Seattle’s subterranean history has become all the rage of late. From mammoths to Bertha, the stories keep cropping up. Since events seem to happen in threes, it makes me wonder what else is lurking just beneath the surface: an earthquake, a sinkhole (like the one that swallowed Corvettes in Kentucky), or more shoes wrapped in Yiddish newspapers? This is the issue raised by the always astute Knute Berger, in a story in Crosscut titled “Could the Bertha boondoggle be a local history boon?”
Berger wonders whether Bertha’s stoppage will lead to new revelations about the city’s history. The machine stopped at an ideal spot, just west of where the city started, and where much debris (or what others call archaeology) awaits discovery. No one expects any Pompeii-like discoveries but by unearthing artifacts such as bottles, shoes, combs, or glasses we start to “paint a more human, intimate picture of the lives people led,” writes Berger.
As someone who is interested in history, I have been asked many times why we should care about the past? For me, it boils down to two reasons. The first is that it provides me a deeper connection to my home and to the people who lived here. As we dig up these artifacts and find items such as a Rainier beer bottle, baby formula, or bottled water imported into Seattle in the late 1800s from Alaska, it’s hard to think that I am so different from those who lived here before. We came here for many reasons and we do many different things but in the end we are really not that different, in wanting a place to live, food to eat, water (or beer) to drink, friends to share our lives with.
The second is that knowing the past of the place I live, makes it more interesting to live here. It gives me a fuller and happier life. This may sound like a particularly nerdy platitude but I know I am not alone in holding this view. Consider how often the subject of Seattle’s past has come up in recent weeks and how often you and your friends have discussed what lies beneath. I really do think that there is a hunger for these stories.
I agree with Berger and hope that those who are trying to fix Bertha, take the opportunity to do some good archaeology on the way down to fixing her. It’s the least they can do and could provide a silver lining for what many consider to be a pretty ugly mess.