Alaskan Way

Alaskan Way was originally Railroad Avenue. Jennifer Ott writes for HistoryLink.org:

On the central waterfront a web of railroads grew out from the shore in the 1880s and 1890s as various railroads, including the Columbia & Puget Sound, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern, and the Northern Pacific jockeyed for space at the foot of the bluffs that ended at the beach, where Western Avenue is today. In January 1887 the City Council passed an ordinance establishing Railroad Avenue, a street created, according to historian Kurt Armbruster, to provide space for the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern franchise to the west of the Northern Pacific’s franchise along the shoreline.

Railroad Avenue looking south from between Madison and Marion Streets, circa 1898
Railroad Avenue looking south from between Madison and Marion Streets, circa 1898

When the tidelands were platted in 1895, Railroad Avenue extended to Harbor Island and West Seattle, but:

  • Sometime between 1912 and 1920 the Harbor Island portion was renamed W Florida Street (SW Florida Street today).
  • In 1907, the West Seattle portion was renamed Alki Avenue.
    • Sometime between 1912 and 1920 the West Seattle portion southeast of Duwamish Head was given its current name, Harbor Avenue.

In an article for Crosscut, Knute Berger explains why a new name was wanted for the remainder:

Seattle’s waterfront was unpaved — a beat-up plank road ran its length. There was no modern seawall — the street was built over the water. Train tracks were everywhere.… But the waterfront was undergoing a massive renovation. A seawall was being constructed, the shoreline filled in, the road made into a wide, paved boulevard.…

According to Berger and Ott’s articles, names that were proposed but were ultimately rejected included Anchors Way, Artery Way, Battery Way, Bois Boolong, Bread Street, Cargo Way, Chief Seattle Avenue, Cosmos Quay, Dock Street, Export Way, Fleet Way, Gateway Avenue, Golden West Way, Hiak Avenue, Klatawa Avenue, Maritime Avenue, Metropolis Avenue, Olympian Way, Pacific Way, Pier Avenue, Port Strand, Port Way, Port-Haven Drive, Potlatch Avenue, Puget Avenue, Puget Dyke, Puget Portal, Queen City Way, Roadstead Way, Salt Spray Way, Salt Water Avenue, Seawall Avenue, Seven Seas Road, Skookum Way, Steamship Way, Sunset Avenue, Terminal Avenue, Terrebampo Way, The Battery, The Esplanade, Transit Row, Voyage Way, Welcome Way, and Worldways Road. (Those in italics apparently came under serious consideration.)

So how did we end up with Alaskan Way? And why Alaskan instead of Alaska (the already existing S Alaska Street could have been renamed)?

Alaskan Way, July 1939
Alaskan Way between Marion and Madison Streets, Canadian National Dock at left, July 1939. Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Identifier 77093

The May 19, 1932, issue of The Seattle Times reports that the Seattle Maritime Association had run a renaming contest which received “more than one thousand letters… some of them contained scores of suggestions.” 4,868 names (including duplications) were received, and the judges selected four finalists, in order of preference: Puget Portal (one submission), Klatawa Avenue (one submission, from Chinook Jargon word meaning ‘to go, to travel’), Hiak Avenue (one submission, from Chinook Jargon word meaning ‘lively, quick and fast’), and Maritime Avenue (49 submissions [Maritime Way received 99 submissions but was not chosen]). The next day, the Times reported that the judges had chosen Maritime Avenue, and awarded the $20 prize to a Mr. B.I. Schwartz, the first to have suggested the name.

Alaskan Way Viaduct, July 1952
Alaskan Way Viaduct, July 1952, the year before it opened. The double-decker freeway paralleled Alaskan Way as far north as Union Street, where it diverged from the alignment on its approach to Elliott Avenue and the Battery Street Tunnel. Bell Street Pier, with the large Port of Seattle sign, is at left. The Bell Street Overpass can be seen behind the ‘P’ in ‘Port’. The bridge at the southern end of the pier is the Lenora Street Viaduct. Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Identifier 43586

However, that July, a George D. Root proposed the name Cosmos Quay. At first, it was met with indifference, and then it seems the entire renaming project was put on the back burner until construction progressed. Somehow, when he restarted his campaign in 1934, Cosmos Quay became a leading candidate, and it was approved unanimously by the city council on January 14, 1935. An ordinance began to be drafted. But, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted the next day, this was only because one councilmember, Frank J. Laube, had been absent… and he was adamantly opposed.

