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Seattle -- Thumbnail History

HistoryLink.org Essay 7934 : Printer-Friendly Format

Seattle is the largest city in Washington state and its economic capital. Settled in 1851, its deep harbor and acquisition of Puget Sound’s first steam-powered sawmill quickly established it as a center of trade and industry. It gained the Territorial University (now University of Washington) in 1861, but was snubbed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1874 when it picked Tacoma as its western terminus. Despite this, the town prospered thanks to independent railroad development fueled by local coal deposits. It recovered quickly from its Great Fire of 1889, but languished during the aftermath of the economic Panic of 1893 until rescued by the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. In 1907, Seattle doubled in area with annexations of Ballard, West Seattle, and Southeast Seattle, and in 1909 held its first world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Its population topped a quarter of a million in 1910, which grew to 365,000 by 1930. A strong “labor town,” Seattle was the scene of the nation’s first general strike in 1919. Hit hard by the Great Depression, the economy rebounded with World War II and orders for Boeing bombers and naval warships. Its large “Japan Town” was interned and largely supplanted by the migration of thousands of African American defense workers. Seattle marked its postwar prosperity in 1962 by hosting a second world’s fair, the Century 21 Exposition, which gave the city the Space Needle, Monorail, and Seattle Center. Seattle’s population reached 565,000 in 1965, then stalled. The “Boeing Bust” of the early 1970s depressed the economy, which was rescued by construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The subsequent expansion of investment in aviation, computer software, international trade, regional tourism, biotechnology, telecommunications, and other fields have helped to diversify and energize Seattle’s economic, political, and cultural leadership. The city's population has resumed growing and passed 575,000 in 2005.

Before 1851

Seattle occupies a wasp-waisted strip of land sandwiched between the salt waters of Puget Sound and Elliott Bay and the fresh waters of Lake Washington. The topography is dominated by a series of ridges and valleys generally running north-south and by several large hills left behind by the retreat of glaciers. Flowing from the southeast, the meandering Duwamish River drains into Elliott Bay. The City is roughly bisected east to west by Salmon Bay, Lake Union, and Portage Bay, which were linked by the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917.

The original home of the Duwamish and other tribes, the area was first surveyed by British explorers Captain George Vancouver and Lt. Peter Puget in 1792. The U.S. Navy Exploration Expedition under command of Capt. George Wilkes sounded and named Elliott Bay in 1841. Wilke’s report led to an 1846 proposal for a transcontinental railroad linking Lake Superior with Puget Sound.

1851-1890: Planting the Seed for a City

Seattle’s modern history began on the rain-soaked morning of November 13, 1851, when a bedraggled group of settlers rowed ashore from the schooner Exact and set foot on today’s Alki Beach. Most of the party of two dozen men, women, and children had been led by Arthur Denny over the Oregon Trail from Illinois to Portland, Oregon. They were later joined by brothers Charles and Leander Terry from New York.

These pioneers had not come west to strike it rich prospecting for gold or to patiently clear wilderness for farms. They planned to build a city in anticipation of the transcontinental railroad they expected would soon connect the Pacific Northwest with the Great Lakes.

From Portland, Arthur dispatched his young brother David and John Low north to explore Puget Sound. They joined up with “Lee” Terry in Olympia and canoed north into Elliott Bay, where they were welcomed by Chief Seattle, “tyee” of the Duwamish and Suguamish tribes. They also met a party of farmers, led by Luther Collins, who had claimed homesteads in the fertile valley of the meandering Duwamish River just days earlier.

After exploring the area, John Low and Lee Terry staked claims on the western shore of today’s West Seattle. David Denny sent a note to his brother with John Low which read “There is plenty of room for one thousand settlers. Come at once.”

The group initially called its new home “New York” after the Terry brothers’ home state, but they found the anchorage too exposed. In April 1852, most of the Denny Party relocated to the more sheltered eastern shore of Elliott Bay. They were joined by Olympia physician and merchant David S. “Doc” Maynard, who persuaded his new neighbors that “Seattle” was a better name for their future city than “Duwamps.” Meanwhile, Charles Terry rechristened his New York settlement “Alki,” meaning “by and by” in the Chinook trading jargon.

