Georgetown Steam Plant, part II of II

No, there’s really no need to attach those electrodes to my skull.

I’ll tell you everything that happened.  I wouldn’t lie to you.  Not to you.

Wait, this is a treason panel, isn’t it? But why…?

Gentlemen, nobody loves our city state more than I do.  I was born in Seattle.  I remember what this place was like.  Before the Martian war, the Scorching, the Emancipation…  Before the goddamn zeppelin pirates.  Before every other fishing boat had to become an ironclad.  Before the robots starting taking our…

Yes, sir.  Fine.  I’ll get to the point.

Interstellar radio

It all began with a wireless call.

5:00am is a bad time to call me.  Nobody does it unless it’s important.  So I pick up and it’s John.  My friend John, the night technician at the Plant.  You should talk to him too.  He’ll confirm my story, just…

Oh.  No, I didn’t know anything about that.  I was afraid that…  God, I wish I had…

Yes, I can continue.

So John wants me to come down to the plant.  He’s seeing things, he says.  He doesn’t want someone to think he’s crazy.  You and me go way back, he says.  And you’re good at these things.

What things?  But I can’t get a straight answer.

Not like John at all.  So I get my gun.  No sir, standard KP-12, got it at Wade’s.  Not jailbroken.  Legal.  I have the papers at my place.  Oh, you got them there?  Why’d you ask, then?

Steampunk weaponry

You know everything, huh?  Well, I owe John a favor from the war.  Back when we’re first starting to use those giant nitroglycerin bombs against the Martians, I get hit with some shrapnel from one of our zeppelin bombing runs.  Some bloody cowboy clown from Renton, trying to be a avenge his family, be a hero.  Just throwing ’em everywhere.

So I’m wounded, and everything is going a bit dark, but I’m this close to a Martian walker, and even though I’m losing blood like crazy, I really want to see what’s inside the damn things.  Always empty metal shells when we got ’em.  Nobody ever saw one-

Yessir, that was twenty five years ago.  No, it’s not relevant.

He saved my life then, see, and we’re still friends.  So when John asks for a favor, I drag myself out of bed, turn on the pipes, drink some coffee and gear up for war.  For free.

Steampunk seating

So I take a quick balloon to the plant.  Land over where that Boeing kid started making those new airship models last new.  I don’t know what he’s doing there, but the place smells bad.  Like something poisoned it.  We only have so much land left unscorched, and the last thing we need is shit in the Duwamish.  You people really should look into…

Yes sir, sorry.

So I walk towards the plant from the airstrip and there’s John.  Babbling about stars and lights or something like that. You have to see it, he says.  It wants the difference engine to help, and I don’t know what to do.

Yes, that’s what he said.

I realize that it doesn’t make any sense.  But John has tears in his eyes, and I’ve never seen that.

I’ve been under fire with this guy, see.  But I know what he looks like when we’re in an East Side foxhole and the Martians are firing those crazy sonics at us.  So I figure whatever it is, we don’t got ourselves an immediately hostile situation.  Know what I mean?  So I just walk past John, and go through the door into the plant.

Museum interiorWheel

No, except for John the plant was empty.  No guards.

I don’t know.  The other technicians sleep at night, I suppose.  You call ’em if you need ’em. And John’s there to keep the place running, he knows what to do.  But there were no guards.  Are there usually…?

Yeah, need to know, of course.

So I start walking around the plant.  I love seeing this place, it’s like every kid’s little dream of fire trucks and trains and steam engines and gaslights…

No sir, I’ll get to that in a minute.

John is walking with me, telling me he doesn’t know what to do, it’s just too far.  After a minute, I give up asking him questions, and eventually pull rank.  Sergeant, shut up!  And he shuts up.

You never really get the war out of your system.

DoorwaysSteam engine and bridge

So we walk around the ground floor.  Everything seems fine, the whole place humming along just like you’d expect.  I start poking at the gauges, even turning a faucet or two, and John just looks at me wordlessly – like there’s a bear in your tent, but it’s asleep so that’s okay because you know what to do.