He wasn’t the only one. The Seattle Times published an editorial on January 20 headlined ‘City Locksmith Needed for Pronunciation Key’, which proclaimed that “to burden the waterfront stretch with a name that could be used and understood only through long courses in cosmogony, cosmology, etymology, and articulation would be a sad piece of nonsense for which there is no excuse.” The next day the Times reported that David Levine, city council president, said Cosmos Quay “no longer sounds so good to him. Many citizens have complained its meaning, as well as its pronunciation, mystifies them.” On February 4, according to the P-I, the council killed the ordinance and decided to leave Railroad Avenue as it was.

Alaskan Way Viaduct, February 2018
Alaskan Way Viaduct, February 2018. It closed permanently in January 2019; the replacement tunnel opened the next month. and demolition was complete by November of the same year. Photograph by Flickr user Washington State Department of Transportation, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

When the new street opened in 1936, the question of renaming came up again. Mayor John F. Dore appointed a committee that chose The Pierway, a suggestion that won a W.C. Denison, Jr., a prize of $50 from the mayor’s own pocket, but the final decision lay with the city council, which was not enthused. Pacific Way emerged as their favorite, according to a Seattle Times article on July 2, 1936, though a July 6 article in the same paper “the public apparently was not in accord with the idea.” On July 7, the Times reported that even though “at least seven votes [were] lined up in advance for the adoption of ‘Pacific Way’… with Council President Austin E. Griffiths contending for ‘Cosmos Quay’ or ‘Cosmos Way’,” an ordinance renaming Railroad Avenue “Alaskan Way” passed unanimously.

Alaska Way had been proposed in 1932 by the Puget Sound Travel Directors, according to an article in the April 13 issue of The Seattle Times. (As an aside, it was also proposed in 1931 by attorney John S. Robinson as an alternate name for Aurora Avenue N and the Aurora Bridge, according to a Times article on June 19.) It was also an entry in the Seattle Maritime Association’s aforementioned naming contest, submitted by Fred E. Pauli, manager of the Alaska Division of the Washington Creamery Company, according to a Times article on April 10, 1932. Then, in 1935, after Cosmos Quay had been rejected by the city council, the Alaska Yukon Pioneers endorsed Alaska Way (The Seattle Times, March 5), followed by the Whittier Heights Improvement Club (Times, March 7) and the Junior Alaska-Yukon Pioneers (Times, July 25). When renaming became a distinct possibility once again in 1936, as discussed above, the Alaska Yukon Pioneers passed a resolution in favor of Alaska Way (Times, July 4): “…It was here that the gold rush activity actually took place… put Seattle on the map and directly made possible the magnificent improvement now about completed.”

Alaskan Way south from Bell Street
Alaskan Way looking south from the Bell Street pedestrian bridge, August 2011. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is barely visible at center; the Seattle Aquarium is at center right. Photograph by Orange Suede Sofa, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

It came down to one councilmember, apparently. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on July 7 that, the previous day, Robert H. Harlin proposed that the already-prepared ordinance renaming Railroad Avenue “Pacific Way” be amended to read “Alaskan Way” instead:

Councilman Robert H. Harlin, who offered the motion for adoption of “Alaskan Way,” said he preferred it to “Alaska Way” because it “recognizes the human element, honoring the men and women who pioneered the territory.” Although a majority of the council had informally agreed to support the name “Pacific Way,” sentiment crystallized rapidly in favor of “Alaskan Way” after Harlin’s statement.

Alaskan Way, March 2021
Alaskan Way from the Pike Place Market’s MarketFront, March 2021. Construction of the street that supposedly will not be called Elliott Way is visible at center right. The Seattle Great Wheel can be seen above the Seattle Aquarium. Photograph by Flickr user Scott Smithson, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Today, Alaskan Way S begins at the north end of E Marginal Way S, at the entrance to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 30, and goes 2⅓ miles north, then northwest, to Broad Street, having become Alaskan Way on crossing Yesler Way. This is the Alaskan Way most people think of.

