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Searching for ‘ghost signs’ in Seattle

Seattle is haunted. Haunted . . . by ghosts.

And, no, I don’t mean the wailing, sheet-clad, “restless soul” variety.

I drive around, a lot, looking at stuff by the side of the road, searching for forgotten places and even just chunks of history that somehow point back to prior times. Often, these inadvertent artifacts reveal something of the true character, spirit, and, okay, even the soul of the community and region my immigrant parents adopted as home nearly 60 years ago.

This search through the “windshield museum” for pieces of roadside history is something I learned from my four older brothers, and it’s something that now is just second nature.

In the past, I often had to pull over to the side to take a closer look at whatever caught my eye. But now, with traffic what it is around here these days, I often find myself with plenty of time to thoroughly scan the streetscape as I wait for yet another cycle of some particular traffic signal to allow me to pass.

What is a ghost sign?

With this extra time in places I once only zoomed by, one of the categories of things I’ve been noticing a lot lately are “ghost signs.”

And what is a “ghost sign,” exactly? There’s no official definition, though there are Facebook groups using the term that are devoted to faded old commercial signs on the walls of old buildings. Think “Bull Durham” tobacco or Coca-Cola.

For my money, the objects most aptly described this way are public street signs that were originally installed by local, state or federal agencies, and that, somehow or other, have stayed up, mounted to metal posts or brackets or bolted to the sides of bridges or the walls of buildings.

For some unknown reason, these civic ghost signs – made of wood or metal, or maybe just painted on a surface — have defied the street sign crews, stayed invisible to thieves, and keep doing their job well past the time that job was relevant, or well past the time the official information conveyed was even accurate.

The best of these ghost signs are cool to look at for their vintage qualities, but they also often have some kind of story to tell about the era in which they were first installed.

With an eye to capturing the current state of Seattle ghost signs, circa 2018, I recently toured downtown Seattle with a videographer from the Seattle Channel and produced the video included with this story.

Ghost signs in Seattle

Here’s a little more information about some of the highlights we found.

“US 99” Sign at First and Columbia

At the bottom of Columbia Street, just west of where it crosses First Avenue in downtown Seattle, is an original “US 99” highway sign. It’s replete with “shield” silhouette, which sets it apart from just about every other more modern “State Route 99” sign along this historic north-south highway. Those more recent signs, since the old US highway became a state route, feature a silhouette of the namesake of Washington Territory and, later, Washington state.

This ghost sign likely dates to January 1966, when the on-ramp to southbound 99 on the Alaskan Way Viaduct was completed and opened to traffic. As KIRO Radio reported in July, when the viaduct first opened in the early 1950s, it had no on-ramps or off-ramps, though early designs had called for a total of four. Only two were ever built.

“TEMP I-90” Sign at Colman Dock

A few blocks west of the Columbia Street on-ramp is Colman Dock, which has served as a terminal for auto and passenger ferries since the early 20th century.

The current ferry facility, which is scheduled to undergo a major renovation, was built in 1966. As cars exit the Bainbridge and Bremerton ferries, an overhead sign just west of Alaskan Way directs unsuspecting drivers to a number of freeway options, including “TEMP I-90.”

Huh?

I-90 hasn’t been “TEMP” – or “temporary” – for more than 20 years. Longtime residents will remember that the last few miles of the highway, from west of the Mount Baker Tunnel all the way into downtown, was left unfinished for decades. Traffic was carried on a series of surface streets, including Dearborn, and the road was marked with countless “TEMP I-90” signs along the way. At I-5, a clunky interchange included numerous high-altitude “ramps to nowhere” that looked as if they’d been constructed for Evel Knievel.

But there are probably just as many longtime residents who don’t remember “TEMP I-90” and the struggles to fully fund the roadway and complete construction of the interchange at I-5. Chalk this up to “I.D.A” or Infrastructure Delay Amnesia, the condition that sets in once a long-delayed tunnel, stadium, freeway or commuter rail system final opens to the public and everyone forgets the schedule changes and cost overruns.

Either way, for visitors to our city in search of TEMP I-90, consider yourself warned!

Fallout Shelter Sign on Western Avenue

It was more than 50 years ago when the federal government launched a program to stock the basements of urban buildings with survival supplies, including Geiger counters, first aid kits, barrels of water and giant tins of nutritional biscuits, all in the name of preparing for a nuclear attack.

From the early 1960s to 1990s, distinctive yellow and dark blue “FALLOUT SHELTER” signs were ubiquitous on the sides of buildings all along the streets of major urban areas, including downtown Seattle.

“Fallout Shelter” signs – somehow simultaneously creepy and reassuring – were prized by amateur collectors of civic doomsday décor. Ultimately, like the Cold War itself, these era-defining artifacts gradually disappeared, one by one, likely finding their way to the walls of frat houses and suburban garages.

A fairly exhaustive search of downtown (through the windshield and, of course, via social media) reveals that very few are left on display. What might be one of the last still visible examples in downtown Seattle is on Western Avenue, a few blocks north of Yesler.

Incidentally, this reporter can attest that those nutritional crackers were still edible, if someone flavorless and very gritty, as recently as the mid 1980s.

“Scenic Drive” Sign on the Alaskan Way Viaduct

Of course, the early 1960s in Seattle weren’t only about the potential for nuclear destruction.

In addition to all that “civic engineering” to raise the money and produce the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair at what’s now Seattle Center, civic leaders also launched a number of efforts to beautify downtown and to coordinate a general sprucing up of all of Washington in order to be ready to receive guests from around the region and around the world.

One of these efforts was a program to mark the routes of “scenic drives” around the city. A colorful map was published showing four enticing paths, and hundreds of distinctive signs – depicting a futuristic “trident and trees” logo on a white background, with the words “SCENIC DRIVE” emblazoned below – were installed all over Seattle.

Five-plus decades later, the “SCENIC DRIVE” program has long since died away.

However, there is at least one remaining sign, though it is pretty easy to miss. It’s on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, to the left of the northbound lanes just several hundred feet before the Battery Street Tunnel.

Not long ago, there was at least one more of these signs still visible, and, apparently, much more accessible, just south of the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal. It was so accessible, in fact, that a visit there in July found only the vacant post and mounting hardware still in place.

Let’s hope this now missing ghost sign at least went to a good home.

Bus Passenger Directional Sign under the Magnolia Bridge

From a pedestrian underpass beneath the Magnolia Bridge, sailors and soldiers disembarking from transport ships at Pier 91 were once directed by signage to buses that went downtown and to buses that went to Fort Lawton.

The soldiers and sailors were all discharged decades ago, but the sign remains on active duty.

Ghost Signs in your neighborhood?

There are likely plenty of other smaller ghost signs in downtown Seattle – in alleys, along the viaduct, the freeway, etc. – that we missed in preparing this story. There’s probably also forgotten pockets of vintage street signs in Seattle’s many neighborhoods, as well as in communities of all sizes around Puget Sound.

And this is where you come in.

We know there are more “Ghost Signs” out there, and we’d love to see what KIRO Radio listeners have come across where they live, work and drive around Puget Sound.

Please take photos of your favorite ghost sign(s) and email – along with a description and location – to: [email protected].

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