And then I hear it.

I don’t know, sir.  I still don’t know.

It’s a vibration so deep, it’s like the air is going to shake us until we burst.  I can’t even stand, it’s like the ’33 earthquake in slow motion.  The plant is spinning around me, and I can just see the hot water bursting out of the turbines and drowning us all.  And I tell myself I should be afraid, but everything is moving really, really slowly and I’m just a little surprised is all.  I’m stretching my limbs out in every direction, looking for something, something very important.  But I can’t remember what it is, and all I can think about is how bad the fucking coffee tasted this morning.  And then, I’m looking at myself from the outside, and I feel so lost and separated from myself so deep that I want to cry.  There’s this vast void I want to leap across.  And then I think that maybe this is what John is feeling, and why he won’t talk to me.

No sir, I understand this is bullshit.

Then it just moves away from us.  I don’t know how to describe it, other than I feel it sliding away, droning its way across the plant and then it’s gone.

And John is just standing there, still staring at me, and the plant isn’t falling down on us after all.  There’s a rack full of old tools right next to me, and none of them are even shaking.

Clerical weaponry

No, sir, cocaine doesn’t agree with me at all.  Maybe it doesn’t give you a headache.

Yes, maybe I was hallucinating.  It was pretty early in the morning

No, sir, there was nothing special in the coffee.  You know how expensive sugar is these days.

Yes sir, you’d think that I’d do that.  But all that’s in my head right now is to follow that vibration.  I know how crazy that sounds.  It sounds that way to me too.  I haven’t done my job all these years without a sense of self-preservation.

But that’s the thing, see.  I don’t feel like I’m in danger.  I just know.  So I follow it around the plant.

Silver machineCiaroscuro

John’s still behind me, still walking like he’s in a trance.  I’m feeling weird, like I’m following someone who’s lost.  We stumble into the machine room on the second floor, and then suddenly John shouts something and starts running towards a control panel.  And I think I know what’s happening for a minute, wrong string to pull, and then I have no idea what that means.

But the room tries to tell us.  It lights up in red, like the reddest red alert you ever saw, and there’s this panicked, lurching drone of a bass scream from deep from within the turbines.

Red alert

Yes, sir, that might have been when Seattle blacked out.

No, I have no idea what did it.  It just happened.

But I hear John screaming something about cavorite overheating. I don’t know what that means;  I thought cavorite really didn’t heat up at all.  But it doesn’t sound like something good.  And there’s this moment when I look up and all I see is the quicksilver line creeping up in this thermometer on the wall, like it’s going to burst out the top and just keep going towards the ceiling.

Then John hits the button.

Mercury risingToo many choices

Yes sir, I know that when the plant goes down, it means our air defenses are down.  No cannons.  At the time, and please don’t take this the wrong way, that didn’t seem so important.

John was running around the room, opening emergency supply pipes to get some extra cooling.  Yes, he did seem to know what he was doing.

Pipes, chains and ladders

No, John was worried about the plant melting down.  The plant’s his life.  Yes, I know it’s everyone else’s lives, too.  But John always loved his machines, and this is the best machine he’s ever had.

And what he did makes sense, doesn’t it?  Take the plant down.  Restart it carefully.  Then figure out what happened.

No, I don’t know if there was anything else going on.  What do I know?

I don’t know that he was in a right state of mind.  Neither was I.

Gauge art

So the red light goes off and the plant just stops.  All the pressure gauges are at zero.  There’s this eerie silence, and I don’t know if we’re heroes or something else entirely.

John just keeps going.  He fiddles with some more controls and I can feel the the plant turning back on again.  Then he tells me to go talk to the difference engine.

Yes, talk.

Sir, I’m aware that a difference engine can’t talk.  I don’t know what to tell you now, but it made some kind of crazy sense at the time.