But, as they say, wait — there’s more! The right-of-way continues for another 1¾ miles, ending at W Garfield Street under the Magnolia Bridge, at the entrance to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 91. From the Olympic Sculpture Park, which begins at Broad Street, to Myrtle Edwards Park, the right-of-way is taken up by park land and the tracks of the BNSF Railway — successor to the Columbia & Puget Sound; the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern; and the Northern Pacific, the railroads for which Railroad Avenue was originally built. Northwest of Myrtle Edwards, it’s entirely taken up by the tracks that run alongside Centennial Park. It isn’t until W Galer Street that there’s a city street in the right-of-way again, and Alaskan Way W only goes about ⅙ of a mile northwest from there to W Garfield Street. Even less than that is signed Alaskan Way, as the city has put up a sign for Expedia Group Way W where the W Galer Street flyover “touches down.” However, even though southeast of Galer the roadway runs first on Expedia property, then Port of Seattle property, the city appears to still consider it Alaskan Way W between the Expedia campus entrance and the north end of Centennial Park — a distance of just over ⅓ of a mile.

Western Avenue

This street appears to originate in this 1871 plat made by Arthur A. Denny. Unlike with E North Street or Eastern Avenue N, no mystery here: originally named West Street, it was the first street west of Front Street (today’s 1st Avenue). Front Street ran along the waterfront, as its name implied, south of about Seneca Street, but north of there the Elliott Bay shoreline curved and the street grid didn’t curve with it (that would happen farther north, at Stewart Street). Hence West Street, which was changed to Western Avenue in 1895. (West Street would be extended farther south once they started filling in the tideflats; today, it begins at Yesler Way.)

Western Avenue in Pike Place Market, October 2008
Western Avenue in Pike Place Market, October 2008. Photograph by Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Today, Western Avenue begins at Yesler Way and goes 1¾ miles northwest to Elliott Avenue W at 3rd Avenue W and W Thomas Street, having become Western Avenue W on crossing W Denny Way.

Lenora Street

This street is named for Margaret Lenora Denny (1847–1915), daughter of Arthur Armstrong Denny and Mary Ann Boren Denny. She, like Virginia Bell (namesake of Virginia Street) was just four years old when her family, as part of the Denny Party, settled at Alki Point in 1851. She was killed in a car crash that also took the life of Thomas W. Prosch (Prosch Avenue W); his wife, Virginia; and artist Harriet Foster Beecher.

Margaret Lenora Denny, circa 1900
Margaret Lenora Denny, circa 1900

Established as part of A.A. Denny’s 6th Addition to the City of Seattle in 1873, it begins at Alaskan Way as an (temporarily closed as of this writing) elevator and pedestrian bridge over the BNSF Railway tracks. The street proper begins just west of where Elliott Avenue ends at Western Avenue. From there it is just shy of ¾ of a mile to its end at Denny Way and Boren Avenue.

Virginia Street

This street is named for Mary Virginia Bell Hall (1847–1931), daughter of William Nathaniel Bell and Sarah Ann Peter Bell. Belltown and Bell Street were named for her father, Olive Way for her sister, and Stewart Street for her brother-in-law. She was just four years old when her family, as part of the Denny Party, settled at Alki Point in 1851.

Virginia Bell Hall, circa 1875
Virginia Bell, circa 1875

Established as part of the Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle, Washington Territory, Laid Off by the Heirs of Sarah A. Bell, Deceased in 1872, it begins at Western Avenue by Steinbrueck Park, at the northwest end of Pike Place Market, and goes ¾ of a mile northeast to Minor Avenue and Denny Way.

 

Stewart Street

This street is named for Joseph Stewart (1830–1889), husband of Olive Julia Bell Stewart (Olive Way). It was established in 1872 as part of the Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle, Washington Territory, Laid Off by the Heirs of Sarah A. Bell, Deceased.

Stewart Street begins at Pike Place and ends ⁹⁄₁₀ of a mile to the northwest at Eastlake Avenue E and John Street.

