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Published in The Seattle Times online on July 21, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on July 24, 2022
‘Eight Arcs’ tableau signifies transformation on Alaskan Way
By Clay Eals
You can see it looking south along Alaskan Way, but only for a block and a half at street level starting at Pier 66 or atop the Bell Street overpass, and only on clear days. To me, it symbolizes a century of transformation for Seattle’s shore. It’s a tableau that I call the Eight Arcs.
In our “Now” photo, front to back, count ’em:
- The Seattle Great Wheel (2012).
- The twin roof ridges of Lumen Field (2002, originally Seahawks Stadium then Qwest Field).
- The four roof ridges of T-Mobile Park (1999, originally Safeco Field).
- The curved countenance of Mount Rainier (1 to 2 million years ago, originally Tahoma).
This pleasing juxtaposition serves both today’s saltwater tourists and the roadway’s recently arrived condominium dwellers. For them, it’s a place of play.
But little — besides the pointed Smith Tower (1914) in the distance — is the same when you zip back nearly 90 years to our “Then” scene, along what had long been named Railroad Avenue.
Taken on an overcast Friday, June 22, 1934, from the Lenora Street overpass (1930-1983), the photo reveals what we characterize as a working waterfront, with side-by-side wharves, rail tracks and a divided, wooden boulevard beneath which washed the tides of Elliott Bay.
With much of its former train traffic undergrounded in a nearby tunnel, and as cars used the timber trestle to bypass the upland business district, this byway spelled sporadic trouble. To wit, on Nov. 24, 1934, a car skidded on tracks near Lenora, plunged 15 feet through the center split and landed upside down in 3 feet of water. The stunned driver was unhurt.
Thankfully, progress on the route already was afoot. In this Depression decade, work had begun to pave the thoroughfare and close its gap, remove its above-ground electrical wiring and poles and, most important, construct a protective western seawall, finished in 1936.
Such enterprise inspired the city to give the water-hugging street a more relevant, elegant name. More than 9,000 ideas poured in, many invoking the expansive sobriquet of “Way.”
With a decision nigh on July 6, 1936, the leading contender was Pacific Way. However, in a nod to the role Seattle’s waterfront played in the late-1890s Klondike Gold Rush, as well as to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (the city’s first world’s fair), Alaska Way slipped in as the finish-line favorite.
To honor “the men and women who pioneered the territory,” councilman and former mayor Robert Harlin appended the letter “n.”
The result, Alaskan Way, still provides a touch of humanity along the road to today’s Eight Arcs.
Thanks to Ron Edge, Bob Carney , Gavin MacDougall and Mike Bergman for their help with this installment!
Below are two additional alternate images from our NOW view and 41 clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column. Among the clips are 20 exploring the fascinating process of renaming Railroad Avenue, plus 8 historical pieces by our column founder, Paul Dorpat!
2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: from Railroad Avenue to Alaskan Way, 1934”
Absolutely fascinating! What a wonderful collection of documents to follow the introductory article. I could see the plans and construction all coming together. And the suggested new names for Railroad Avenue and the controversy were really rather hilarious. Thank you for sharing.
Carol, thanks for the kind words. That was just the intended effect! –Clay