Heat pipesKeeping the balance

The plant is beginning to train up again, and it’s humming like crazy.  The heat-pipes that cool the difference engine are beginning to glow. The analog heart is ticking again. And I don’t really know what I’m doing here, except it’s important.

Then I look into the engine’s core and I see it.

Gazing into the abyss

Yes sir, I’ll get to that.  That was a few minutes later.

I see a vast darkness between lights.  I feel hopelessly lost, just like I did before.  I see streaks of light reaching out across the darkness, and being extinguished.  I feel like death.  But I have to keep going.

Then something is telling me something that really matters, and I have to repeat it before I forget.  And I’m pushing buttons and turning knobs and spelling out words in some weird alphabet, like it’s Japanese or something.

Yeah, an island out west.  You’re probably too young.

No sir, I know a difference engine isn’t a typewriter.  But this was as real to me as you are now, sir.

The last thing I see is this hangar.  It’s just like the steam plant boiler room, but it’s also where the airships were launched from.

I don’t know which airships, sir.  I’m trying to tell you what I saw.  What I knew at the time.

I’m rushing towards this bright light, and the walls are vibrating yellow and green, and then a color I don’t even have a name for.  Then I’m hurtling out into the darkness, crushed by acceleration, but I’m not afraid because my sisters are with me.

Did I say sisters?  I don’t know…  Only child, sir.

And then I’m just staring into a corrugated iron sheet.  Made in Georgetown, just like everything else.  But I know the difference engine is happy, and the vibration around us like a purr.

Furnace roomFurnace room

The purr tells me to run.

Furnace room

So I run into the boiler room.  That’s where I need to hide, I just know.

From what?  I don’t know.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

All I can think about is the coal stains on the walls, and that I don’t want to end up another one. I run down a side aisle, where it’s going to be safe, and I’m grabbing at the chains hanging from the ceiling and pushing them aside.

Sir, I don’t know what I did to the difference engine. I don’t think I did anything, really.  What could I do?  I don’t know any of the codes.

No, I don’t know how I knew I would be safe.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

So I sit down in a nice isolated spot and wait.  I can feel the plant heating up again, and this time for some reason it feels right, like everything is going to be fine.  There’s a rhythm to it, like a mother giving birth.  The boiler room is ablaze with light, pulsating from yellow to white.

Every time it climaxes I have to close my eyes.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

Yes, sir, this was probably about the time when Seattle went down again.  And no, I don’t know what the plant was doing.  I’m not an engineer.

I don’t know where John was during all this.  He wasn’t with me.

No, sir, that’s right, you don’t leave a man behind.  But it’s like he was on his own mission, see.  I guess if I could say what was going through my head, it’s that I knew he was doing something important and I didn’t want to stop him.

I don’t know what that means.  It’s hard for me to understand too.

Furnace room corridor

Was there anyone else there?

No, sir, there was not.

Phantom of the furnace roomTrapped in a Faraday cage

I guess eventually I blacked out.  The light just kept getting brighter, that’s all I remember.

When I woke up, the stormtroopers were-

I am the fire

Sorry, the firemen were pointing their guns at me.  No, I don’t know how I got outside the plant.

Or what happened to all the cavorite that was powering the plant.  I know it’s irreplaceable.  I guess we get to reopen Newcastle now.

Or why the boiler room suddenly grew a giant hole on the south side.

Or what really happened to John.

How did I feel when I woke up?  To be honest, sir I felt really happy, and I don’t know why.  Joyful, almost.  Like when I was a kid, and it was Friday and school was finally out and I was free again.  Or like when I once helped a little kid find his mother, and she just looked at me and said thanks, without words.  That’s what was going through my mind.

Oh, that’s a leading question…  Was John a traitor…   You said you never found a body, right?  Well, I could say yes, and then we’d all have a good story to tell.