Pike Street

Pike Street first appears in the Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle as Laid Out by Arthur A. Denny, filed on April 5, 1869. It was named by Denny for John Henry Pike (1814–1903), best known for being the architect and builder of the original Territorial University of Washington in 1861. This article by Rob Ketcherside is the most comprehensive information available online about Pike. “Early Pikes in Seattle,” by Stuart Pike, is also worth a read. (Also of note: Pike’s son, Harvey Lake Pike [1842–1897], was the first person to try to connect Lake Washington’s Union Bay to Lake Union’s Portage Bay by a canal. This was unsuccessful, but he did end up platting the land in 1870 as Union City. His E North Street [north of the proposed canal] survives to this day.)

John Pike, from his obituary in the November 22, 1903, issue of The Seattle Times
John Pike, from his obituary in the November 22, 1903, issue of The Seattle Times

In the original plat, Pike Street (as well as Union and Pine Streets) begins at Front Street — today’s 1st Avenue — but today it begins on the Elliott Bay waterfront at Alaskan Way as the Pike Street Hillclimb. Pike Street proper begins at Pike Place (home of the eponymous market) and Post Alley (underneath the Market Theater sign), both shown below, and makes it a full 1⅔ miles to just past 18th Avenue in the Central District before being interrupted. It then resurfaces at 23rd Avenue and goes another ⅘ of a mile to Grand Avenue in Madrona, a few blocks east of Lake Washington.

Pike Place Market entrance, corner of Pike Street and Pike Place, 2012
Pike Place Market entrance, corner of Pike Street and Pike Place, 2012. Photograph by kissmykumbaya, Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

“Elliott Way” just a placeholder name

A new street connecting Elliott Avenue to Alaskan Way as part of the viaduct replacement project is currently under construction. When I first heard in 2016 that they were planning to call it Elliott Way, I thought it was a wasted opportunity. I wrote on my personal Facebook page “This is an opportunity to commemorate someone, or something, new, rather than Jared, George, Samuel, or Jesse Elliott (apparently no one is sure just which Elliott the bay is named after)!”

However, as it turns out, “Elliott Way” is just a placeholder name, just as “E Frontage Road S” was for what is now Colorado Avenue S at the south end of the new 99 tunnel.

On Boxing Day 2020 I finally wrote to the Seattle City Council and the Waterfront Seattle Program letting them know how I felt:

“The bay, and its namesake (most likely midshipman Samuel Elliott of the Wilkes expedition that explored Puget Sound in 1841) already has Elliott Avenue named in its honor. Elliott was, of course, a white man. I don’t know what percentage of Seattle streets are named for white men (although I would be fascinated to find out, and may undertake that as a project for my blog on Seattle street names), but I’m sure it’s very high.

“I urge you instead to take this opportunity to name this street something else. The Duwamish people, for example, have Duwamish Avenue S named for them (actually more likely for the river, as Elliott Avenue was named for the bay, not directly for the sailor), but it is an insignificant street 2/10 of a mile long hidden under the Spokane Street Viaduct and the Alaskan Freeway. Perhaps Duwamish Avenue would be a better choice, if the tribe approved? Or perhaps the street could honor a non-white person associated with the history of Seattle’s waterfront? Frank Jenkins, perhaps?”

I honestly didn’t expect to hear back from anyone, but to my surprise Marshall Foster, director of the Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects, wrote me himself on January 5, saying:

We completely agree that the naming of this new street is an exciting opportunity. “Elliott Way” has simply been a placeholder until we are closer to its opening. The Coast Salish tribes are an incredibly important part of Seattle’s history and culture today. We have actually been thinking along similar lines about how this naming could help to elevate their presence here, and have been in discussions with our partners in the tribal community about ideas very similar to yours. We expect to have a proposal for public discussion later this year.

I have to say, I’m pretty happy about this.

Update as of January 11, 2022: I wrote Foster and his team over the weekend asking if there were any updates, and heard back today from Lauren Stensland:

We agree that this is a great opportunity and we continue to coordinate with the tribes and other partners on a proposed name. It is definitely high on our list for this year. We do not have any new updates at this time; we expect to have more to share in the next few months. Stay tuned and keep an eye on our website.