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Wednesday, January 23, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Awesome Engineering

by William Dietrich

photographed by Steve Ringman

Brawny Washington: Home to the world's biggest building. The world's longest floating bridge. America's longest railroad tunnel. Its most powerful warship. Biggest ferry fleet. Most intriguing house. Largest producer of hydroelectricity. And a bridge wreck, at the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows, that's on the National Register of Historic Places.

When it comes to awesome engineering — and engineering missteps, like the short-lived Kingdome — Washington is one of the most remarkable places in the world. Our dramatic geography has demanded equally dramatic human projects.

With the second Narrows Bridge now in full operation, it seemed a good time to take stock. Not only has this state built a lot of big things in its brief history, it has bitterly squabbled about the necessity of nearly all of them, started them late, paid way more for them than expected, and concluded they were a bargain a few years later.

So join us in some chest thumping. Will the stupefying statistics that follow make you the life of a cocktail party, help you pick up beautiful women or shut up the kids in the back seat? Probably not, but they're fun anyway. Drum roll, please. Washington's engineering wonders (in no particular order) are:

SEATTLE. The whole city? Yep. Pioneers could hardly have picked a more difficult spot for our Gotham. Squeezed between Puget Sound and Lake Washington and undulating with hills, this place that stands on end was good for skidding logs and not much else. So engineers molded it.

The Ballard Locks and Lake Washington Ship Canal, completed in 1925 to link Puget Sound, Lake Union and Lake Washington, dropped Lake Washington 8.8 feet. The Black River was diverted away from present-day Renton. Sodo and the industrial area are landfill deposited on top of tide flats and the estuary of the Duwamish River. Denny Hill was sluiced into Elliott Bay to become the Denny Regrade, better known today as Belltown. The one-mile railroad tunnel under downtown Seattle had, when built in 1904, the tallest and widest entrance in the nation.

The burrowing goes on with the downtown bus tunnel and the light-rail tunnel under Beacon Hill.

BOEING ASSEMBLY PLANT, EVERETT. The world's biggest building by volume covers 98.3 acres, or more than three times the size of the Seattle Center, and bigger than Anaheim's core Disneyland. It is 100 feet high, enclosing 472 million cubic feet of space. People get around on bicycles. Since opening in 1968 to build the 747, the building has been expanded twice. Its hangar doors are 87 feet high and up to 150 feet wide, and there are 31 miles of crane rail inside for 26 cranes. Some airplane parts are delivered from the Port of Everett on the steepest active railroad in the United States, a 5.6 percent grade.

The Boeing Everett plant is so large that it requires its own fire department, security force, fully equipped medical clinic, electrical substations and water-treatment plant.

Incidentally, a 747 has 6 million parts — nearly one for every person in this state.

GRAND COULEE DAM. When completed on the eve of World War II, Grand Coulee was the largest concrete structure in the world. Today it ranks third, behind dams in China and Brazil. It is still the biggest in the U.S., and the nation's biggest producer of hydroelectricity. (Chief Joseph Dam, just downstream, is the second-biggest hydroelectric producer and has the nation's longest straight-line powerhouse, at 2,039 feet long.) Grand Coulee is a mile wide and 550 feet high from bedrock, containing nearly 12 million cubic yards of concrete. It backs the Columbia River into 151-mile-long Lake Roosevelt.

BODACIOUS BRIDGES. The 1966 Astoria-Megler bridge between Washington and Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia is, at more than four miles, the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. A continuous truss bridge is one without joints so that the weight is shared by several piers. And where is Megler? At our end of the Astoria-Megler bridge.

The Columbia River's cable bridge, between Pasco and Kennewick, was built in 1978 as the first American "cable-stayed" bridge, a now-common design in which the cable supports radiate from the bridge tower instead of dropping vertically from a suspended master cable.

Meanwhile the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, with a bridge deck of 5,400 feet and 510-foot towers, has been the largest suspension bridge currently under construction, and the longest in the U.S. since New York's Verrazano Bridge built in 1964. The Tacoma Narrows remains dwarfed by Japan's Akashi Kaikyo suspension bridge, which is 12,828 feet long with 928-foot towers.

