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Feliks Banel’s top 12 worst traffic jams in Puget Sound history

A fish truck rolls over on Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, trapping drivers behind the mess on the road. (Seattle Police Department)
LISTEN: Feliks Banel’s top 10 worst traffic jams in Puget Sound history

Daily traffic jams in and around Seattle are pretty much a given these days. The expanding population, the disappearing lanes and parking spots, and the big construction projects on so many major highways all contribute to what feels lately like an almost permanent sense of gridlock.

That may be so, but it’s also true that Seattle has a history of big traffic jams that goes back almost a century. Genuine data is hard to come, but with a little bit of historical research and pinch of context, it’s possible to come up with a list of the 12 Worst Traffic Jams in Puget Sound History.

The list is non-scientific, to be sure. And it doesn’t necessarily include some behemoth backups of the “perennial” variety, those jams caused by recurring events like May Day in Seattle; Blue Angels’ practice; presidential or candidate visits; bridge collapses and sinkings; windstorms and power outages; earthquakes; or the mass exodus of revelers after Seafair or the Fourth of July fireworks.

Of course, we may have missed a big one that you’ve never forgotten. If we did, please tell us about it in the “Comments” section below. It’s hard to keep track, since unlike big storms or earthquakes, big traffic jams generally don’t get bestowed with “official” names. With big jams getting more and more frequent, maybe that practice will soon be adopted by transportation officials looking to keep things straight for future historians.

Until then, here, in chronological order, are the 12 Worst Traffic Jams in Puget Sound History.

1. Armistice Celebration on November 10-11, 1918

When the Great War for Civilization (what they called “World War I” in those days) ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, downtown Seattle became the site of an impromptu celebration that clogged city streets for almost two days. Word of the Armistice came late on Sunday, November 10, Seattle-time, and an informal parade took shape around 8:00 am the next morning. Police estimated that some 12,000 cars were jammed into downtown for the informal parade, which one newspaper writer described as “democracy in full tilt.” It was total gridlock from Stewart all the way down Second Avenue—which was the main commercial street in those days—all the way down to Yesler.

2. VJ Day Celebration on August 14, 1945

World War II hit Puget Sound hard, with blackouts and other restrictions in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor, and years of sacrifice by local families. The war ended in Europe in May 1945, but Seattle didn’t celebrate. The war was still to be won in the Pacific, and it wasn’t until August 14, 1945—VJ Day—that the city cut loose in a daylight party around 4th Avenue and Pike and Union Streets that stretched into the night. News of the war’s end came just after 4:00 pm Seattle time, and the party continued into well into the next morning. It was the biggest celebration, and the biggest traffic jam, since 1918.

3. Anti-War Demonstration on May 5, 1970

Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were frequent during the late 1960s in Seattle and other communities around the United States. One of the biggest came in the wake of student deaths at Kent State in Ohio and US intervention in Cambodia. The Seattle demonstration culminated in the blocking of the southbound lanes of Interstate 5 from about 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm, as 5,000 protesters marched from the University District to the US Court House downtown. State Route 520 was closed for awhile, too. During the next day’s protest march, demonstrators stuck to surface streets. Blocking I-5 at the Ship Canal Bridge became something of a tradition for demonstrators, who would also block I-5 at the start of the 1991 Gulf War and after the 1992 Rodney King verdict.

4. The Ship Hits The Span on June 11, 1978

Before the high-rise West Seattle Bridge was built to carry traffic to and from that neighborhood, the main route traveled over two drawbridges that crossed the Duwamish River on Spokane Street. Early one Sunday morning, the freighter “Chavez” was heading south on the Duwamish with pilot Rolf Neslund at the helm when it struck the northernmost of the two drawbridges, leaving it heavily damaged and stuck in the “open” position. For Monday morning’s commute (and for many years after), both directions of traffic were routed onto the two lanes of the remaining undamaged bridge. Traffic, according to the Seattle Times, “was backed up well over a mile” on Southwest Admiral Way approaching the bridge. Officials chose to replace the drawbridge with the high-level West Seattle Bridge, which opened in 1984. The two old drawbridges were replaced with a single new “swing bridge” that opened in 1991.

