner. They drive with eyes constantly in motion, dotting between 9 and 3 on the imaginary windshield clock face, taking in a full 180 degrees of visual stimuli. They are watching traffic, sure, but other stuff as well. (YOLO and all.)
Lasers are all business, with their stare locked on the roadway ahead, processing what really matters: roadway obstacles between 11 and 1 on that same clock (digital-era kids who are not familiar with a “clock face” may consult Wikipedia).
For better or worse, I fall into the first category. My spouse, to her credit — and to our insurance company’s delight — is a laser. Eyes locked ahead, she misses little that’s truly important about driving. But the price she pays — in my mind — is lack of peripheral vision.
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Thus, tooling along Washington state highways, the following conversation often occurs in our vehicle:
Myself: “Sweet fancy Moses! Did you see that Class IV tornado and herd of wildebeests setting fire to that stack of Titan II nuclear missiles over there on the shoulder?”
So it goes. It is this decided lack of wandering eyes that inspired this project: an examination of, and tribute to, a number of prominent “roadside relics” across our region. These are things we (most of us) always notice, but rarely take the time to investigate, let alone connect to their respective places in local history, culture or both. We gazers see them and wonder. You lasers need to look around.
The story, first inspired by driving past, for probably the 500th time, that Giant Concrete Thing in the town of Concrete, became a lingering occasional project of yours truly and colleague Alan Berner, the infinitely creative veteran Seattle Times photographer. The two of us — whose combined years exploring Northwest front and back roads probably is approaching old-growth Douglas fir status — set out to explore roadside relics that met certain guidelines. Each relic, we decreed, must be:
• A prominent, somewhat-out-of-place item that makes most passers-by say or think, “What the …?”
• Significant to the local ethos in some fashion, be it historical or just interesting, in a bar-trivia-night sort of way.
OK: Basically we just made it up as we went along, settling on things that Mr. Berner found most interesting to photograph. (Note that you will not get anything close to this sort of transparency out of either current presidential candidate.)
One quick timeout here: Yes, yes, yes; any true examination of local relics would include a look at ourselves, in the mirror. Insert your own struggling newspaper-industry barb here!
Now, in the spirit of furthering the knowledge of old-timers who’ve seen many of these relics already, and perhaps inspiring curiosity among the large numbers of local newcomers, let’s get right to it.
FEW SEATTLE TYPES make a regular habit of crossing Elliott Bay to wander the streets of downtown Bremerton. Those who do sometimes make a wrong turn and wind up driving into a parking lot at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Here, you can crane your neck upward about 15 stories and gaze upon the stem or stern of two seriously “Whoa!”-inducing relics: USS Kitty Hawk and USS Independence.
The massive, Vietnam-era aircraft carriers are monuments to warfare engineering, resting here as part of the shipyard’s ever-shrinking mothball fleet and awaiting their final fate — very likely a date with a chop shop in Brownsville, Texas, after efforts to save the two ships, along with former mothballed companions USS Constellation (CV 64) and USS Ranger (CV 61), failed to gain traction. Kitty Hawk’s destiny is still unsettled, but Independence is due to meet the towlines within coming months. If you want to see it, move fast.
Aside from the massive proportions, a lot of history is afloat here. The Forrestal-class Independence (CV 62), built in the late 1950s at New York Navy Yard, was decommissioned in 1998. Nearly 1,100 feet long, this floating runway for 70 to 90 aircraft served in Vietnam, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. Its last notable role came in 1992 in the Persian Gulf, enforcing an Iraq no-fly zone.
The similarly sized Kitty Hawk (CV 63), decommissioned in 2010, also served six tours in Vietnam, participating in the 1968 Tet Offensive and spending much of its later career in Southeast Asia and Japan.
Even in repose, the sheer size of the two aging carriers still projects power. And that was their point.
Both ships, interestingly, have a direct connection to another prominent roadside reminder of our military past: Outside Oak Harbor, an EA-6B Prowler (plane number 550) and an A-6 Intruder (number 500) have stood since 2008 on proud static display along state Highway 20, near the entrance to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
The carrier-based planes — the Navy’s electronic warfare and light bombing workhorses for decades — were a constant, noisy (delightfully or annoyingly, take your pick) presence over Whidbey, their training base, for decades. The jets, recently replaced by EA-18G Growlers, are a tribute to the multitudes of Navy air men and women who’ve served at the Oak Harbor base over its 74-year history — many of them returning to live in the area after their service.
ON DAY TRIPS to the east, many of those sailors have experienced a drive-by head-snapping in the presence of that aforementioned Giant Concrete Thing, which rests along the same Highway 20, dead center in the greater Concrete, Skagit County, metroplex.
The Thing is actually a hulking cluster of five cement silos — storage for Portland cement, the flour-like substance made from crushed limestone, that serves as the glue holding together construction concrete. The giant cement plant that once stood here — actually two, with one on either side of the Baker River near its confluence with the Skagit — similarly served for decades as the glue holding together the local economy of the town renamed in honor of its primary product.
The limestone raw material was dug from the North Cascades foothills above town. One large quarry is now hidden by present-day Lake Shannon, a reservoir behind one of two Puget Sound Energy dams — made from, you guessed it, concrete — on the Baker River. When the concrete plants were still humming, crushed limestone arrived into town via a tramway that ran right over the top of downtown Concrete, often spreading clouds of fine concrete powder (think: volcanic eruption grit) on every surface.
The ghostly powder was a major annoyance, and also the root of the savvy advice passed down through generations of Skagitonians — “Never buy a car from someone in Concrete!”
