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Pioneer Square Tour

HistoryLink.org Essay 7055

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Pioneer Square encompasses the birthplace of modern Seattle and its first downtown. Most of the Square's buildings were erected within a decade of the disastrous Great Fire of June 6, 1889. The district began a slow decline during World War I and became better known as a derelict and decadent "Skid Road."

Preservationists rallied in the 1960s to save the area's exquisite ensemble of Victorian and Edwardian Era architecture from demolition. Today, Pioneer Square is protected by a 30-acre Historic District and a slightly larger Special Review District. The core of the neighborhood lies between Cherry Street on the north, 2nd Avenue on the east, Alaskan Way on the West, and S King Street on the south.

Note: This tour is intended for personal use only and was prepared by HistoryLink for the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development, Tourist Division. Copyright 2001, City of Seattle. All references to contemporary businesses in this tour date from June 2001. They are cited for orientation and information purposes only and do not imply recommendation or endorsement by the City of Seattle or by HistoryLink.

Although Seattle's first permanent settlers landed elsewhere, Pioneer Square can lay claim to being the city's "first neighborhood." Most members of a party led by Arthur Denny relocated from West Seattle's Alki beach to present-day Pioneer Square in the spring of 1852 and set about creating a modern city.

At the time, there was little level (or dry) land on which to build. The area bounded by today's Yesler Way and Main Street and 2nd Avenue and Alaskan Way was a low peninsula, originally called Piner's Point, nearly surrounded by tide flats on the south and east, and bounded by steep ridges to the north.

The area south of Yesler Way was claimed by David "Doc" Maynard, a physician and merchant who relocated to Seattle from Olympia at the urging of Chief Seattle. Maynard returned the favor by convincing Seattle's settlers to rename the village, first called "Duwamps," in the Chief's honor. Arthur Denny, Carson Boren, and William Bell staked claims on the ridges to the north and east, but later disagreed with their neighbor over the new town's street grid.

Seattle's early success was guaranteed when Henry Yesler chose the village as the site of Puget Sound's first steam-powered lumber mill (in exchange for generous chunks of the settler's claims). He built his mill on a pier at the foot of today's Yesler Way, once nicknamed "Skid Road."

The village prospered despite a Native American attack in 1856 and various economic downturns. By 1889, Seattle was the state's largest city, with 40,000 residents. Then, on June 6, the wood-framed downtown burned to the ground. The city quickly rebuilt -- with brick and stone -- and most of these buildings survive in Pioneer Square.

Following the Klondike Gold Rush, the central business district expanded north of Yesler Way, while landfills and regrades permitted railroad and industrial development south of Pioneer Square. The city's original downtown gradually declined, giving a new and unsavory meaning to the nickname Skid Road.

Plans for Pioneer Square's "urban renewal" sparked Seattle's historic preservation movement, and a 30-acre district was set aside for protection in May 1969. Restoration and public improvements followed, and the first giant sports arena (the recently demolished Kingdome) opened in 1976.

The Square has been buffeted in recent years by earthquakes and rowdy festivals, but it remains largely intact as one of the nation's best preserved Victorian Era downtown districts and as Seattle's first -- and liveliest -- neighborhood.

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Pioneer Square and Totem Pole, Seattle, 1900s

Smith Tower (Gaggin and Gaggin, 1914), and Pioneer Square banner, Seattle, 2001
History Ink Collection

Wilkes' 1841 survey of Elliott Bay showing Piner's Point (future site of Pioneer Square) and steep ridges to the north
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

1856 map of Seattle by Thomas Phelps of USS Decatur, as published in Arthur Denny's Pioneer Days on Puget Sound with later street grid superimposed, 1908

Henry Yesler's sawmill, on a wharf at the foot of Skid Road (Yesler Way), 1870
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

Little remained of Pioneer Square after the Great Fire of June 6, 1889
Courtesy MOHAI

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