The Graving Dock
WSDOT planned to spend more than $270 million to replace sections of the Hood Canal Bridge, a floating bridge supported by hollow concrete pontoons. The bridge, which is critical to the economy of the Olympic Peninsula, carries more than 20,000 vehicles a day during the summer months. Exposure to salt water and weather made it necessary to replace 14 pontoons in the eastern half of the structure. The western half of the bridge was rebuilt after it sank in a wind storm in 1979.
The replacement pontoons and concrete anchors were to be constructed and refurbished within a specially built graving yard in Port Angeles. A graving yard is a concrete lagoon the size of four battleships that works like a dry dock. The pontoons would be constructed within the graving yard, which could then be flooded to float the pontoons to Hood Canal.
The location on 22.5 acres of what used to be a lumber mill on Ediz Hook was selected because it was large enough to build more than one pontoon at a time. The Port Angeles site also raised fewer environmental concerns than other areas and was strongly supported by local officials and businesses.
An archaeologist employed by WSDOT to conduct a "cultural resources survey" reported that "no evidence of significant prehistoric or historic archaeological resources was found" (MacDonald, 11). The survey, for which WSDOT paid less than $7,000, did note that Tse-whit-zen, a large and important Klallam village, had been located near the project site, and that the village cemetery was in the general vicinity of the former lumber mill. The small Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which, unlike some tribes, had no cultural resources office or tribal archaeologist, basically agreed with the survey but strongly urged caution due to the proximity to their ancestral village.
It did not take long for construction workers to find what the archaeologist had not. On August 16, 2003, just 10 days after ground-breaking for the project was celebrated, workers removing a concrete slab found a shell midden, an unmistakable sign of former habitation. A few days later, the first human bones were unearthed.
Discovery of the remains triggered the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which provides that Native American remains be returned to the tribe of origin for reburial. By August 26, 2003, WSDOT suspended construction work. The Department undertook additional archaeological studies and began discussions with the Lower Elwha Klallam. The tribe did not have legal authority to stop the state project, and did not want to be seen as blocking the bridge replacement. The Lower Elwha accepted Secretary MacDonald's offer to "walk together" to complete the graving dock.
In March, 2004, WSDOT and the tribe signed a Memorandum of Understanding allowing construction to continue. By then, the scattered remains of at least 13 people had been found. Those burials had been disturbed in earlier industrial construction, and the tribe saw an opportunity to properly rebury desecrated remains. The agreement provided $3.4 million to the tribe for costs that included acquiring land and reburying their ancestors. It called for field work by archaeologists and tribal members to locate and remove additional remains and artifacts from four sections of the project site identified as archaeological "hot-spots" before construction resumed in those areas.
However, it quickly became apparent that the site contained far more remains than the 25 or so already disturbed burials that the parties had estimated. On March 29, 2004, days after the agreement was signed, workers excavating for a drainage line outside the then-identified archaeological areas discovered the first intact, previously undisturbed burial. Over the summer and fall, archaeologists and tribal members discovered more and more intact burials. By December 2004, 355 complete skeletons had been located and removed.
As the extent of the village site and burials became apparent, and as more and more ancestors were disturbed, Lower Elwha Klallam leaders, who at first wanted all burials removed so they would not be left underneath the graving dock, began urging the state to reconsider the project location altogether. In December, the tribe officially asked WSDOT to cancel plans for the graving yard at the Ediz Hook site to prevent still-undiscovered remains from being buried under the project.
The State agreed. On December 21, 2004, MacDonald and Locke announced that WSDOT was ending all work at Tse-whit-zen, and would begin searching for a new graving dock location. Locke said:
"There is no way we could proceed in good conscience knowing how significant this archaeological site is. I don't think future generations would forgive us for ignoring this, and just paving it over. It would be akin to paving parts of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and that would just be absolutely unacceptable and unforgivable" (Mapes, "State Ends...").WSDOT continued other work on the Hood Canal Bridge, including widening the west half and building new approach spans. Archaeological exploration, as well as construction, ended at Tse-whit-zen, but tribal members and archaeologists had many thousands of artifacts to catalog and conserve, along with 40,000 plastic bags of still unsorted material from the site to analyze. The ancestors' remains removed from Tse-whit-zen were placed in carefully hand-carved cedar coffins in preparation for reburial.