Today, some signs of the once-massive cement operation (the consolidated plants closed in 1973) can still be found in town and in the hills. But the most visible remnant, by far, is the massive Superior Cement Company silo along Highway 20, which stands about nine stories tall.
Trivia-night fodder: The words “Welcome To Concrete” are not original; they were painted on the silo for the 1992 filming of the 1993 movie “This Boy’s Life,” starring Robert De Niro and some unknown punk named Leonardo DiCaprio. Filmmakers, legend has it, were pleasantly surprised at how few changes were necessary to make downtown Concrete look and feel like the 1950s era depicted in the Tobias Wolff memoir that inspired the movie.
OFFERING A SIMILAR peek into the region’s former industrial engines is the large assemblage of yesteryear railroad equipment awaiting restoration along Highway 203 in the town of Snoqualmie.
The ever-changing collection of old steam engines and railway cars looks like the undignified final resting place for rail equipment that literally helped build the West. It isn’t; each piece was collected for a reason, and is destined for display or use at the nearby Northwest Railway Museum or elsewhere. The museum’s many assets include a significant inventory of locomotives and rail cars, a Victorian train depot, a functioning steam railway and — as of last month — an impressive new Railway Education Center.
But relic hunters are naturally drawn to the rusting roadside relics — ironically, more visible to the general public than the museum’s meticulously restored objects. Something about timeworn steel railroad artifacts just reeks history, says Richard Anderson, the museum’s executive director.
Gazing up and down the storage spurs, Anderson sees hand-hewn equipment that serves as raw material for a thousand compelling campfire stories of the railroad’s role in placing the Northwest on the continental map: Rusting rivets evoke images of hot-driven steel, by sweaty workers, a century ago. A battered Northern Pacific Railway boxcar reminds him of the role these sturdy vessels played in moving incalculable Northwest goods — crops, lumber, ores and airplanes — before the relatively recent advent of the shipping container.
Each piece brings its own unique story, and the museum hopes to seal them in time by returning the engines and cars to their last working state. The museum, Anderson hopes, will do for Northwest railroad history what the Museum of Flight has done for Northwest aviation.
YOU NEEDN’T get in a car and drive to find relic reminders of local transportation history. Most people assume that the first local “relic” that comes to mind — the old Puget Sound ferry MV Kalakala, recently scrapped in Tacoma after years of being booted from one port to another following its rescue from an ignominious fate of processing fish in Alaska — is gone for good. Not so, exactly. Like steel shavings to a magnet, chunks of her have drifted back home.
The once sleek, shiny Kalakala, with its distinctive art deco/aircraft-inspired design, spent most of its life on Elliott Bay. Distinctive pieces of the old boat now rest near Salty’s restaurant on Alki in West Seattle, where some of the famed ferry’s portholes stare across the water to downtown Seattle.
The rusting-hulk theme exemplified by this old boat is not an outlier in Seattle, which has made interesting use of other hard-to-dispose-of remnants of its steel-clad, industrial past. The most prominent might be the rusting gas works plant at Gas Works Park on the north end of Lake Union.
The towering, decaying old equipment here is what’s left of the last operational coal gasification plant in the United States. The plant operated from 1906 to 1956; the spectacularly located site was purchased by the City of Seattle in 1962 and opened as a public park in 1975.
Gas Works since has received much acclaim for its unique design, blending the land’s trademark toxic, industrial past with a decidedly greener present that includes what surely qualifies as one of the world’s few artificially constructed kite-flying hills. It’s the present-day site of Seattle’s largest Fourth of July party and fireworks show.
FEW OTHER historical artifacts, however, evoke the dramatic, plunge-into-yesterday feel of one of the region’s lesser-known, but most-impressive relics, the snagboat W.T. Preston, which sits rather obscurely, high, dry and aground, in Anacortes, near Cap Sante Marina.
The “obscure” in that description comes only from its resting place — two blocks off the main path for car commuters bound for the Anacortes ferry terminal. If the Preston sat along that Commercial Street route, it’d be a major tourist attraction.
The fact that it isn’t is a boon to visitors, who often can get a personal tour of the old, completely intact stern-wheeler by one of the volunteers at the small-but-fascinating Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center.
For half a century, the flat-bottomed, 163-foot stern-wheeler was a critical cog in Puget Sound’s economy and transportation network in the days when local waterways served as primary highways for moving people and goods. Operated by the U.S. Corps of Engineers out of Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, the vessel snagged and lifted drifting obstacles of all sorts, mostly logs, freeing river logjams and opening corridors for boat passage. The ship also served as a dredger and pile driver.
The Preston served on Puget Sound from 1939 through the 1970s, and was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1979. The City of Anacortes gained ownership in exchange for a plan to preserve the venerable workboat on land, near its Great Northern Railroad Depot. It was hoisted ashore at Cap Sante in 1983, and remains there today, in near-original, working condition.
The ship is a rare example of an intact, steam-powered vessel; a large number of people touring its innards are naval architects or Navy personnel fascinated by its interior plumbing, and we can imagine a number of steampunk aficionados going nuts inside. Visitors can clamber around the ship’s boiler room; engine rooms; crew cabins; and even the galley, where a single cook, the legendary Fritz Rydberg, served crewmen of the Preston and two predecessor ships three hot meals a day for more than 40 years.
It is that sort of human detail that brings our rustic old relics, testaments to the past, and foundations for the future, back to life, for a well-earned run through the imaginations of people living today on the backbone they so ably built. And that’s important. In a region racing ahead at digital speeds, an occasional nod to the hand-hewn past brings priceless perspective. Whether you’re a gazer or a laser, that’s a mind’s-eye view always worth hitting the brakes to take in.