Streams

The Tradition Of Naming Tunneling Machines

Thursday, April 04, 2013 - 11:58 AM

Bertha, on board the Fairpartner, in Elliot Bay (photo by Bow Jones)

(Derek Wang - Seattle, KUOW)  Bertha is here. The world’s largest tunnel boring machine arrived in Seattle Tuesday after being shipped from Japan. It’s expected to reach land sometime this week. After that, in a few months, it will get to work drilling the tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The Washington State Department of Transportation named the machine, Bertha, after Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Knight Landes. The name was suggested by two school kids who won WSDOT’s naming contest.

According to Linea Laird, WSDOT’s tunnel project administrator, the tradition and practice of naming tunneling machines dates back to the earliest mining traditions.

“Originally, it was part of the patron saints of protection of underground workers,” she said. “There would be even a little shrine that would be established there for the workers.”

Laird says the name of the saint gave the miners something personal that they could relate to as they did their dangerous work. Paying homage to their saints evolved into naming tunneling machines.

Naming is commonplace in the tunneling industry these days. Miami named its machine after Harriet Tubman. And Sound Transit named two machines Balto and Togo, after two famous Husky dogs that inspired the Iditarod. And the tunneling machines boring new subway tunnels under the streets of New York City bear a variety of names, including Molina, Georgina, and TESS.

Chris Dixon is supervising the contractors who will be operating Bertha. He’s been in the tunneling business for decades.

“There were two machines that drove tunnels on one contract on the Los Angeles Metro Red Line subway, they called them Thelma and Louise.” Dixon says another machine used in Puerto Rico was named after the wife of a contracting executive.

Laird concedes that the name Bertha might not be the prettiest. But she says the name conjures up something that is big, solid and has a down-home quality to it. That, Laird says, seems like an appropriate description of Bertha’s new home: Seattle.

Here's WSDOT's map of places to go to get a good look at Bertha.

Follow Derek Wang on Twitter.

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