Port of Seattle

At first glance, the Port of Seattle is a hostile, inhuman place.  It is a police state on an artificial island, defended by barbed wire and an infinite number of checkpoints and security guards.

Barbed Wire

It is also a Superfund site, thanks to upstanding corporate citizens such as Shell Oil and their magnificent petroleum storage tanks.

Fuel storage at Port of Seattle

The port’s primary purpose is to transfer an oceanful of containers from enormous cargo ships to endless trains.  With over two million containers processed per year, it’s an unimaginably large operation.

Port of Seattle

The port’s most striking feature are its massive cranes.  Were we to encounter them in nature, we would say that like the hummingbird’s tongue, the crane is a fantastic adaptation – in this case, to a natural abundance of standard-sized containers.

Port of Seattle crane in actionPort of Seattle crane with container

Seen at this scale, the port is more Star Wars than Pacific Northwest.  In this version the droids took over and dedicated the energies of the universe to replication.

Port of Seattle

All this hardware is a throwback to an earlier time, before the lures of plastics, when men were men and every American delighted in designing enormous metal machines. When everyone had a hammer, and the the sky burned red from the ore, the smelters, and the sheer joy of manufacturing.

Port of SeattlePort of Seattle

But the cranes are but a means to an end, and that end is containers.

Inside the containers lie dormant the very seeds of the globalized economy.  Embodied ideas from every part of the globe, made real by the plastic alchemists of the far East.  Protected in their steel shells from wind and water, they float across the Pacific like coconuts on an ironclad tide.


Once unloaded, the mother ship but a memory, all individuality lost, the containers gather in droves on the shores of the promised land.  One by one, they are opened and inspected by the paranoia of Seattle’s finest in homeland security.  Papers cleared, passports stamped, Geiger counters in silence, the containers await the crab-like vehicles that gather them up in their pincers and deposit them on train lines etched silver on the asphalt docks.

Port of Seattle train linesTrain crossing

From there onwards, lifelines diverge.  Paths fork.  Train tracks curve and wind.  Cars rust and creak.  Steam rises at dawn.  In the distance are mountains, shining cities, dust bowls.  Transfer stations and miles of highway.  Midnight truck stops, fragrance of gasoline and bad coffee.  An entire continent awaits.

Port of Seattle trains

Eventually, entropy wins.  Everything is unloaded.  Outside its steel shell, uncertainty entangles and takes dramatic form.  Born into the world anew, now remembering only the limbo of the manufacturing floor, countless objects of consumption take flight.  Used briefly, most will spend the next millennia underground.  A lucky few will find their way back to the gyres of the Pacific, like salmon searching forever for the waters of their birth.

Train still life

Our creations, like ourselves.  Objects whose lives are a brief interlude between eternities of waiting.  We are what we make, and we make what we are.

Birdlife at the portTwin cranes

Back at the port, the machines tower over the frail human landscape.  Lines are drawn, but priorities are clear.

Harbor Island crane at sunset

This is monumental architecture, operating as intended.  Bereft of design, formless in the face of function, no frame of reference remains to humanize the grand automation of commerce.

Two cranes

The surrounding highways and bridges offer no respite.  They carry streams of motorized containers on wheels, protecting economically precious assets.  At sunset, the evening commute melts into the industrial landscape.  Until the weekend, we are but cargo.

West Seattle Bridge

Alas, there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.  Left to its own devices, the port will eventually halt.  We can prove it.  Energy pools will exhaust themselves, iron will rust, and engines will run down.  The prime mover is elsewhere, outside the system.  It is something more ancient, something native.

Seattle under the overpass

Behind every industrial act lie scores of unscratched itches, pools of fermented need, desires never satisfied, multiplication with no divisor.  Unspeakably unjust, and yet utterly indistinguishable from legitimacy, from hungry mouths, unshod feet, unclothed limbs.

Naked we emerge from the womb, here to eat, drink and breathe the world, one twenty-foot equivalent unit at a time.  A fine line separates our appetites from our combustion engines, our bodies from the machines that do our bidding.  Flesh becomes steel and glass, neurons electrons.  We increase efficiency, and do more with less.

Crowley building window

To gaze at the port is to gaze into the abyss. We may see a monster, but we cannot deny its essential humanity.  It is a mirror we hold up to ourselves, a conjoined twin grown to obscene size, sprawled in its own effluence. It is beautiful, and so are we.  It is frightening, and so we fear ourselves.  More so than humans themselves, the splendid machines are the quintessence of humanity, writ large on the smokestack sky, the polluted water, and the endless freighters.

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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.


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.


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.

The complete Flickr set.

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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South Park Bridge

South Park is a small neighborhood in West Seattle, nestled between West Marginal Way and the Duwamish River.  It’s a relatively poor neighborhood with depressed property values and an unhealthy proximity to Seattle’s heavy industry.  South Park’s soil is laden with heavy metals, and nobody knows exactly what’s in the Duwamish.