No, I’m not going to say that.  I think John made a decision, and that’s why you didn’t find him.  John is…  was…  a gentleman.  The kind of guy who always tried to help people when they were in trouble.  I told you he saved my life, that one time.  Maybe this time there was something more important than sticking around here.  Like he found a better machine or something…

May I go now, sir?  I’ve told you everything I know.

Everything.

The wall that ate people

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Georgetown Steam Plant, part I of II

Behind a pair of unremarkable doors, a remarkable bit of history is preserved.

Georgetown Steam Plant back doorDecrepit door

The Georgetown Steam Plant was built in 1906, with the initial goal of powering a train line between Seattle and Tacoma.

Stream engineA very large conduit

The steam plant was built almost twenty-five years after Thomas Edison introduced electricity as a consumer product.  Electricity was rapidly going from modern marvel to commodity on the East coast, and demand for a steady supply had reached the Pacific Northwest.

Incandescent

In addition to the Interurban Railway, the plant also powered Seattle streetcars and provided residential and industrial AC power to Georgetown, at the time an independent city.

Steering wheelMuseum interior

The steam plant was built for the Seattle Electric Company by the engineering firm Stone & Webster, who were later key participants in the Manhattan Project.

Pipe mazeSmall engine

The plant used a pair of first-generation Curtis Vertical Steam Turbo-generator turbines, manufactured by General Electric.  The iPhone of its day, the Curtis was the first large-scale steam turbine developed by GE.

Looking up from below

In 1917, a third turbine generator was installed.  The steam needed to operate the plant was supplied by 16 boilers, fired using fuel oil or coal.

Steampunk pipesSteampunk pipes

The plant remained in operation until 1964.  It was kept on standby from 1971 through 1977, as part of a emergency power reserve plan for the region.  In 1977 the plant was officially decommissioned.  Three years later it became a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.  In 1984, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Steam engineForbidden ladder

The Georgetown Steam Plant now operates as the Georgetown PowerPlant Museum, open to the public on the second Saturday of each month.  The plant’s turbines remain operational, thanks to the tireless work of Lilly Tellefson and the late Paul Carosino.  According to the museum’s literature, these are the world’s last operable examples of early vertical steam generating turbines.

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Newcastle Historic Coal Miner’s Cemetery

The poet tells us that death is the great leveler.  Nowhere does that ring more true than a cemetery.

And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.

So it was for the miners and their kindred, brought to live, work and die in Newcastle after coal was discovered in 1863.  The Newcastle Historic Coal Miner’s Cemetery is where many of them were buried.

Ghosts

The cemetery is ghostly before dawn. The tombstones are irregularly placed, evidence of organic expansion overcoming any attempt at planning.  It is a world of shadows and dull colors.

Cemetery sunrise

Towards the north corner and up the hill are the graves of two black men, placed at the edge of the plot in an unsuccessful attempt at segregation.  For the time, it was remarkable even that the races even shared a graveyard.  Death levels all.

Long graveWife of...

Some plots are large and expansive, the legacy of multiple burials inside broad family plots.

Swordfern graves

Other graves are solitary, almost forlorn.

Cross

Swordfern grave

Here the book of life fades and nature reclaims its very words.

Nature reclaims the book

Some gravestones are rich and ornate, almost exuberant.  Most of these are from a more modern time, with names etched in granite or marble.  Which would have been an extreme luxury a hundred years earlier.

Norse or Jewish?Giacomo's marble headstone

Other gravestones have failed to withstand the elements, leaving only trace hints at the identities of the fallen.

Lie in our graves

Gravestone technology has come a long way in the last century.

CrossCross

Cross

In 1921, a fire ravaged the graveyard and destroyed all the wooden grave markers.  Any remaining wooden crosses are of recent construction.

Tilted gravestoneTilted gravestone

Many of the gravestones are showing their age.  Some lean at lopsided positions.  Some are being buried in turn by years of rain and slope erosion.  Some are chipped, cracked, even broken in two.

