Last Days of the Alaskan Way Viaduct

  • By Marie McCaffrey
  • Posted 1/30/2022
  • Essay 21394

Beloved for its convenience and breathtaking views but derided as an architectual eyesore, the Alaskan Way Viaduct ferried motorists through downtown Seattle for more than six decades before it was torn down in the 2010s. In this personal reminiscence, HistoryLink co-founder Marie McCaffrey writes about her final tour of the viaduct, accompanied by Jack Arnberg and Dan Evans, two of the people who helped design it. 

A Viaduct Runs Through It

On April 4, 1953, the Alaskan Way Viaduct opened to traffic. In the beginning, it was loved, then loved and hated in equal parts.

There were already ongoing discussions about whether to take it down when, in 2001, the severe damage caused by the Nisqually earthquake forced the question. A lot happened between 2001 (covered in detail on HistoryLink) and 2011. After a prolonged, 10-year argument between different factions of the voting public in Seattle, it was resolved that we would tear down the viaduct. On October 21, 2011, construction crews began demolition of the southern mile of the structure.

The rest of the viaduct remained up as Seattle built a tunnel underground. Then, toward end of January 2019, the tunnel was completed, and the last days of the Alaskan Way Viaduct had arrived. On January 3, 2019, I received this email:

My name is Henry Yates and I am a Consultant for the State Department of Transportation. I was asked by the Department to find out whether it might be possible to have Governor Evans involved in granting "The Wish of a Lifetime" for Mr. Jack E. Arnberg. Mr. Arnberg is now 95 years old. He spent his career as a Civil Engineer at the city of Seattle. He helped design the Alaskan Way Viaduct and is asking to be present at the ceremony, which will mark the demolition of the Viaduct leading to the opening of a tunnel in downtown Seattle.

Mr. Arnberg would like former Washington State Governor Dan Evans to join him at the ceremony as his "Wish of a Lifetime." He says that daily the two of them, both engineers, carpooled together and, working side by side, created the viaduct. He remembers those days vividly, even though he is suffering some memory loss. He is at a nursing home on Whidbey Island and since the design and construction of the tunnel began, has followed it very closely. Any help your office can provide to get Governor Evans in touch with WSDOT and in turn, the "Wish of a Lifetime" organization, would be most helpful.

Thank you, Henry Yates.

Could I? But of course. I am sure there were easier ways to get ahold of Governor Evans than through me, but hey, I just might get to tag along.

Dan said yes, and so on January 31, 2019, I joined Jack Arnberg, and Dan and Nancy Evans on a journey through the new tunnel (the wrong way) as we were transported by Washington State Department of Transportation workers to the empty viaduct.

It was surreal to stand on the viaduct and take in that view with our former Governor, who, as a young engineer, had helped build it along with his colleague Jack Arnberg.

Two days later, on Febuary 2, the Viaduct was open to the public to walk on for the first -- and last -- time. The crew of HistoryLink had to be there. We entered the tunnel near the Seattle Center and walked through it to emerge on the viaduct where a giant party was raging. It was one of those days that sometimes happen in February in Seattle. Warm and clear. There was music everywhere, and dancing. Faces were painted. Art projects popped up along the way. It was like Seattle took a happy pill.

We walked down to the south end of what was left of the viaduct, and then exited. It was one of the best going-away parties I have ever been to.

And then, it was gone.

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