Boring Bertha Digs Through Layers Of Seattle History

Dec 13, 2013

The most plausible theory about what stopped Bertha, the tunneling machine digging its way through downtown until last Saturday, is also the most boring.

A glacial erratic, some archeologists are saying — a boulder that was dropped more than a thousand years ago into the area from somewhere nearby, but possibly from somewhere tens of miles away.

More amusing are the man-made theories. Frustrated ghosts whose burial sites have been disrupted yet again. Prostitutes whose bodies were buried and then calcified, as was their madame’s. And small, unidentified metal objects that no one bothered recording back when Seattleites dumped just about anything into the city's downtown waters.

Call them kooky, but these alternative theories make some sense, because Bertha is literally digging her way through layers of Seattle history.

“We have a lot of irregularities down there,” said Sunny Seidel, co-owner of the Seattle Underground Tour, who grew up on the waterfront. “There’s a boat many years ago that sank into the mud. … There was a photo many years ago, during the Denny regrade, of a person in a rowboat floating in the mud. What could float up?”

Could it be that Bertha, named for the city’s upstanding first female mayor, Bertha K. Landes, had a standoff with the calcified remains of women who once worked for Mother Damnable?

But first, the ghosts. Bertha is stuck at First Avenue, between South King and South Maynard streets, the site of the Duwamish Village where Chief Seattle lived. The village had eight large long houses and a potlatch house.

“All this land belonged to the Duwamish, one of the few Native American tribes that never had their treaties (federally recognized)," said James Pallotta, the lead tour guide for the Seattle's Ghost Tour. "They buried their tribe members facing water; they believed that if they didn’t, their souls wandered at night and would spend the rest of eternity wandering the land.”

Pallotta said the most common ghost sighting is of a woman, believed to be Princess Angeline, Chief Seattle’s daughter. She boats halfway out to Elliott Bay and then disappears in a flash, he said.

“She may have something to do with it,” Pallotta said.

Years after the long houses were gone, Mother Damnable’s moved in. Mother Damnable was Mary Ann Conklin, a woman known for her salty tongue and linguistic savvy. She ran a two-story house that included a brothel upstairs.

Conklin was buried in the Seattle Cemetery, now Denny Park. According to HistoryLink.org, when the graves were moved in 1884, gravediggers opened the lid to Conklin's coffin and found that “her body had somehow ‘turned to stone’ with all features intact.”

Could it be that Bertha, named for the city’s upstanding first female mayor, Bertha K. Landes, had a standoff with the calcified remains of women who once worked for Mother Damnable?

After all, Landes, like the boring machine, was a force who aimed to clean up Seattle. Her motto during the 1926 election: Municipal housecleaning. Her husband was a geologist at the University of Washington.

Other layers: trash and sawdust.

Seattle's shoreline once looked like the White Cliffs of Dover, but settlers slowly raised up the land to 20 feet above sea level. They filled tidal flats with trash, coal and sawdust from Henry Yesler’s sawmill, often one wheelbarrow at a time.

A 100-year-old bottle of Rainier beer found by archeologists before Bertha started digging. It's currently housed at the Burke Museum.
A 100-year-old bottle of Rainier beer found by archeologists before Bertha started digging. It's currently housed at the Burke Museum.
Credit Photo Richard Brown/Burke Museum

The muscle behind the operation was an elderly man who made a meager living filling potholes in Pioneer Square with sawdust. They called him Dutch Ned

Ships helped by throwing their ballasts, or trash, into the water, as did the Chinese immigrants who lived on the piers before they were expelled from Seattle.

When archeologists explored the area years before Bertha started digging, they didn't find anything that would stand in her way. But, as Peter Lape, curator of archeology at the Burke Museum noted, they obviously missed something.

The Burke Museum holds items found: a 100-year-old Rainier bottle, women and men’s shoes, a vase – but nothing valuable enough to prevent the dig.

“You look at early Rainier bottles, you can touch this past period of our city that is different but also the same – because now we drink Rainier out of cans,” Lape said. 

Knute Berger, a columnist for Seattle Magazine and Crosscut, jokingly suggested that the obstacle could be a woolly mammoth graveyard. After all, when he was a resident writer at the Space Needle, he heard that the son of one of the owners found a woolly mammoth tooth in the foundation and took it to his kindergarten class for show-and-tell.

Which brings us back to the prevailing theory, glacial erratics. There’s one in Wedgwood, about 19 feet tall and beloved by neighbors, and a smaller one in Leschi that bears fossil imprints. Why wouldn’t there be boulders underground as well?

David B. Williams, a naturalist currently writing about the downtown shoreline, noted in a blog post that Bertha, 60-feet under, is far below the refuse dumped in the area when Seattle was being built. 

“Could someone have sunk something metal?” Williams said. “Why would they sink something that for some reason Bertha can’t cut through? And then the location being really below all this fill – it makes a lot more sense that it’s a geologic feature.”