Dueling headstonesDueling headstones

And in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t push up the daisies.  You feed the moss.

Moss never sleepsCasket stone

Of particular interest are the gravestones whose three-link chain symbols signify membership of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.  This Christian altruistic service organization was the original founder and organizer of the Newcastle cemetery.

William J Lewis, remembered... for I was quickly called away

Odd Fellows are asked to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.  The three links in their chain represent Friendship, Love and Truth.

Chain links

This stone lies at the foot of one of the Odd Fellow gravestones.  Once there may have been two other stones accompanying it.

Love rock

The Newcastle cemetery combines peaceful anonymity with stunning intimacy.  Baby Fee Swanson’s brother was interviewed by the Seattle Times in 1997.  Nobody remembers the cause of her death.

Baby, 1909

In many cases, nobody remembers the names at all.  They are lost forever.

Good vibrations

When sunrise comes, the gravestones cast a long shadow and any lingering ghosts slowly dissipate into the ground.  The air is alive with contrast.  For a crisp, fleeting moment, it feels unusually good to be alive.

Sunrise shadowsSunrise shadows

As the light floods in, the cemetery is exposed as a lawn with chipped stones.  It struggles mightily to hold together the ancestral memory of a hundred and sixty lives, lived in a harsher world than ours with great dignity, joy and sorrow.

The mines that summoned them here are long-abandoned, their legacy felt only in place names and in the abandoned train line that once fed the hungry city to the west.  As generations pass, the descendants of the pioneers grow fewer.  Before long, all living memory of that time will fade.

Sunrise shadowsSunrise shadows

A reflection.  We build cemeteries to remember:  to keep alive and bring meaning to that burning, wordless pain.  We build them to forget:  to capture errant spirits and enclose them safely.  Under lock and key, hardwood coffin and heavy stone.

To the cemeteries we bring offerings, as our ancestors did before us, without knowing why.  We are children burying our parents, gods whose vital energy we receive and pass on in turn.  We visit the cemetery without a reason, only knowing that it is to be done.  We leave parts of ourselves as nourishment, and bring back with us something from outside the world.

Here, underneath it all, lies coal;  dark energy from a buried netherworld.  Here, miners live fleeting lives, dig up ancient graves to give civilization its lifeblood, then return to rest in shallow seams of their own making.

Maybe we really build cemeteries to lie to ourselves.  To ward off our own inevitable transience, to deny this cycle for the briefest of moments.  And for a moment it works, so long as the stones endure and the names are remembered.

In honor of...

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BNSF Train Bridge over I-90

Drive from Seattle past the suburban blight of Mercer Island into the savage wastelands of the Eastside.  Drive from Issaquah or farther east towards the urban hell-hole across the big water.

Either way, you’ll find yourself approaching the place where I-90 and I-405 meet, right next to Bellevue’s Mercer Slough.  You’ll enter a landscape of parking lots and shopping malls known as Eastgate.  You might even see Enatai Beach Park beneath you, as you speed through the wilderness at 70mph.

What you won’t see is an unassuming train bridge, one of many overpasses and underpasses crisscrossing the mighty I-90 in this area.  It’s just an ordinary piece of rusted BNSF metal, a thing hidden in plain sight among similar things.  You won’t see it.

Rust never sleepsHold the line

The only aspect of the bridge slightly out of place?  A touch of graffiti on the western side.  This is unusual in Bellevue, a city that makes of whitebread not just sandwiches but an entire lifestyle.  So if you’re unusually perceptive, you might see the word seared in white paint:  Emre.

Perhaps you’ll wonder what the nameless speaker of an ancient Turkic dialect found poetic about the setting, hanging off a train bridge at 3AM, spray paint can in hand.  Most likely you won’t care.

Night trainInto the distance

When the world began, to each trade and profession a special charge was given.  For photographers, it was a simple thing:  to notice the ordinary

To do this well, an alert gaze is required.  Often this will lead to nothing:  the veil of the world may remain securely in place, or further matryoshka shells of mediocrity may be found underneath.  But every now and then, a doppelgänger is unearthed.  Maya is Devi, but alas also Kali.