Washington's deep water also makes us home to the three longest floating bridges in the world: in order, the Evergreen Point (or Albert Rosellini) 520 Bridge, the Mercer Island (or Lacey Murrow) I-90 Bridge, and the Hood Canal Bridge. Four of the world's 11 permanent floating bridges are in Washington. (I-90 now counts as two.)

BUNGLED BRIDGES. Floating bridges were used by the ancient Persians to invade Greece and by Caesar to outflank the Gauls, but they have yet to prove their longevity. The Hood Canal bridge sank in a 1979 windstorm, and the Mercer Island span in a 1990 storm after pontoons were flooded. The Evergreen Point Bridge is also at the end of its life span.

In 1940, the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, nicknamed "Galloping Gertie" for its vibration in wind, collapsed and is still down there, registered as a National Historic Landmark to deter salvage and theft.

THE BILL AND MELINDA GATES HOUSE. No, we haven't been invited to dinner, but we peeked on the Internet. The approximately 50,000-square-foot complex, with 16,000 square feet in garage and outbuildings on 5.1 acres, is assessed at $147.5 million. Must be the $2,000 doorknobs.

The family actually lives in a relatively modest 11,500-square-foot wing, with the rest used for business, charity events and guests. Tastefully embedded into its hillside instead of deliberately ostentatious, the timber-frame house would be intriguing enough with its pool, trampoline room, domed library, 20-seat theater, 22-foot video wall, 10-car garage, 24 baths and so on. But what gets it on our list are the 64 kilometers of fiber-optic cable and 100 computers that tailor lights, artwork, music and temperature to individual desires. Preferences are read from a programmed lapel pin. Cool. It is probably the most technologically ambitious home in the world. It even has its own little estuary on Lake Washington for storm runoff.

Just be glad you don't have to pay the taxes.

BREWSTER RADIO DISH COMPLEX. Perched on a bluff above the Okanogan River is the largest array of satellite communication dishes in the Western Hemisphere: 40 of them owned by Verestar. The dishes carry trans-Pacific communication and track satellites. About 110 miles to the south, motorists on Interstate 82 can spot the National Security Agency spy satellite dishes at the Yakima Firing Range near Selah. The location is no coincidence: NSA is there to listen in on the Brewster commercial complex. The same arrangement of commercial dish farm and NSA eavesdropping next door exists in West Virginia for East Coast communications.

We'd tell you more, but then we'd have to kill you.

MOST POWERFUL WARSHIPS. Puget Sound's two aircraft carriers, the Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln, are awesome enough: 1,092 feet long, 206 feet high from keel to mast, 257 feet wide, with 3,200 compartments, 5,680 crew and 85 aircraft. Each anchor weighs 30 tons, and each carrier has two of them.

But it is Bangor's Trident submarines that carry the shiver factor. At 560 feet long, 42 feet wide and nearly 17,000 tons, they are twice the length and width and 16 times the displacement of a typical World War II U-boat. They can travel 40 miles an hour and dive to at least 1,000 feet. The ballistic-missile version carries 24 missiles with eight warheads each, the biggest warheads packing a destructive force equal to 34 Hiroshima bombs.

Trident submarines carry 48 percent of the nation's nuclear firepower. Activists estimate Kitsap County is home to 1,696 nuclear warheads.

BREMERTON DRY DOCK. While not a record holder, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard's Dry Dock 4 is not just huge — at 1,000 feet, big enough to hold a modern aircraft carrier — but it played a key role in repairing the battleships Tennessee, Maryland, Nevada, California and West Virginia when they were refloated after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

BIGGEST FERRY FLEET. Washington's 28 ferries recently dropped to 24 with the forced retirement of four rust-pitted 80-year-old boats, but it still represents the largest fleet in the U.S., and the 25 million annual passengers they carry exceeds the total of British Columbia or New York. If you stuffed all the boats to capacity they could carry 41,000 people and 3,650 cars at once. As it is, they average 68,500 people a day: twice as many as the number of soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day.

So why do we ever have to wait in line?

