HistoryLink.org is the first encyclopedia of community history created expressly for the Internet. The free encyclopedia was the vision of local historian, author, and civic activist Walt Crowley (1947-2007), historian Paul Dorpat (b. 1938), and graphic designer Marie McCaffrey (b. 1951), Crowley's business partner and wife. HistoryLink is a project of the nonprofit organization History Ink, incorporated in 1997. The encyclopedia had a soft launch in 1998 and formally launched in 1999. It is heavily used by educators, politicians, scholars, journalists, history buffs, and students. Crowley was a unique Seattle personality who believed that understanding our history is essential for making informed decisions about the future. Starting with a focus on King County, including Seattle, HistoryLink's vision was to include previously overlooked groups -- women, African Americans, Jewish communities -- along with aviation, libraries, cities and towns, arts, science, early non-Indian settlers, and area Salish peoples. In 2003, the encyclopedia expanded to cover all of Washington. The original vision included publishing books, and by 2018 HistoryLink had published more than two dozen. The encyclopedia remains the go-to source for Washington history.
Bagley for a New Generation
In 1997, a few months shy of his 50th birthday, Crowley was looking for his next act. Three years earlier, Crowley and Dorpat, who had met at The Helix underground newspaper in the late 1960s, began brainstorming a project to mark the 150th anniversary of Seattle's 1851 founding. When McCaffrey asked what he would do if he could do anything in the world, Crowley said he'd write the encyclopedia of Seattle and King County history. It would be a print update of Clarence Bagley's The History of King County, a four-volume work published in 1929 that emphasized white pioneers and business leaders. Crowley and Dorpat wanted their project to be more inclusive of women and all ethnic communities. As Crowley and McCaffrey were discussing the idea, McCaffrey asked, "Why don't we do it on the World Wide Web?" (McCaffrey interview). The idea made perfect sense. There would be no end point. It could develop or be corrected as new historical details were uncovered.
Crowley and McCaffrey had worked together at Crowley Associates, Inc., the company they cofounded in 1977 to design and create books and civic campaign materials. They were involved in The Seattle Public Library's 1998 "Libraries for All" bond measure that led to the new Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library and the renovation of branches. Crowley had worked for Seattle mayors Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) and Norm Rice (b. 1943), chairing Rice's task force for preservation of historic downtown theaters and, with McCaffrey, helping Rice's 1989 election as the first African American mayor of Seattle. By the late 1990s, Dorpat was Seattle's best-known historian, primarily for his weekly "Now and Then" column in The Seattle Times and his now-and-then Seattle history books. Crowley, McCaffrey, and Dorpat had creativity, connections, and contacts across Seattle.
Their decision to create an online encyclopedia came during the Internet's initial mainstream popularity. When they hatched the HistoryLink idea, Amazon was three years old and had fewer than 200 employees. "It was also during the dot-com explosion, and we were sort of the center of the universe. There were developers coming out of our ears. It was like a boom town. People were making millions in a week" (McCaffrey interview). But when HistoryLink's founders pitched their idea, McCaffrey said, "nobody got what we were talking about. The first thing they'd say is how are we going to make money on it?" Crowley's answer: "We're not" (McCaffrey interview).
And then came Patsy Collins. Dorothy Priscilla "Patsy" Bullitt Collins (1920-2003), from a wealthy Seattle family, dedicated herself to funding projects for community benefit. Crowley, who knew Collins from previous projects, pitched the online-history-encyclopedia idea at a time most homes had dial-up internet -- if they had it at all. "Thank God for Patsy. She didn't understand what we were doing, but she trusted Walt" (McCaffrey interview). In November 1997, Collins gave $20,000, allowing HistoryLink to create a demonstration site, designed by McCaffrey and developed by site architect Steve Leith (b. 1952), to use in seeking additional funding.
Before long, the "venture socialism" project had raised more than $135,000 from private donors, the Metropolitan King County Council, the City of Seattle, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Seattle Public Library Foundation, and others. "A lot of our dot-com cousins scoffed at our not seeking advertising and private capitalization," Crowley said in 2006, "But HistoryLink is still online and growing, and they're history, literally" (Rorabaugh).
Assembling the Team
Crowley believed historians did their best work when paid, and 90 percent of HistoryLink funding went to paying writers. An early recruit was Alan Stein (b. 1961), a former Boeing engineer with extensive knowledge of Eastside King County history. Dorpat introduced him to Crowley in late 1997 at the Museum of History & Industry:
"I loved the idea, but I said to Walt, 'You know this will never be finished.' And Walt said, 'Well, yeah, of course.' I was totally on board when I heard that. And that's still where we are: It will never be completed" (Stein interview).
The HistoryLink.org demonstration site was launched on May Day 1998. In early July, a core group of writers met at Crowley and McCaffrey's Phinney Ridge home for the first of what would become regular Thursday staff meetings. Priscilla Long (b. 1943), editor, literary writer, and author of a history of coal mining, was hired as HistoryLink's senior editor. Crowley's true genius, Long said, was assembling a staff passionate about history that could write exciting, scholarly history in plain English.
Those at that first Thursday meeting included Dorpat; developer Chris Goodman (b. 1971); former Seattle Public School librarian Mary Henry (b. 1923); Stein; Greg Lange (b. 1952), who worked for the state archives; Long; and school teachers Cynthia Mejia-Giudici (b. 1959) and Lee Micklin (b. 1953). Literary writer Patrick McRoberts (1952-2010) also attended and served as associate editor.
