YOU CAN SEE it looking south along Alaskan Way, but only for a block and a half at street level starting at Pier 66 or atop the Bell Street overpass, and only on clear days. To me, it symbolizes a century of transformation for Seattle’s shore. It’s a tableau that I call the Eight Arcs. In our “Now” photo, front to back, count ’em:
● The Seattle Great Wheel (2012).
● The twin roof ridges of Lumen Field (2002, originally Seahawks Stadium, then Qwest Field).
● The four roof ridges of T-Mobile Park (1999, originally Safeco Field).
● The curved countenance of Mount Rainier (1 to 2 million years ago, originally Tahoma).
This pleasing juxtaposition serves today’s saltwater tourists and the roadway’s recently arrived condominium dwellers. For them, it’s a place of play.
But little — besides the pointed Smith Tower (1914) in the distance — is the same when you zip back nearly 90 years to our “Then” scene, along what had long been named Railroad Avenue.
Taken on an overcast Friday, June 22, 1934, from the Lenora Street overpass (1930-83), the photo reveals what we characterize as a working waterfront, with side-by-side wharves; rail tracks; and a divided, wooden boulevard beneath which washed the tides of Elliott Bay.
With much of its former train traffic undergrounded in a nearby tunnel, and as cars used the timber trestle to bypass the upland business district, this byway spelled sporadic trouble. To wit, on Nov. 24, 1934, a car skidded on tracks near Lenora, plunged 15 feet through the center split and landed upside down in 3 feet of water. The stunned driver was unhurt.
Thankfully, progress on the route already was afoot. In this Depression decade, work had begun to pave the thoroughfare and close its gap; remove its aboveground electrical wiring and poles; and, most important, construct a protective western seawall, finished in 1936.
Such enterprise inspired the city to give the water-hugging street a more relevant, elegant name. More than 9,000 ideas poured in, many invoking the expansive sobriquet of “Way.”
With a decision nigh on July 6, 1936, the leading contender was Pacific Way. However, in a nod to the role Seattle’s waterfront played in the late-1890s Klondike Gold Rush, as well as to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (the city’s first world’s fair), Alaska Way slipped in as the finish-line favorite.
To honor “the men and women who pioneered the territory,” councilman and former Mayor Robert Harlin appended the letter “n.”
The result, Alaskan Way, still provides a touch of humanity along the road to today’s Eight Arcs.