Seattle’s economic future was launched in the fall of 1852 when Henry Yesler, after being bribed with cash and land, chose Seattle for the site of Puget Sound’s first steam-powered sawmill. In December 1852, Seattle was named the seat of a new King County (first named after Vice President William Rufus Devane King and officially rededicated in 2005 to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).

Washington Territory separated from Oregon in 1853, and Seattle vied with Olympia to serve as the state capital. It lost, and settled for the Territorial University in 1861. The town  grew slowly but steadily to reach a population of 1,100 by 1870.

When the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Tacoma over Seattle for its Puget Sound terminus in 1874, disappointed city founders built their own short railroads to connect the harbor to newly discovered coal deposits. Seattle’s population tripled by 1880 while Tacoma languished waiting for the tracks of the stalled Northern Pacific to reach it. Seattle’s growth accelerated after a spur line linked it to the Northern Pacific in 1884, and the city swelled to 42,000 during the decade.

By now the Sound buzzed with a “Mosquito Fleet” of private ferries and steamships, and railroad tracks were spreading across the territory. John Osborne introduced the city’s first horse-drawn streetcars in 1884 and converted them to electric power in April 1889. Three months later, on June 6, an overheated pot of glue started a fire that consumed the entire downtown. The privately owned water system failed and 64 acres of wood-framed buildings and docks were reduced to ashes.

British writer Rudyard Kipling happened to be touring Puget Sound at the moment and called the aftermath “a horrible black smudge.”

1891-1910: Urban Phoenix

Undaunted, Seattle quickly rebuilt -- with stone and brick. It also raised the sidewalks in today’s Pioneer Square to improve drainage, and thereby created the labyrinth of areaways and interconnected basements for today’s famous “Underground Seattle” tour.

One month after the fire, voters approved the city government’s development of a public water system. City Engineer R. H. Thomson began laying pipe to tap a vast watershed on the Cedar River 40 miles to the southeast. He consciously planned it to serve a metropolis of one million.

Seattle gained its own direct transcontinental rail link with completion of James Hill’s Great Northern Railway in 1893, and international trade with China and Japan kept the harbor busy. Hops grown in nearby river valleys supported the world’s sixth largest output of beer, centered in Georgetown breweries. Seattle was now the largest city in Washington, which had gained statehood on November 11, 1889.

Then the bottom dropped out, A stock market crash and dwindling federal gold reserves triggered the national “Panic of 1893,” which dried up East Coast capital for Seattle’s development. The regional economy sank into a depression that wiped out many pioneers, including David Denny, who had grown rich on street railways and a sawmill on the south shore of Lake Union.

The city was rescued on July 17, 1897, when the steamship Portland arrived with two tons of gold scraped from the banks of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory, launching an international gold rush. Seattle declared itself the “Gateway to Alaska” (which offered the shortest route to the Klondike) and its merchants fleeced tens of thousands of eager prospectors on their way to and from the gold fields. The city marked its resurrection in 1889 with installation of a totem pole -- stolen from a Tlingit village in Alaska -- in Pioneer Square and ended the decade with 82,000 residents.

Renewed prosperity sparked a development boom as cablecar lines and electric street railways fanned out across the city. Many lines terminated in fanciful amusement parks intended to attract homebuyers to suburban neighborhoods. These included Golden Gardens in Ballard, Guy Phinney’s Woodland Park resort and zoo near Green Lake, Madison Park baseball field and pavilion, Leschi Park, where cable cars connected with Lake Washington ferries, and West Seattle’s Luna Park.

Control of the city’s streetcar system was consolidated in 1900 by the Seattle Electric Co., a tentacle of the national Stone & Webster cartel, and antecedent of today’s Puget Sound Energy. Fear of this monopoly spurred development of a municipal utility, Seattle City Light, which tapped the hydroelectric potential of the Cedar River watershed in 1905.

The teeming harbor was flanked by a wooden “Railway Avenue” crowded with trains and trucks. To relieve some of the pressure, the Great Northern dug a railroad tunnel beneath the city, which terminated in a grand new King Street Station in 1906.

