Putting Bertha in Perspective

So she’s not moving again. A few days ago Bertha’s barge got tippy, then on Tuesday, the ground near her started to give way and a massive sink hole appeared. Today, we have Governor Inslee putting out a cease and desist order, immediately stopping any further work by Bertha. The old gal cannot get a break.

I’d like to put this project in a bit of historical perspective. I am not apologizing for the slowdown but would like to point out that we have had a few projects that took more time.

Lake Washington Ship Canal and Locks – 63 years from conception to completion. Thomas Mercer was the first to propose a linkage between Lake Washington and Puget Sound via Lake Union, way back on July 4, 1854. The canal and locks officially opened on July 4, 1917. During the six decades it took to complete the project, there were federal reports, engineering reports, and naval reports. Attempts to dig the canal were made by lone individuals, speculators, Chinese work crews, and private corporations. And finally six different routes, including one through Beacon Hill, were proposed. Not until federal funding came through was the canal completed and it still took five years to complete the work.

Filling in the Duwamish River tideflats – At least 23 years. Seattle’s citizens had been dumping material in Elliott Bay since the upstart town’s earliest days but formal filling in of the tideflats didn’t start until July 29, 1895. In what was called the “greatest enterprise yet inaugurated in this city,” a dredge began to suck sediment out of one side of the tideflats and deposit it behind a barrier 2,000 feet away. By 1917, more than 90 percent of the tideflats had been filled, creating the monumentally unstable land of SODO and Harbor Island. Work had been stopped by lawsuits, the principal dredge company running out of money, and the occasional mechanical breakdown.

Denny Regrade – 33 years from first to last removal of sediment. It took five regrades to get rid of the great mound of Denny at the north end of downtown. The first was in 1897, followed by work in 1903, 1906, 1908-1911, and 1928-1930. There were workers who were electrocuted, who were attacked by children, who lost their arms, and who were crushed by landslides. A child taking a shortcut through the project died when dynamite being heated over an open flame exploded. Citizens sued the city and corporations. Corporations sued back. And, they even had problem with barges, which sank and ran into docks, shutting down the regrade. But on the plus side, they did find fossils from a mammoth, and they did complete the project.

So next time Bertha experiences a few delays, remember, she has a long way to go to break any record for most enduring Seattle project.

Material for for this story comes out of research I have done for my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

Bertha Hysteria

Another day, another problem with Bertha. This time it has to do with cracks and settling and groundwater and planning and fixing and … It’s amazing how many problems that Bertha has had. I want to focus in on the newest map released by WSDOT. Shaped perhaps ironically like another embattled landscape—Israel—the WSDOT shows the ground surface settling around the Bertha access pit.

Below is a zoom in on the map, where I have added an outline of Seattle’s historic shoreline in red. You can clearly see that the areas of greatest settlement correspond to where the city was filled in around what is known as Maynard Point. (Also known as Denny’s Island, but this is a made up name that probably didn’t come into existence till the 1960s.) Maynard Point was a mound that rose perhaps 20 feet or so above sea level. It connected to the main part of Seattle by The Neck, a low spot that would periodically be covered by tides, converting the mound into an island. The Point has also been buried by fill.

Our sinking city
Our sinking city

Ever since WSDOT released information last week about their groundwater problems, people have been in a tizzy about the ground settling.  Pioneer Square has had groundwater and settling problems for decades. Why do you think the sidewalks tilt? They weren’t built that way. Why do think so many buildings have steel retaining rods sticking out of them? They do because the ground is settling. Why do buildings have sump pumps, which are needed more often in the winter during high tides? The Seawall doesn’t stop the tide; it’s not supposed to either. Why do parking lots undulate? Cores show that under the surface is a stew of crap, including coal, lumber, pilings, wood debris, sawdust, ceramics, sand, boulders, charcoal, ash, bricks, metal, glass, that continues to decay, compress, and settle.

Or walk along Western Avenue between Yesler and Columbia. It looks to be an engineer’s nightmare. The middle of the street is higher than the sides and the entire road surface undulates. The concrete curbs also look as if they had been poured by a drunkard, sometimes disappearing under the street and sometimes rising eight to ten inches above it. Near the southern end of the street is a low point that every time I have walked by is a pool of water.

In 1996, the Washington state Department of Transportation (WDSOT) drilled a core nearby as part of a seismic vulnerability study of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In the first four feet of the core, the drillers found three inches of asphalt, three inches of railroad ballast, or gravel, 12 inches of concrete, and 18 inches of broken concrete, pieces of creosote timber debris and rounded gravel. The technical report then lists organic soil and “a void from 4.0 ft. to 8.0 ft” before hitting moist, loose soil again. Fourteen and a half feet down the core changes to pieces of creosote timber and a new feature, an aroma of rotten egg and sulphur. The remaining 8 ½ feet of core is described as contaminated organic soil. A final note adds “See samples at own risk.”

Ask any building owner or tenant in the area and I suspect they will be able to tell you additional stories of how their building is anything but immobile.

I am not writing this to defend WSDOT, (I am not a Bertha booster), but no one should be surprised by ground surface and subsurface issues in this area. It certainly looks like Bertha has contributed to the problem but it does not bear sole responsibility. These problems are the legacy of the landscape where we live and that we have altered continuously since first settlement. And there is no end in sight…to the alteration and to the settling.