Viaduct demolition brings out stories, emotions about elevated highway’s rich history in Seattle

SEATTLE -- In less than two weeks, crews will begin demolishing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which wraps up a chapter in our region’s history.

For more than 65 years, the elevated highway offered drivers a way to skirt downtown, right along the waterfront. Its removal  has people feeling all sorts of emotions.

Some in Seattle  are ready to say good riddance.

“It’s kind of an eyesore to be honest with you," said longtime resident Paul Cocus.

Others, like Suzy Kuekelhan, are more nostalgic.

“When it was first put up, it was something wonderful,” said Kueckelhan.

She and her husband Lee have vivid childhood memories of riding on the viaduct right after it opened in 1952.

“I was a little kid," said Kuekelhan. "It’s kind of something special.”

For her, this elevated highway, this hunk of crumbling concrete, is as symbolic of Seattle as the Space Needle, Smith Tower, and Ivar's Seafood.

Someone else who gets that personal connection is local historian Feliks Banel. He talks about the viaduct, the first double-decker highway in the state, being transformational.

“So this was seen as the way of coming into the 21st century," said Banel. "The post-war economy is booming and the viaduct lets people move quickly through the city.”

It’s hard to believe, but even in the early 1900s Seattle drivers complained about traffic.

Crews started building the solution, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, in 1950 as a way to bypass the downtown gridlock. It opened April 4, 1953, to plenty of pageantry.

“Having a new highway, it was worth celebrating," said Banel.  "It was worth having a ribbon-cutting. It was worth having Seafair beauties out to show that this is a special day in Seattle’s history that would be remembered, what, 70 years later.”

Over the next several years, crews extended the viaduct through the industrial district, now known as Sodo.  The city was so proud of it, it showed off the viaduct a promotional video in 1961,  highlighting what made Seattle so modern.

A shining highway, that by the 1970s had lost its luster. Calls to tear it down would grow by seismic proportions in 2001, after the ground shook from an earthquake.

“The Nisqually Quake in February of 2001 damaged it so much, that a solution had to be found,” said Banel.

In 2006, the future of the Viaduct went to the voters, with people divided over its fate.

Banel recalls the debate. “I remember driving by somewhere and I saw a bumper sticker that said, 'I heart the viaduct,' and I thought it was a joke. In some ways, it was almost a battle between 'New Seattle' and 'Old Seattle.'"

At first, 'Old Seattle' won.

Voters said no to both replacement options: A new viaduct and a tunnel. But 5 years later, in 2011, they’d reconsider, approving a new tunnel.

In April 2017, the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine, nicknamed Bertha, overcame earlier breakdowns and unforeseen objects, completing is nearly two mile journey. By the end of 2018, the new State Route 99 tunnel was complete and ready for traffic.

Banel provided some context, saying, “Seattle’s always been about its future. You know the viaduct is coming down. I’m not sad about it. I mean, I’ll miss it. I’ll miss that drive. “

A drive unlike any other in the world, that gave us stunning views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. That so many, like Suzy Kuekelhan, will dearly miss.

Making her husband a bit envious.

"You’re never emotional about me," said husband lee Keukelhan.

"Yeah, but you’re not the viaduct,” his wife responded.

Proving for this city, the viaduct has been so much more than just a way to get through town.

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