Then the alarm may be raised, the hatches battened down, the torches lit to ward away the dark.  And in this way, the photographer defends civilization from the other.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

For this reason, we decided to examine the abandoned BNSF train bridge and, if possible, cross it on foot.  We climbed the embankment at SE 32nd St and walked along the tracks.  What we found was not quite ordinary.Abandoned train bridge over I-90

The train bridge is literally covered in graffiti.  Nothing so organized as a mural or structured composition, but many isolated instances of graffito, some overwriting others, covering walls that would otherwise have been a uniform rust red.

Abandoned paletteTetris

Spent spray cans litter the ground, rivaling broken beer bottles as the most common accent to the BNSF-laid gravel.

Canned art

No particular theme presents itself to the observer.  Instead, the painted walls exhibit many different messages, mixed by happenstance and accretion as one contributor built on the work of his predecessor.

It's the thought that counts

Another kind of fish

One can imagine the first graffiti artist venturing onto the bridge, perhaps decades ago.  He keeps a a wary eye out for passing trains, as he chooses a likely swathe of rusted sheet metal to begin his composition.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

After that, the broken windows theory comes into full effect, or so the modern criminologist might observe.  Word of mouth travels quickly in the underground.  A legend is created, a place where paint can be sprayed without fear, condemnation or notice.  Spray cans are purchased, using false papers, pseudonyms and unmarked bills.  The vandals sally forth to sack Rome, or to leave a mark on the world – any mark.

Simultaneous concepts

And so the bridge undergoes a metamorphosis.  From pristine object of industrial function, slightly decrepit, to a site where the imagination literally runs wild.

Layers

One can envision frantic attempts to complete a night’s work, as the torchlight threat of rolling liquid metal death rolls towards the young artist at ever-increasing speeds.  And as the roar in their right brains matches the din in their ears, both streams finally climax into the only raison d’être anyone can possibly imagine:  to create, or die trying.

Eris and eros

Why this place, one might ask?  In all the Eastside, why did this insignificant train bridge become such a popular counter-cultural destination?

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

One reason is abandonment.  Despite the tracks being in beautiful condition, no trains have braved their way through this corridor since 2007 and usage was light for quite some time.  This bridge is on the same train line with the Wilburton Trestle, known as the Eastside railroad or, in BNSF parlance, the Woodinville Subdivision. After the demolition of the Wilburton Tunnel, the train line is no longer even intact.

So there has been no risk of encountering a train in close quarters for some time. Perhaps there never will be again.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

But neglect alone is an insufficient explanation.  Unless graffiti, like rust, is to be understood merely as an agent of the second law of thermodynamics, its spray-painters merely automata in the grand old state machine that is the universe.  This might explain why not all of the writing would pass a Turing test of intelligibility.

Riveted, graffitied wallRiveted wall

But at its core, the train bridge is an example of a public space abandoned by the custodians of such spaces.  On the train bridge, the forces of entropy reacted by inviting in not only oxidation but a few intrepid souls who made it their own place.  A place that they cared about, in their own way.  A place where they were willing to invest their time and souls towards creating something unique.

Riveting

These days, too much of our civilization’s urban space has become limbo on Earth, a set of places we don’t care about.  Or care about just enough to provide the perfunctory, standardized, mass-produced kind of maintenance for which minimum wage is sufficient compensation.

Whether it’s the corner gas station, the parking lot next to the chain store, or the neighborhood street where it’s no longer safe for children to play, what we’ve seen is a continuous devaluing of our living space’s currency, a withdrawal of our interest in creating and interacting to the private sphere of our houses and yards – which have become miniature gated communities, Roman villas from which private cries of pleasure can occasionally be heard.