The downtown expanded north from Pioneer Square to fill the University of Washington’s former campus. Workers flattened towering Denny Hill, long topped by the empty Washington Hotel, and cleared a vast swath of land from Pine street to Lake Union for future development. The introduction of steel frame construction gave Seattle its first “skyscraper,” the Alaska Building, in 1904.

Seattle doubled in land area in 1907 with the annexation of Ballard, West Seattle, and Southeast Seattle. The famed Olmsted Brothers were retained by Seattle in 1903 and again in 1908 to layout an ambitious system of scenic boulevards, parks, and playgrounds to serve the city’s burgeoning population, which reached nearly a quarter million by decade’s end.

Under the leadership of such progressive and imaginative leaders as engineers R. H. Thomson and Hiram Chittenden, Mayor George Cotterill, City Light superintendent J. D. Ross, and school superintendent Frank Cooper, the city built utilities, schools, and paved roads for growing numbers of automobiles (the town’s first, a Woods Electric, had arrived in 1900). The city also established a “Public Market” at Pike Place in 1907 where consumers could buy produce directly from local farmers to avoid being gouged by greedy middlemen.

Seattle celebrated its good fortune in the summer of 1909 by hosting its first “world’s fair,” the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, on the new University of Washington campus north of Portage Bay. Nearly four million visitors, including President William Howard Taft, paid a call.

1911-1930: Golden Decades

With the support of women voters, who in Washington gained the vote in 1910, a decade ahead of the rest of the nation, progressives continued push forward ambitious plans for social and physical improvements. Foremost among these were the creation in 1911 of the Port of Seattle, a public agency which took over control of the waterfront from private railroad and shipping companies.

That same year, Seattle staged its first “Golden Potlatch” summer festival. The 1912 event turned ugly when the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as “Wobblies,” and other socialist groups were attacked by mobs whipped up by conservative Seattle Times’ publisher Alden Blethen. It was a preview of more trouble to come.

Seattle continued to grow with the expansion of highways, streetcar lines, and neighborhoods. Major department stores were established downtown around the busy intersections of Westlake, 5th, and 4th avenues, and a complex of farmers’ stalls and specialty shops formed around the original Pike Place Public Market. Skyscrapers multiplied in the downtown, but none came close to the new 42-story Smith Tower, which opened on July 4, 1914, as the tallest building west of Ohio.

New heights were also reached on June 15, 1916, when William E. Boeing took off Lake Union in his first airplane, the B&W float plane. It is not recorded if he celebrated the event with champagne, but if he did, it was illegal: Washington had gone dry at midnight January 1, 1916, three years ahead of national Prohibition.

On July 4, 1914, more history was made on Lake Union as a long-held dream was fulfilled with the official dedication of the Government Locks at Ballard, which connected the fresh waters of Lake Union and Lake Washington with the saltwater of Salmon Bay, Puget Sound, and the Pacific beyond. The idea of such a canal had first been proposed by Thomas Mercer in a speech back in 1854 -- at the town’s first 4th of July picnic.

America’s entry into World War I fueled a temporary surge in ship building and orders for Boeing airplanes, whose production shifted from Lake Union to a former shipyard, “the Red Barn,” on the Duwamish River. The Armistice did not bring peace to the homefront as the city’s restless and radicalized work force demanded better conditions and pay raises that had been deferred during the hostilities.

In February 1919, a bitter shipyard strike boiled over into the nation’s first true general strike, which shut the city down for a week before collapsing in disarray. Fearing a local version of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, local and national authorities clamped down on “Reds” everywhere. The labor movement would not fully recover until the 1930s.

The private economy roared during the 1920s with expanding Pacific trade. Famed “silk trains” speeded Chinese fabrics from Seattle’s harbor to the Eastern mills, and Japan became a eager customer of American steel and resources. New Seattle City Light dams turned the rapids of the Skagit River, 90 miles north of the city, into electricity for new skyscrapers and factories. The potential for  growth seemed infinite as the city census approached 365,000 residents.

Then came October 29, 1929.

