JUST MORE THAN a year and a half has passed since the ribbon-cutting ceremony opening the 1.7-mile Highway 99 tunnel that replaced the geriatric Alaskan Way Viaduct. Four years of burrowing with Bertha, one of the world’s largest tunnel borers, followed by two years of construction and months of viaduct demolition, left behind a wide-open waterfront, ripe for re-imagining.
That most ambitious of Seattle tunnels invites comparison with another one completed 115 years ago. It, too, was an attempt to solve a waterfront problem.
Alaskan Way, originally Railroad Avenue, was ribbed with a wide swath of eight sets of parallel train tracks. The dangerous clatter and din of passing trains separated the upland city from its vigorous bay.
Seattle’s transformational city engineer, Reginald H. Thomson, devised the rerouting of some of that traffic, convincing James J. Hill, the Great Northern railroad magnate, to send his trains through a 5,141.5-foot tunnel from the waterfront to the proposed King Street train station (built in 1906 as a marble temple of transport suitable for the aspiring young city).
On April Fools’ Day 1903, construction commenced at the tunnel’s northern portal, employing pressure hoses to wash away vast tons of dirt and expose the face of the hillside. Within two months, work began a mile away on the south portal.
Hundreds of men at both ends dug day and night for two years in a fiercely competitive race to the middle. In a marvel of precision engineering, the two boreholes were only a fraction of an inch off when they met in October 1904. Wags among the workers joked that they had built the longest tunnel in the world: from Virginia to Washington — streets, that is. And for its time, the tunnel did break records. When completed, it was the world’s highest (25.8 feet) and widest (30 feet) tunnel.
The tube was lined with 3½ to 4½ feet of concrete, reaching its deepest point 111 feet below Fourth and Spring. Curiously, it also delved through remains of an anaerobically preserved primeval forest at Fourth and Marion. (Soon after exposure to air, the trees reportedly turned to mulch.)
Though overhead property owners worried about their buildings’ foundations, the only actual casualty of construction was the Hotel York at the northwest corner of First and Pike (in our “Then” photo, it’s sporting an enormous mural puffing up Owl cigars). Its underpinning undermined, it was razed in November 1904. In 1912, it was replaced by the Corner Market Building, which to this day anchors Pike Place Market.