5. Lacey V. Murrow Floating Bridge Sinks on November 25, 1990

It was closed to traffic and undergoing renovation, but when the old 1940 Lake Washington Floating Bridge sank, it damaged the “anchor cables” on the adjacent brand-new bridge. I-90 was closed to traffic eastbound and westbound for several days while repairs were made. The bridge reopened to traffic on Thursday, November 29; the replacement bridge opened in 1994.

6. The Big Snow of December 18, 1990

The intensity and timing of the Big Snow of December 18, 1990 packed a one-two punch. Heavy snow began falling in the early afternoon, right before rush hour and kept falling well into the evening. Some suburban areas around Seattle had as many of 18 inches on the ground before the temperatures dropped into the low 20s. Conditions were so bad on the old 520 floating bridge, WSDOT posted a “chains required” sign. Surface streets were clogged, and many cars ran out of gas or spun out and were abandoned, further blocking already nearly impassable roads.

7. APEC Meeting on November 15-20, 1993

President Bill Clinton had been in office less than a year when the annual APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting was held in Seattle. Traffic downtown was snarled repeatedly that week as President Clinton and leaders from 14 Asian countries made their way around town. The event culminated that weekend with a summit meeting at Tillicum Village on Blake Island. Fortunately, only maritime traffic was affected by the grand finale.

8. World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial on November 30, 1999

The WTO meeting in Seattle in late November 1999 is remembered most for the violence and property destruction in downtown Seattle, but the demonstrations and law enforcement response also created major gridlock downtown, especially on November 30. Telecommuting wasn’t quite as prevalent then as now, but many people chose to stay home rather than risk working in (or shopping in or driving through) the downtown core.

9. Seahawks and the Seattle Snow Bowl of November 27, 2006

Mike Holmgren’s Seahawks took on his former team, the Green Bay Packers, live on Monday Night Football from what’s now CenturyLink. Wisconsin-like snow and freezing rain snarled rush hour traffic for hours. Amidst the flurries and icy crystals, the Hawks prevailed 34-24, and Seattle running back Shaun Alexander had a record 40 carries for a season-high 201 yards. At least captive commuters had something to listen to on the radio.

10. Hanukkah Eve Storm of December 14-15, 2006

Over a two-day period in mid-December 2006, a storm packing record rainfall and high winds left 15 dead across Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. A huge downpour in Seattle around 5:00pm on Hanukkah Eve flooded neighborhoods, trapping and killing a Madison Park woman in her basement. Surface streets in many neighborhoods were made impassable by huge puddles. The start of the Seahawks vs. 49ers Thursday night game was delayed by a power outage caused by flooding at the stadium.

11. Skagit River Bridge Collapse on May 23, 2013

It’s still unbelievable that nobody died when an over-sized load struck the Skagit River Bridge on I-5 in Mount Vernon, sending multiple vehicles into the chilly water. Traffic was detoured onto surface streets through Mount Vernon for several days until a temporary bridge was opened to traffic on June 19. During the weeks of traffic delays, a Washington State Patrol Trooper Sean M. O’Connell, Jr. died in a related accident. The bridge is now named in his honor.

12. Great Fish Truck Debacle of March 24, 2015

Great Fish Truck Debacle began around 2:30 pm on March 24, 2015, when a truck carrying frozen cod overturned southbound on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The roadway was blocked until just before midnight, and the backup on Highway 99 created chain-reaction backups throughout the city that lasted well past rush hour. Officials took heat for not cleaning up the mess faster, and not being better prepared to coordinate between jurisdictions. It was almost like déjà vu all over again on April 5 of this year when Crabpocalypse blocked northbound lanes on the Viaduct and sent crustacean carcasses raining down onto the streets below. This time around, a single lane northbound was opened to traffic four hours after the crab crash.

Who knows when Puget Sound area commuters will once again experience a historic traffic jam? Fourth of July is coming right up, and the Blue Angels will be here just a few weeks later. After that, windstorm season is right around the corner, and May Day will be here before you know it.

What slows you down every day?

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