South Park used to have a bridge.

South Park Bridge

South Park Bridge

The South Park bridge connected the neighborhood to Georgetown and the rest of civilization.  It was built in 1931 by a tribe of Seattle engineers unable to envision a bridge that didn’t in some way involve bascules.  “How else would a ship get past a bridge?  Ships can’t climb over bridges!” they reasoned.

South Park Bridge leaf

Regardless, one must concede that the drawbridge style did give the bridge a certain aesthetic appeal.

South Park Bridge

South Park Bridge

A nearby marina adds to the attractiveness of the area.

South Park Marina

Possibly the lowest budget marina in a city that appears to have thousands, the South Park Marina’s most interesting feature is that it’s located downriver from a superfund site (or, as the marina’s describes it, the “fresh, calm waters of the Duwamish River”).

South Park Marina

The marina is also across the river from Boeing’s infamous Plant 2, concretely building 2-41 .  The source of many of the more toxic elements currently found in the Duwamish, engineers at Plant 2 manufactured airplane parts using heavy metals, cyanide, mineral acids and bases, petroleum products, PCBs, and chlorinate solvents.

All in a day’s work.

Derelict warehouse

Plant 2 was built in 1935, and was key to the US war effort during World War II.  At its peak, Plant 2 produced 16 B-17 bombers a day, and an astonishing total of 6,981 were created during the war.  Plant 2 also produced B-52s and 737 passenger jets.

South Park Bridge

During the war, Plant 2 was camouflaged to look like a suburban neighborhood.  Netting, fake houses and fake trees were used to cover the factory installations, aiming to make it harder for hypothetical Japanese air raids to hit such a juicy target.

American derelict

Plant 2 is currently scheduled for demolition.

South Park Bridge

Returning to the bridge, and fast-forwarding to 2001…  Already in a state of disrepair, the South Park bridge’s shaky timbers were rattled by the Nisqually Earthquake.  A year later, it was rated at 6 out of 100 on the infamous Federal Highway Administration scale – the bane of many a crumbling piece of infrastructure nationwide.

According to King County, the bridge’s foundations were heavily cracked as they settled into the liquifiable soil underneath.  And like a Seattle rock band, the “substandard concrete in the piers was undergoing a self-destructive process that could not be reversed or repaired.”

South Park Bridge

The South Park Bridge was closed in the interest of public safety on June 30, 2010.  The neighborhood threw a large farewell party, and lovingly graffitied its bascule leaves.

South Park Bridge graffiti

The bridge’s leaves were removed in August and September of 2010, leaving a melancholy sight and a neighborhood completely cut off from its urban artery.

Duwamish reflections

In late 2010, after several dramatic failures to raise funds, various King County fund-raising endeavors and a drama-infused federal TIGER grant succeeded in reaching the $100 million mark required for reconstruction.  A new South Park bridge will be built, with its reopening date scheduled for 2013.

We’ll be there.

Duwamish reflections

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SR 520 Abandoned Overpass

One day, we set out to find the source of the SR 520.

Like Richard Burton and David Livingstone before us, we had no idea what to expect.  Unlike them, however, we had the internet.

The internet told us to park in a conveniently-located lot near 2512 Lake Washington Blvd E.  This is where we would find the entrance to the abandoned overpass, otherwise known as a ghost ramp, that haunted us every time we crossed the bridge.

The internet also instructed us to plot a course from the parking lot to the east, on foot, into the wilderness known as the Washington Arboretum.  We girded our loins, donned our hiking boots, avoided the woman with an excessive quantity of dogs, and set off on our way.

We found our target underneath a megalithic structure upon which actual live traffic continued to flow.  A short climb onto the ramp, and we were at the beginning of our journey.

Abandoned exit

Our path was choked with garbage and debris, relics of ancient ceremonies known as “benders”.  We then found ourselves obstructed by millennia of thick vegetation, grown out of control as the jungle gradually absorbed the ancient structures.

Willow blocking highway entrance

We brandished imaginary machetes and hacked our way through to sunlight.  We looked back for a brief moment, then continued north.

No way out

An ancient road lay before us.  Paved with mortar, weathered by years of rain and lichen growth, but still in excellent condition.  And wide, many shoulders wide, enough for two or even three chariots to pass each other at high speeds.  Clearly the work of skilled craftsmen, not cheap laborers, conscripts or (god forbid) a labor union.

Road to nowhere

At this point, we began to see ominous stone carvings warning us to proceed no further, etched in an archaic martial script by some forgotten king’s mandate.

No trespassing

The warnings were at times accompanied by more modern writing.  These might have been left by earlier trespassers, attempting to communicate some obscure message to those who might come after them.


