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Workers discover new shipwreck during Fairview Bridge project

You never know what you’re going to find when you start digging in the Seattle area, and the same is true when working in the water. Contractors found a previously uncharted wreck in Lake Union while replacing the Fairview Avenue Bridge.

Divers have found about 75 wrecks on the bottom of Lake Union, most of which have been charted, but only a handful have been identified. So you can imagine the surprise when contractors removing the old timber pilings that held up part of the Fairview Avenue Bridge found a wreck that wasn’t on the list.

“People have gone through and mapped some of the sunken ships that are on the bottom of Lake Union, but the one that we found was not mapped,” project manager Marilyn Yim said. “It was a complete surprise. It had been cut in half and deliberately sunk some time ago, 70 years ago or so.”

The wood wreck was about 25 feet long and 25 feet wide. It was found close to the north end of the bridge by the Seattle Seaplanes moorage.

“We tried to see if there was any distinctive marking or anything that might be special about it,” Yim said. “That was part of the archaeological and historical evaluation of the find.”

The archaeologists couldn’t find anything distinctive.

While there was enough room between the shipwreck and the bridge to leave it where it was, a popular diver selfie spot near a submerged Harley Davidson did not get to stay. The motorcycle had to be pulled from the water.

“Divers used to know where it was and go visit it from time to time,” Yim said. “Unfortunately, that was one of the pieces of debris that we had to remove in cleaning up underneath the bridge.”

Yim hopes to have the bridge open in early spring, about a year and a half after it closed. It’s been a somewhat challenging project as working over and under water is never easy.

“We have the landmark, historic steam plant building on one side,” she said. “We have high voltage power lines on the other. They can’t really approach everything from the water by barge. They can’t do everything from the land. It’s been a little bit tricky and challenging to build this thing.”

But the project is on schedule, and Yim said it will be a very different looking bridge when it’s finished.

“It used to look like a big forest of timber piles from the old timber bridge that we removed,” she said.

The water view from the new bridge will be much more open. It will also have wider lanes, a full sidewalk, and a protected bike lane. The new Fairview Avenue Bridge will feature three bump-outs where people can hang out and watch the water without blocking the sidewalk. The popular floating walkway will return, and will be the last feature added in the project.

The traffic detour for “locals” and buses that runs through the Fred Hutch campus has worked well, though the lack of traffic during the COVID pandemic has likely made this closure a little easier to handle. Nearly 9,000 vehicles a day use the Fairview corridor in pre-COVID counts, and it’s a popular way to escape South Lake Union without using Mercer Street.

Another 8,000 bus riders use the corridor between South Lake Union and the University District. That direct route for cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians will return when the bridge reopens.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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