Railing

Protected by the bridge walls from observation, by BNSF’s budgets from erasure, the bridge has become a unique concept of what a public space might look like, an antidote to the antiseptic monotony and uniform aesthetic that our identical towns and cities have come to be.  A place where furtive bacchanals and the fertility symbols of gangs have become something more:  a kind of railroad chic that, given the right kind of focused madness that creates pop culture worldwide, might be mainstreamed into something your father might trendily appreciate.

Abandoned train bridge over I-90

Naturally, the industrial immune system has not remained, well, immune to this development.  As of 2009, the Port of Seattle has become the new owner of the rail corridor, which strongly implies the possibility of future development.

So like the Wilburton Trestle, the fate of the train bridge is in the hands of the bureaucrats.  It is they who will decide whether the other will be suppressed or embraced into the fold.  My money is on suppression.

Hobo says goodbye

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Jack Perry Memorial Shoreline

As night falls you find yourself somewhere along Alaskan Way, near the hulking ghost of the viaduct, writhing along an endless coil of street-level train lines.

A sign calls out to you and you head west through a landscape of parking lots, chain link fences, and buildings designed for bureaucracy. The road ends at a small rocky patch of waterfront at the mouth of the Duwamish East Waterway. It’s the Port of Seattle’s gift to you, a nicely wrapped box of required public shoreline access.

In front of you is Terminal 18, the largest container processing facility this side of Los Angeles. The sprawling scale of the operation evades comprehension.

Jack Perry Memorial Viewpoint

The terminal glows under a canopy of incandescent light. The sky resonates with infrared, but you only see pitch black. The crane stoops like a giant to gather containers. The work of a thousand men, performed in a fraction of a second. What is human here? What is machine?

In the distance you see a homeless man shuffle through bushes. You hear voices mutter on the wind. You consider the risk and realize it belongs to another world. What is human?

You hear the water splash against rotting piers, as the terminal dulls the air with bass and snare drum repartee. Containers rise, swing, and fall, transferring endlessly from ships to shore, shore to ships. The source code of the global economy, actions repeated as instructions, caught in the infinite loop of commerce. Empty or full, copied and pasted, repeat business. German ships with Chinese goods unloading on American shores.

Jack Perry Memorial Viewpoint

You are in someone’s favorite park, a small viewpoint born of unspeakable tragedy and the fortuitous availability of a hundred-and-twenty feet of unpaved shoreline. You are paying tribute to the life of Jack Perry, beloved son and father, someone just like you, someone not even the internet could identify.

The viewpoint is something small, less than promised, an inadequate tribute to a better man. It is also a window into something far greater than photography, than any still image. It is a honeypot for eyes that cannot close. It is an industrial elephant and your camera is blind.

This cannot last, you think. As the night deepens you will eventually tear yourself away and sleep, while the terminal remains standing. It will hum and snarl through the days and nights, a colossal perpetual motion machine bent on forever, until someone finds a way to disconnect it, or until the Earth itself breaks under its feet.

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Terminal 115 Viewpoint

Just north of the barrel pyramids, nestled between W Marginal Way S and the Duwamish, lies a park owned by the Port of Seattle.

You reach it by finding an address on the Port of Seattle’s website, scouring the area for something non-existent, pausing to curse, then using aerial photography to determine the actual location.

For a moment, you wish you hadn’t found it.

Barbed wire around Industrial Fencing Inc.

The viewpoint is located next to a facility whose owners are clearly not fond of visitors.  Depending on which part of the internet you believe, this is either part of the Terminal 115 complex or it belongs to an angry group of divers for hire.

Either way, you wisely decide to stay on the legal side of the fence.

Barbed wire around Industrial Fencing Inc.

Electric lines cross the Duwamish in front of you, taking advantage of what is effectively the most narrow point in the river at this stage in its controlled meandering.