We ignored our misgivings, and continued our quest.


At length, we reached a metal gate.  It seemed like a late addition to the monumental structure, perhaps added by desperate holdouts as a defensive measure while civilization collapsed around them.  It might have served to defend precious water supplies, or perhaps to repel a hypothetical barbarian horde advancing along the 520.

Gated community

Past the fence, we encountered further writings that helped shed further light on the last dramatic moments of the collapse.  Clearly this was an important supply route during these times, perhaps the only open road from the farmlands to population centers towards the west.

Don't block

In the distance we observed a gigantic structure that would no doubt prove to be of great historical importance.  We speculated that it might serve as a site for gladiatorial games of some type, perhaps as part of some institution of higher learning devoted to the combat arts.  One of our party suggested it might be the site of an obscure ball sport believed to have been practiced in those days, but we found that theory entirely implausible.


At length, we reached the very coordinates where the famous Gina IU markings had been observed by aircraft several years ago.  While some scientists affirm that the original words were part of a longer and more complex message, we remained agnostic to its actual meaning and longed for an on-site inspection.

This being the very inspiration of our current expedition, we were disappointed to find that little to nothing was left of the original etchings.  Clearly some agent beyond the usual erosive forces of wind and rain had contributed to scrubbing this primitive graffiti from the causeway.  Perhaps it had been some local catastrophe, an earthquake or mudslide.

Cement jungle

In the same area, we began to gather further clues about the fall of this ancient civilization.  Seeing the monumental structures build alongside our causeway through what appeared to be highly sensitive wetlands, we could only speculate at the creativity of the Environmental Impact Statement that could have justified such indiscriminate environmental damage.

Columns and screws

Clearly a civilization capable of this must have known no boundaries on its population growth and its thirst for natural resources. Once carrying capacity was exceeded, open warfare for precious resources must have rapidly developed between hostile tribes.

This hypothesis was immediately confirmed as we encountered a cache of primitive weaponry, perhaps abandoned to the elements after a major battle.

Rust never sleeps

Another interesting find was a metal structure whose purpose wasn’t immediately obvious.  While some in our party speculated that it might serve to facilitate the manufacture of simple textiles, others suspected a more bellicose purpose:  perhaps even some ancient type of torture device.


We found two similar forms of this artifact.  The second appeared more recent in construction, and also more flimsy – perhaps an indication that metal was becoming more difficult to obtain in later years, as local mines were exhausted and trade routes became more dangerous.


During our exploration, only once did we encounter any signs of native human life.  Given our observations during the expedition this far, we had become concerned that a face-to-face confrontation might result in a hostile welcome.  We were also concerned that initiating a first contact with heretofore un-contacted peoples might exceed the charter and scientific wherewithal of our expedition.

Fortunately, the natives paid little attention to us, being more preoccupied with the pursuit of what we deemed to be some intense hunting activity.  Given that such a flimsy craft could not be used for large-scale trade, we speculated that the native survivors were likely organized into small autonomous tribal encampments, using the river for transportation in times of necessity.  Surely such people would live hand-to-mouth, with little time for recreational activity or water sports.

Pristine wetland

As the abandoned causeway reached its end, we felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.  We saw derelict architecture give way to well-maintained urban structures.  We heard the trappings of civilization once again begin to drone around us.  And we felt ourselves the target of some very strange looks from passing drivers.

A choice loomed before us.

We could either walk down into the populous city and again lose ourselves among the traffic, the crowds and the mercantilist bustle.  We might even be able to make it to the Montlake bus stop.

Or we could turn around and walk back, through the silent echoes and stillborn dreams of aborted urban development, trespassing again upon the sleeping authority of the forgotten highway builders.

It did not take us long to agree that the latter seemed by far the better option.

Abandoned entrance

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Aurora Bridge

We didn’t discover the Aurora Bridge.  But we did walk across it the evening before WSDOT began building a new fence.

The old fence was relatively short, which made for a somewhat precarious-feeling walk from Fremont to Queen Anne.

Aurora bridge pedestrian walkway, north side

Yikes, we said.

Aurora bridge guard rail

But as it turns out, short fences and a 180-foot fall also make the Aurora Bridge popular with people looking to commit suicide.  According to Wikipedia, there have been over 230 successful suicides from the bridge, the first being a distraught shoe salesman in January of 1932.  A harbinger of things to come, because at the time the bridge was still under construction.

Walking across the bridge, the suicide theme is disturbingly prevalent.

A somber warning

Suicidal in Seattle

While it’s difficult to evaluate its effectiveness, the suicide hotline sign had a detached bureaucratic smell about it that left us wondering whether a better caption might have been something along the lines of Are you fucking kidding me?

And of course, nothing says don’t jump like the Space Needle.  Especially when it brings its friends, some nondescript Seattle high-rises.

