Seattle Now & Then: Great Northern Tunnel construction, 1904

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Three years before the creation of the Pike Place Market in 1907, an unknown photographer captured savory treats. Just right of the tunnel entrance, a temporary assembly line supplied rivers of concrete to line the tunnel walls. Meanwhile, at upper left, an intrepid gent peers over the precipitous edge of the retaining wall at the laborers below.
NOW: A northbound Burlington Northern train emerges from the still-vital north portal onto a waterfront under construction. Concrete pillars and beams are being poured to support a new road connecting the waterfront to Belltown, the four-lane Elliott Way.

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Oct. 8, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Oct. 11, 2020)

The tunnel that reshaped the waterfront (no, not THAT one)
by Jean Sherrard

Just over a year and 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 re-routing 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 in October 1904 they met. 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 highest (25.8 feet) and widest (30 feet) tunnel in the world.

The tube was lined with 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 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 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 the Pike Place Market.


To watch our 360 degree video, which includes two passing trains and Jean’s narration, click here.

Plus a bit of a backstory here. I found a lovely ‘then’ and tried to repeat it, only to discover that the quality was subpar. The original is not lost, but included in the many thousands that Paul donated to the SPL; so for the time being, unavailable. Here, then, is my first attempt at repeating the shot from below:

Alternate THEN: North portal under construction from below
My alternate NOW
More from below. Girders lined up for the new Elliott Way. Victor Steinbrueck Park above…

And, in no particular order, shots of construction and trains!

Construction, double decker train cars and a receding ferry. Who could ask for anything more?


One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Great Northern Tunnel construction, 1904”

  1. In the 1907 Great Northern tunnel photo, is there a woman (possibly with clipboard) near the door to the nearest building, discussing supplies or logistics with men?

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