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Historic photos show Seattle’s waterfront before the Alaskan Way Viaduct

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A peek at a highway-free neighborhood

Seattle’s central waterfront, viewed from University Street in 1935.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 9532

The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be decommissioned on January 11, making way for a brand-new tunnel—and once its replacement is all set up, the old, elevated highway will be demolished.

Not having a hulking, concrete piece of infrastructure will fundamentally transform Seattle’s waterfront, and both the city and property owners along the piers are certainly taking advantage. A $668 million waterfront revitalization project is underway to spruce up the area as it opens up, including a remodeled aquarium, new pedestrian connections to a newly expanded Pike Place Market, a remodel of the Washington State Ferries facility at Colman Dock, and a new waterfront promenade.

But it’s not a return to what the waterfront was before the viaduct came in. While the absence of a double-decker freeway will be the same, the waterfront before 1950 was largely an industrial area, without the boat tours, tourist traps, and aquarium we know today. The piers were mostly factories and warehouses, and the restaurants were lunch counters to serve longshoremen, factory workers, fishermen, and others in maritime or shipping trades. Alaskan Way was called Railroad Avenue, appropriate to the tracks that still run along the waterfront.

The Seattle Municipal Archives give us a peek at this time period, from early construction in the late 1800s up until nearly the midcentury. Yesterday, we looked at the viaduct during its construction and early years, so let’s go back even further with photos of the waterfront before the viaduct even existed.

Oxen haul logs to the waterfront in 1880.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 180711
An 1887 photo shows Pioneer Square as seen from Alaskan Way—then Railroad Avenue—and Yesler.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 105459
A view up Jackson Street from the waterfront in 1896.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 29984
A crowd surrounds an Alaska-bound ship at the height of the Gold Rush in 1898.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 63800
The old Fire Station No. 5 is pictured flanked by fireboats in 1910.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 11950
The old Fire Station No. 5, viewed from land. Deteriorating timbers would prompt the city to rebuild the facility in 1963—a structure that’s still operational today.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 11950
The original Bell Street Wharf—now Pier 66—pictured in 1915, shortly after its construction. Piers 64, 65, and 66 were rebuilt as one big Pier 66 in the 1990s.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 735
The roof of the original Bell Street Wharf spent a brief period of time as a public garden.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 721
King Street Pier near Pioneer Square, owned by millionaire William Pitt Trimble, in 1917. (It would later be the site of a tragic tale for the Trimble family.)
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 52012
A blurry photo captures a pedestrian bridge connecting the waterfront and Pike Place Market in 1922. It was built in 1912 and demolished to make way for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 33409
Seattle’s waterfront, viewed from Bell Street in 1930.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 4101
Seattle’s waterfront, viewed from Marion Street in 1930.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 4098
Railroad Avenue stretching north from Pike Street in 1934.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 8552
Railroad Avenue near Broad Street in 1934.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 8739
A slab of seawall being replaced in 1934.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 8846
Pier 8 1/2—which would later become Pier 61—in 1935. (The pier would eventually become parts of the Aquarium and Waterfront Park.)
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 9395
Pier 9, later Pier 62, pictured in 1935. In the 1990s, by then an expanse of wood planks, it was a popular site for concerts, but it was shut down for safety reasons. It’s currently undergoing a renovation so it can open to the public again.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 9514
The central waterfront viewed facing north from Alaskan Way and Marion Street in 1941—just under a decade before construction began on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 39692

Washington State Ferries

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Colman Dock

801 Alaskan Way, , WA 98104 Visit Website

Alaskan Way Viaduct

Alaskan Way Viaduct, , WA