1931-1950: Gloom and Boom

The Great Depression hit Seattle fast and hard. Foreign trade shriveled, idling the port and orders for new ships and aircraft evaporated. Downtown construction halted in 1930, and a major new building would not rise for nearly 20 years. More than 1,000 unemployed men (and a few women) built a shantytown on an abandoned shipyard south of Pioneer Square. They named it “Hooverville” in ironic tribute to President Herbert Hoover.

The state government accelerated road construction to provide relief, and opened the spectacular Aurora Bridge across the Ship Canal in 1932. The end of Prohibition in 1933 brought relief of a different kind, and brewer Emil Sick built the city a new baseball stadium to showcase a team named the Rainiers after his popular beer and a certain mountain.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal delivered more help and employed thousands to build new parks, highways, housing projects, and other public improvements. The waterfront’s rickety and perilous wooden-planked Railroad Avenue was filled in with soil and sealed with a new seawall. The world’s first floating concrete bridge opened across Lake Washington between Seattle and Mercer Island in 1940. Federal funds also financed the replacement of Seattle’s aging streetcars with modern buses and electric “trackless trolleys.”

Darkening war clouds over Europe and Asia had silver linings for local shipyards and for Boeing, which introduced its new B-17 bomber in 1936. Civil aviation also boomed, thanks in large part to new Boeing aircraft such as the world’s first modern airliner, the Model 247, the “Boeing Clipper” flying boat, and the high-altitude “Stratocruiser.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, stunned Seattle, which fully expected to be an early target if the Japanese fleet pressed on to the West Coast. Amid blackouts and air raid drills, the federal government rounded up more than 8,000 local citizens of Japanese descent, most of them loyal U.S. citizens, and shipped them to inland concentration camps. Their homes and neighborhoods were taken over by thousands of African Americans, migrated north to work in Seattle’s shipyards and factories.

Thousands of patriots enlisted or bought war bonds at giant rallies in “Victory Square” in front of the Olympic Hotel, and women joined the work force to assemble tanks, ships, and airplanes in local factories. With federal funds, the Seattle Housing Authority erected instant neighborhoods to house defense workers, and the Port of Seattle built a new regional airport midway between Seattle and Tacoma.

Boeing quietly designed and tested a powerful new bomber, the B-29, but the secret almost escaped when the second prototype crashed near Boeing Field in 1943. Regardless, the B-29 went into production and two of the aircraft would bring the war to a close by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Prosperity did not necessarily follow peace as wartime orders for ships and planes dried up. The mounting anxiety of the Cold War fueled local anti-communist investigations and purges long before U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy lent his name to the cause.

1951-Present: From Century 21 to 21st Century

As Seattle neared the 1951 centennial of its founding, civic leaders decided it needed a good party. They organized a new summer festival, Seafair, which soon became famous for races featuring the world’s fasted hydroplane boats. They also built the city a new museum as a showcase for its history and industry. In 1953, the city’s first “freeway,” the Alaska Way Viaduct opened to speed Highway 99 traffic around downtown along the waterfront.

With annexations of northern neighborhoods up to 145th Street in 1954, Seattle’s population approached half a million, but growth was accelerating in the surrounding suburbs. The Baby Boom and new road construction spurred outlying housing development, and new shopping centers such as Northgate and Bellevue Square helped to lure residents the way amusement parks had done in the era of streetcars.

Development took its toll as urban and suburban sewage turned Lake Washington into a cesspool. Voters responded by creating a new regional utility, Metro, to take over waste management and clean up the lake, but they rejected more visionary ideas for mass transit, parks, and planning.

Work on Interstate 5 and the Evergreen Floating Bridge between Madison Park and the Eastside began in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, Seattle hosted its second world’s fair, the Century 21 Exposition, in 1962. The fair left a permanent legacy of public buildings and attractions in today’s Seattle Center, including major sports arena, an opera house (now McCaw Hall), the Pacific Science Center, several theaters, and a new civic totem pole, the Space Needle.

Seattle’s population crested at 565,000 in 1965, then began a slow decline as the Baby Boom faded and cheaper housing and open spaces attracted new residents to the suburbs. The population of the rest of King County passed that of Seattle by 1970 and is today twice as large as the city’s.