But then something caught our eye.

Ninth life

Dried flowers, duct-taped to a light pole.  A heart.  Thank you for being.

A simple lament, taken together.  Ambiguous, even;  were they even the work of the same author?  Either way, we thought about the ones left behind, and then the scene punched us in the gut.

We didn’t jump.

We decided that while the new eight-foot fence, funded at $1.4M by Governor Gregoire, would ruin a magnificent view, it was probably a good idea.

And a magnificent view it was.  Of Lake Union and its houseboats, of downtown Seattle and its skyscrapers, of Gasworks Park and its… gas works.  All splashed with warm sunlight from a lengthy golden hour.

Seattle across Lake Union

Even Mount Rainier made an appearance, hiding nonchalantly in the bushes above the city.

Seattle across Lake Union

Thanks to its height, the Aurora Bridge is one of the few bridges in Seattle that wasn’t inexplicably designed to interfere with passing ships, and therefore require a drawbridge. Which makes it a great place to watch lesser bridge, such as the Fremont bridge, decide whether to infuriate ships or cars, or perhaps both at the same time.

Fremont bridge opening

It’s also a great place to wonder whether Adobe Lightroom would be a better program if it provided high dynamic range functionality out of the box, thus saving thousands of skies from being blown out.  Like this one.

Rust and Adobe

The Aurora Bridge itself is beginning to show its age.  While sturdy enough to merit a passing 55.2% grade from the FHA’s national bridge inventory, it was declared functionally obsolete and of better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.

In years to come, I can only hope my wife is able to say the same thing about me.

In any case, this means that in bridge years, the Aurora Bridge is now, officially, middle-aged.  And it shows.

Rust never sleeps

Which raises the question of why Roman bridges last two millennia, but ours get old after eighty years.  Maybe we need to take better care of our infrastructure.

Playing his last hand

So we walked the span of the bridge and then back, crossing underneath Aurora Ave and playing a game of Tetris along the way.

The mindless pattern

As we left the bridge, we were gifted with a wonderful summer sunset over the ship canal.  It’s possible that we were the last to enjoy this sight without a view obstructed by fencing.

At least, I hope we were.

Ship canal sunset

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Walker Rock Garden

What if Antoni Gaudí had grown up in West Seattle in the 1950s, instead of 19th century Cataluña?  What if he worked as a mechanic for Boeing, instead of building gothic churches?

You might get something like this:

Walker Rock Garden

Milton Walker was a Boeing mechanic who used stones, geodes, petrified wood, and colored shards of glass to create a miniature sculpture garden in his backyard.  Milton and his wife Florence worked on this for twenty years, creating (among other things) an 18-foot bell tower, ornate fountains, a scaled-down rendition of the Alps, a gorgeously paved fireplace area with seating, and a number of butterfly-themed mosaics.


Walker Rock Garden

Walker Rock Garden

It’s actually difficult to do the Walker Rock Garden justice using photographs. You really have to see it for yourself close up.  Examine the river rock color gradients, the well-placed shards of glass.  Everything in its right place.  And so much labor and focus, invested in the design and construction of something that (sadly) appears to lack any significant commercial value. In that sense, Walker’s work is a throwback to a bygone era, a time when art existed for its own sake, born of passion or a passionate maecenas and brought into being with singular focus, as if nothing else mattered.

Walker Rock Garden

In a sense, the Walker Rock Garden is the antithesis of modern art and design.  It resists the urge to make art saleable, to optimize the means of production, to produce new discardable work ever more rapidly, to strip design down to the values of mass production, to embrace planned or neglectful obsolescence, or simply to saturate the market.

In fact, none of what Walker did in his garden was efficient, necessary, marketable, or even useful.  And that is why it is beautiful.  It is a labor of love, and of genius, and it is unique.  It could never have been built any other way.

Walker Rock Garden

Walker Rock Garden

The future of the Walker Rock Garden is uncertain.  It is currently managed by Walker’s children, and is still, remarkably, free for anyone to visit.  Just close the latch when you leave.

When we visited in the summer of 2010, there was no longer any running water and the garden was overgrown with weeds.  Down the slope from the main garden area we caught hints of some more beautiful work, but it was fenced off from the public and overrun by ivy.  I later read that a "Friends Of the Walker Rock Garden" preservation group had once existed, but it was disbanded by request of the owners.

Part of me wanted to call in an airstrike of EarthCorps volunteers to help clean the place up.  Part of me wanted to pay admission.  But is that what Walker would have wanted?  Perhaps converting his labor of love into a commercial museum would be the antithesis of his message.  Perhaps it would defeat the purpose of the work.

So we left a donation and closed the latch behind us.  It was a beautiful Seattle summer day.  No one else was around.

Mandrill face

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