THE SPACE NEEDLE. Built 'round-the-clock in less than a year for the 1962 World's Fair, the Needle, 605 feet high at the tip of its aircraft-warning beacon, was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi when completed. It took that title from Seattle's Smith Tower. Even though dwarfed by numerous skyscrapers since, it remains remarkable.

While the flying saucer-on-stilts looks top-heavy, the Needle is anchored by 72 bolts buried all the way in a massive 120-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep block of concrete. Some 467 cement trucks poured this ballast in a day, the largest continuous pour in the Western United States. As a result, the structure's center of gravity is only five feet off the ground. Built to withstand a magnitude 9.5 earthquake (equal to the subduction zone quake that roiled the Northwest in 1700) and 200-mile-an-hour winds, the Needle is one of the city's safest buildings. It even has 25 lightning rods.

Its revolving restaurant is so well-balanced that the whole thing turns with just a 1.5-horsepower motor.

In May, the landmark had its 45 millionth visitor. In 1966, according to the Space Needle Corp., 11-year-old Bill Gates won a free dinner there from his pastor for correct recitation of the Sermon on the Mount.

NORTHGATE SHOPPING CENTER. The evolution of the shopping center was so gradual and simultaneous that Northgate's role as the "first" shopping mall depends on one's definition. Built in 1950, it was the first with an interior pedestrian walkway anchored with department stores at each end. The first shopping centers designed specifically for the automobile but without malls appeared in the 1920s.

COLUMBIA BASIN PROJECT. The Depression-era dream to irrigate a million acres in Eastern Washington halted at 671,000, but the result is still amazing: six reservoir storage dams, 240 pumping plants, 333 miles of primary canal, 1,933 miles of laterals and 3,163 miles of drains. Grouped with other Columbia and Snake River dams, locks that allow ocean navigation to Lewiston, Idaho, and irrigation projects, the overall Columbia Basin is the most heavily dammed and engineered river system in the world. Our state alone has 870 dams big enough to store 10 acre-feet of water or more.

WIND FARMS. While hydropower remains king in Washington, producing 30 percent of the nation's total, the state will shortly have nearly 1,000 megawatts of wind power from seven wind farms, totaling 800 windmills. That is almost the output of Washington's sole nuclear plant, WPPSS 2, which has a capacity of 1,150 megawatts.

STEVENS PASS RAILROAD TUNNEL. On March 1, 1910, avalanches crashed across two trapped trains on Stevens Pass, killing 96 people, a story recently retold in Gary Krist's book "The White Cascade." In reaction, the Great Northern first built snowsheds over its switchback rail route, and then in 1929 built the 7.8-mile-long Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass to avoid the steep grades and avalanche danger of the earlier route. It remains the longest railroad tunnel in the nation. Doors at either end open and close as trains come and go, and ventilator fans are timed to help clear noxious air.

COLUMBIA CENTER. Any building that makes Osama bin Laden's list (Seattle's tallest skyscraper was a target in the original 9/11 plan to hijack 10 airplanes) makes ours. At 967 feet, as of 2004 it was the fourth-tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi and ranked 28th in the world. It has 76 floors, 46 elevators, 8,816 dark-tinted windows and plenty of controversy: The late Victor Steinbrueck, dean of the University of Washington's School of Architecture, called it "probably the most obscene erection of ego edifice on the West Coast." Developer Martin Selig countered that it "tells people Seattle has arrived."

It is famous for the panoramic view from the women's restroom at the private club on the top floor.

THE KINGDOME. Yes it was gray, homely, noisy and cheap: at $30 million, it was the least expensive sports dome of its size anywhere in the world. It was also the largest thin-shelled concrete dome in the world, with a diameter of 660 feet. In comparison, the dome of St. Peter's in Rome is 139 feet in diameter.

So we blew it up after 24 years to sit outside in the rain. Go figure.

There's plenty more, of course: the sublime like the Deception Pass Bridge, the odd like the replica of Stonehenge at Maryhill, the grimly historic like the first plutonium plant at Hanford, and the bold like Seattle's downtown library and the Experience Music Project.

Have a favorite we missed? Let us know.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at bdietrich@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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