Competition from the suburbs led downtown business interests to advocate “urban renewal” projects that would have flattened Pioneer Square and Pike Place Public Market to make room for parking garages and apartment towers. This sparked an energetic movement for historic preservation and both were saved along with hundreds of other landmarks. Similarly, neighborhood activists armed by new environmental protection laws scaled back an expansion plan for Interstate 90 and scuttled proposals two local freeways.

County voters responded to the challenges and opportunities of growth by approving several “Forward Thrust” bond programs in 1968 for a new parks, fire stations, and a domed stadium (the Kingdome opened in 1976 and was imploded in 2001), but again rejected plans for rail transit. Voters later approved an all-bus system in 1972.

Congressional cancellation of funds for a supersonic transport in 1969 triggered the “Boeing Bust,” and the company’s payroll plummeted from 100,000 to 40,000 over the next two years. Seattle slipped into another deep recession which lasted until construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline began in 1974. Alaskan “gold” again revived Seattle’s economy, but this time it was black gold.

The downtown began to explode with new highrises such as Columbia Center, which in 1984 briefly recaptured the Smith Tower’s crown as the tallest building in the West. Metro Transit opened a bus tunnel beneath downtown in 1990, and voters finally authorized rail transit in 1996. The following year, Seattle voters also okayed a new monorail system, but this was later sidelined by inadequate funding.

By the end of the twentieth century, Seattle had gained worldwide cachet for urban chic thanks to such diverse enterprises as Microsoft, founded by native sons Bill Gates and Paul Allen and based in nearby Redmond,  Starbucks coffee, Nordstrom fashions, and Redhook beer and other microbrews. Seattle was dependent on international trade but that did not prevent it from becoming Ground Zero for clashes over globalization when it hosted the World Trade Organization in late 1999.

Despite the WTO riots, Seattle was upbeat. It built new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks and voters approved huge bond issues for new libraries and park improvements. On the eve of its 2001 sesquicentennial, Seattle was shaken by “Fat Tuesday” riots in Pioneer Square and a major earthquake on Ash Wednesday. It was shocked again later that year when Boeing shifted its corporate headquarters to Chicago, although greater Seattle remains its major production center. Then the “dot-com bust” pulled the plug on scores of Internet and related software companies.

Seattle rebounded strongly and is now formulating ambitious plans to replace the Alaska Way Viaduct, expand rail transit, rebuild Seattle Center, and create a new neighborhood and bio-tech center on the southern shore of Lake Union to be served by the city’s first streetcar in 65 years. The population resumed growing and exceeded 575,000 in 2005.

Seattle’s founders would be proud of the city that grew from the fragile seed they planted at Alki Beach back on November 13, 1851.

Sources:
Note: This Thumbnail History was adapted from an essay prepared for Historic Photos of Seattle (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Co., 2006).


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Smith Tower (Gaggin and Gaggin, 1914), Seattle, 1920s
Postcard


Waterfront showing sailing vessels anchored in harbor, Seattle, ca. 1889.
Photo by Boyd and Braas, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. UW18559)


Aftermath of Seattle fire of June 6, 1889, showing ruins of Puget Sound National Bank in the Occidental Hotel Building, corner of James Street and Yesler Way, Seattle, June 1889
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. No. 36934)


Trolleycars on 2nd Avenue, ca. 1910
Postcard


Seattle: Smith Tower from the foot of Columbia Street, ca. 1920
Postcard


Stylized representation of Seattle, ca. 1930
Postcard


Pike Place Market, 1940s
Postcard


King Street Station (Charles Reed and Allen Stem, 1906)
Courtesy MOHAI


Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle, 1960s
Postcard


Standard Oil map to the 1962 Seattle World's Fair
Courtesy Standard Oil


Fremont Bridge shot from Aurora Bridge, Lake Washington Ship Canal, Seattle, July 2001
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


Columbia Center or Bankamerica Tower, formerly Columbia Seafirst Center (Chester Lindsey Architects, 1985), Seattle, August 2000
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


 
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