If you go back in time and stand on the shore of Elliott Bay in 1853 as the Denny part arrived, the landscape would be totally different.
“The shoreline, instead of being flat like it is now, would have been steep bluffs,” said author David Williams. “The southernmost point in the city was basically … just north of where stadiums are.”
Seattle’s original landscape — which stopped at where Pioneer Square is now— has changed quite a bit and continues to do so as Bertha bores a massive tunnel underneath the city. The giant tunneling machine has faced a string of problems, but that is all par for the course, according to Williams.
Williams has poured several years of research into a new book about Seattle’s early, epic engineering feats, “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.”
“All of that (land) in the early part of Seattle’s history would have been an expanse of water at high tide,” he said of the land south of today’s Pioneer Square. “Then at low tide, the water would flow out and that entire would be exposed mud — lots of little rivulets going through there, probably lots of birds flying down to pick up the critters that were living in that area.”
The early Seattleites filled it with concrete.
And those steep bluffs along the shore of Elliott Bay? One of those became the famous Denny regrade.
The small mountain of Denny Hill was home to 400 families at the time. They all had to move, some of them taking their homes with them. Workers took that giant hill and dumped all the dirt into Elliott Bay. They even made little dump truck boats that would go out into the water, dump the dirt, and go back to shore.
“The way to really think about it is: that area north of downtown is perfectly flat and Seattle does not have flat landscapes, so if there is something flat, there is something unnatural about it,” Williams said.
So the Denny regrade is Belltown. The tide flats are Sodo.
And then there was another major change — the ship canal, which linked Elliott Bay to Lake Union and Lake Washington.
The current $2 billion dollar project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct seems like a colossal undertaking full of colossal problems — many of which have plagued Bertha. But that’s the tradition Seattle has set with all its major projects, Williams notes.
Bertha’s bumps like the recent sinkhole can be viewed as almost comical but, Williams says “it’s the way things are done. From the idea of building the ship canal to completion was 62 years, from 1854 to 1917.”
Williams says that some of the projects by those early pioneers were downright naïve and even “ridiculous,” like the idea to build — by themselves — a railroad that would go all the way to Walla Walla.
They did build a railroad after all — as far as Renton.
But Williams says that even the successful projects — the Denny regrade, filling in the tide flats, the ship canal — were all a little bit nuts.
“It’s crazy!” Williams said. “Because these are just monumentally epic projects, none of which could occur at present, [because of] environmental regulations. There’s no way we could fill in a tide flat or remove a hill. Plus there’s financial aspects. Bertha’s running a billion dollars. Can you imagine having to remove a hill?”
It was a lot of dirt. Bertha has to move about 850,000 cubic yards of material. But all the historic projects Williams talks about, combined, dealt with about 80 times as much material.
“These projects are far beyond anything we could imagine,” Williams said.
And Seattleites of the past even built tunnels, too.
“They built a tunnel directly under the city in 1904 — a mile long tunnel. They built it with shovels and wheelbarrows and it’s still there, the Great Northern Tunnel,” he said. “If you’ve ever taken a train north out of Seattle, you’ve gone down under Seattle.”
And Williams says they did have road blocks just like Bertha does — lawsuits and other problems.
“They had people die during the regrades as hills collapsed,” he said. “Dynamite blew up a kid, in one situation.”
And Williams says whether it’s building a tunnel underneath the city or flattening a hill, making the land do what you want in a big way seems to be the nature of the people of this area.
“Any city on a waterfront generally will fill in the landscape, but what makes Seattle unusual are the regrades. No one else did anything on the order of Seattle,” Williams said.
There’s a name for it: “the Seattle Spirit.”
But the way we do it now is a little different. Williams explains that nowadays, we know things. We have seismic monitoring. We had to take care of the Alaskan Way Viaduct because we know an earthquake may come at any point.
Perhaps, then, we have an advantage over those early Seattleites.
“You could view it as a leg up, or as a warning, or sort of a kick in the butt that you better be aware of what’s going on and deal with it,” Williams said.
We’re aware, but it’s a matter of how we deal with it.
And apparently, our propensity for taking on massive projects to completely gut and re-shape the land to make it serve our purposes — and facing gigantic problems along the way — is just how we roll.