Barbed wire and towerPower tower

This is also where the First Avenue South Bridge crosses the river.  Yet another drawbridge in a city of drawbridges, this one was built in the mid-1950s and has undergone several moments of reconstruction.  At one point in time, it had the honor of having the highest accident rate in the state.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

So this is Terminal 115 Viewpoint.  Unfortunately, you can’t really see much of Terminal 115, so you can’t reflect on the ways in which the cargo cult has gained acolytes in this day and age.  There’s a river and a bridge.  The river is here because we couldn’t really move it, and the bridge is here because we needed a workaround for the river.

Barbed wire around Industrial Fencing Inc.First Avenue South Bridge overpass

So you walk down the Duwamish shoreline next to the barbed wire and look out across the river. Sunshine makes the day beautiful, and the toxic water is almost inviting. The bridge architecture is not unlike that of prison guard towers you’ve seen in movies, and the aesthetic is gritty and industrial. If Seattle were Berlin, this would have to be part of its Wall.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

It’s not a place that invites you in. Instead, it begrudgingly admits its status as a viewpoint, unhappily tolerating your presence while wondering why you’re here.  This park is under martial law.

First Avenue South Bridge overpassFirst Avenue South Bridge overpass

The park’s mood changes from hostility to sadness when you see the derelict shack by the river.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115

The weathered boards and sunken floats conjure up images of your grandfather’s Seattle.  A time when men were men, fish didn’t glow in the dark, and nobody needed a “toxic shellfish” sign in Vietnamese to know when them thar mussels weren’t in their prime.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115

The mind’s eye imagines trees growing by the banks of a river, shadowing an old man living in a fishing hut.  The mind’s eye sees salmon navigating unconstrained waters to die in their very own spawning grounds, a cycle of continuous change kept in motion by everlasting stasis.  The minds eye see the cycle broken by a tribe with a different plan in mind, powered by the stored energy of millions of solar cycles.

Sinking barrels

The mind’s eye also sees a more prosaic reality:  a storage shed poorly built allowed to weather the rains and fall into ruin at its own pace, protected by wire from trespassers and adorned by every season’s supply of fresh invasive weeds.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115Derelict shack at Terminal 115

Terminal 115 Viewpoint offers little else to the mere human.

A dusty shoreline littered with plastic garbage.  A bench where the lost, incautious or homeless might rest.  The fulfillment of a rash promise made by industry – to provide the unwashed masses with token ways to dodge the container ships and reach the river’s edge.  A group of sad-looking trees.

And in the distance, the ghost of the Duwamish.

Ghost of the Duwamish

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Barrels on West Marginal Way S

These are barrels.  You see them by the side of the road, as you drive up West Marginal Way S towards the 509 interchange.

West Marginal Way oil barrels

You pull the car over and take a closer look.  It is indeed a pyramid of barrels, protected by chain link and barbed wire.  A mountain of barrels reaching up to the clouds.  They shine in the sun like the golden relics of a forgotten civilization of barrel-based pyramid builders.

West Marginal Way oil barrels

Next to the mountain, another mountain.  This one is made of rainbow colors, ultraviolet red to cobalt blue.

West Marginal Way oil barrels

You wonder what obscure purpose these monuments might serve.  You wonder if every so often somebody requires a colorful barrel and, like a modern day Prometheus, ascends the mountain to steal one from under the watchful eye of the very gods of hydrocarbon containment.

West Marginal Way oil barrels

You wonder who the first pyramid builder was, and why he gave us this Stonehenge of barrels. You wonder whether the edifice is now complete, or whether every so often newly emptied containers are added to the top. Very carefully, of course, so as to avoid disturbing the very foundations of the world. No worse end can you imagine than to die in a barrel avalanche.

You wonder whether the pyramids will endure.  You envision rains falling unopposed for ten thousand years, as invasive blackberry fights the rust, the cockroaches, and the very fading of the sun to claim the soul and minerals of the barrel mountain.

West Marginal Way oil barrels

You wonder if perhaps it might not be storage, but art.

West Marginal Way oil barrels

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