New website remembers hot times on the Alaskan Way Viaduct

Headline, Alaskan Way Viaduct fire, Seattle, December 4, 1975
Courtesy The Seattle Times
by guest blogger Chad Schuster

Immersed in music and late-night chatter, folks dancing at "Shelly's Leg" on Dec. 4, 1975 might not have heard screeching tires on wet pavement, or the impact of the gasoline tanker hitting a guardrail on the Alaskan Way Viaduct some 40 feet above the popular disco's doorstep. But there's no mistaking what they saw in the moments following the crash.

"We were inside Shelly's dancing when I looked out a window and saw this huge ball of flames coming at us," 23-year-old Alice Drake told the Seattle Times.
When the fireball arrived, the windows shattered. The music stopped. Security guards blocked the front entrance and began ushering patrons out a side door and into the rainy night.

"Everybody started panicking and running," Drake said.

Despite the panic – and heat that was intense enough to knock out power to downtown and send chunks of the viaduct tumbling to the street below – none of the 150 people in the disco that night were hurt. Neither was the driver of the truck, 40-year-old Richard Leroy Baker.

In fact no one – save for the eye irritation of two firefighters – was injured in the fire, which took 45 minutes to extinguish. Even the viaduct itself remained mostly unscathed, reopening to traffic the next morning after a brief closure that allowed crews to make minor repairs and do a safety inspection.

More than 35 years later, Shelly's Leg is gone, and the viaduct's days are numbered. But they remain inextricably linked, a history forgotten to most except for longtime Seattleites and local history buffs.

Which is why we're pleased to unveil a new website that celebrates the viaduct and its place in state and local history. Launched on March 2, the site lets users dig into the structure's – and Seattle's – past. Along with facts, figures and photos of the viaduct, it features a timeline of culturally and geologically significant events, information about local archaeology, details about historical buildings near the viaduct, and games and activities for kids.

We worked with local historians, cultural resources experts and state and local agencies as we developed the site, which fulfills a commitment WSDOT made to the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. We also linked to Washington state historical website, in case visitors want to explore something they see in further detail.

The site launch comes only two weeks after we demolished the first piece of the viaduct, and a little over a year before we take down the structure's southern mile.

Are we excited to demolish the viaduct? You bet. It's old and seismically vulnerable. It needs to be replaced.

But we also recognize its unique place in history. And so we're excited to pay tribute to the viaduct's concrete and steel, and to the people – the engineers who dreamed it, the construction workers who built it, the drivers who use it, and the folks burning down the house that night at Shelly's Leg – who gave the structure its story.

Update 3/08/11: The Alaskan Way Viaduct history website has been temporarily removed. This site was developed by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to comply with an agreement related to the National Historic Preservation Act. A party to this agreement has requested time to provide feedback on the website. We will restore the site shortly.

For more information about the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Program, visit