The group formulated a structure that would enable users to look at history chronologically through timeline entries. Users could also search feature articles (and timeline entries) by key words, geographically, or by topic. Feature articles and timeline entries would be fully sourced. The People's History library provided a place for personal reminiscences, opinion pieces, and reprints of historical documents. The project could continue forever as a comprehensive historical database open to everyone.
Participants spent considerable time creating topics under which articles would be categorized and discussing which essays were most important to complete first. "Walt wanted to make sure all ethnic groups were represented. Walt drove that, but we were all of that same mind" (Stein interview). Henry focused on local African American history. David Takami (b. 1957) created HistoryLink's first overview of Japanese and Chinese experiences in King County. Mejia-Giudici wrote about early Filipino Americans in Seattle, Micklin about the Jewish community, and Kenneth Greg Watson (b. 1955) about Native Americans of Puget Sound. Historian Junius Rochester (b. 1934) wrote on early non-Indian settlers. In August 1998 Crowley hired architectural historian Heather MacIntosh to help with databases, grants, and People's History projects. MacIntosh served as deputy director through August 2000.
Later, historian and former journalist Cassandra Tate (b. 1945) began writing on topics ranging from biographies to the Hanford Reach National Monument. Eric L. Flom began contributing in 1999, focusing on theater history. Beginning in 2001, music historian Peter Blecha (b. 1956) provided detailed histories of musicians briefly mentioned or overlooked in other historical works. Blecha was someone Crowley had been admiring from afar.
"Walt really hooked me into it by explaining their approach to making assignments and having writers fulfill their assignments. We want these essays to be accurate, obviously. But we don't want them to be puffed up to be more than they are" (Blecha interview).
The HistoryLink staff also focused on suburban King County communities -- Enumclaw, Duvall, Sammamish, Kirkland, and more -- inadequately covered by previous historians. "We focused on sources -- the sources had to be good. I think the glue was the obsession with history and the kind of professionalism brought to the table and the kind of materials that went into building the essays" (Long interview). One early project was the Honor Roll, listing all Washington residents who died in the line of military service.
On November 10, 1998, HistoryLink's soft launch was held in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood at the Speakeasy Cafe, which until February 2000 hosted the site's servers. HistoryLink officially went live on Friday, January 15, 1999, Martin Luther King's birthday. That weekend, staff displayed the site with a 28.8 kbps modem at Seattle Center. Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) was one of the first to stop by and use the site, though he appeared totally unfamiliar with the Internet. At the time, HistoryLink was the only regional online encyclopedia of its kind in the U.S. created expressly for the Internet with original content.
In HistoryLink.org's first year, it had more than 3 million pageviews and raised nearly $300,000 toward development and operating expenses. That first year was unique: While drawing visitors locally and worldwide, there were frustrating moments as the HistoryLink staff waited for the world to catch up to Internet technology. But Crowley and the team knew people would.
"There's a special exhilaration to doing history in real time and in collaboration with a broad, even global, community of correspondents. Regardless of which flavor of history you prefer -- literary, scientific, or utilitarian -- I believe that the Internet will expand your knowledge, your reach, your impact, your pleasure as a working historian" (Crowley, "Doing History ...").
"That Put Us on the Map"
In October 1999, Stein and Crowley drafted emails to every major publication that would cover the World Trade Organization's Third Ministerial Conference, which started in Seattle on November 30, 1999. Staff placed a web camera in HistoryLink's downtown office window in the Joshua Green Building, 1425 4th Avenue. It looked down onto Westlake Park, where thousands gathered to protest WTO policies they believed harmed the environment and labor and human rights. "We had the singular view of the WTO protest," Stein recalled, noting HistoryLink had the only live camera consistently pointed at Westlake Park, a center of violence and police-protester confrontations: "Our traffic exploded" (Stein interview).
Mayor Schell declared a state of emergency, imposing a curfew and a "no-protest zone." The riots led Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) to call out the National Guard and to an estimated $20 million in damaged property and lost sales. They also arguably led to the resignation of Police Chief Norm Stamper (b. 1944) and to Schell's failed 2001 re-election bid. NBC News used images from HistoryLink on its newscast. Crowley took calls from the BBC, The Times of London, and newspaper reporters from across the globe who were glued to the camera taking a new frame each minute. At one point, when TV cameras were pushed back beyond the line of sight, HistoryLink's WTO Cam was the only live feed from downtown Seattle. Police and city hall staffers were watching too. HistoryLink gained more than 1.5 million pageviews during WTO week. Traffic was so heavy the Speakeasy server periodically shut down, prompting it to give HistoryLink its own server. Crowley later said that being a laboratory to document history as it happened was HistoryLink's great value. Stein said, "That put us on the map. We were this history encyclopedia and we became part of the history" (Stein interview).
A Unique State Encyclopedia
Unlike other state encyclopedias, HistoryLink was independent of any government agency or educational institution. That allowed organizational freedom to determine content and to hold Thursday staff meetings at the Elephant & Castle pub in downtown Seattle. Those initial meetings were sounding boards for historical curiosities that generated ideas for content.
With new entries being posted almost daily, HistoryLink became known among educators and students -- so much so that traffic dipped during summer months and school breaks. By April 2000, HistoryLink had raised more than $500,000. The first HistoryLink book, The Story of Union Station (1999) by Crowley and MacIntosh, was commissioned by Sound Transit in 1999 and relied on McCaffrey's design and the staff's research, writing, and editing expertise. It was the first of dozens of books drawing from HistoryLink.org content.
Paula Becker (b. 1963) joined and later co-wrote books with Stein on the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Pacific (AYP) World's Fair and the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Becker also wrote on topics including dance marathons and famed Seattle author Betty MacDonald (1907-1957).
Jen Ott (b. 1971), David Wilma (b. 1948), Phil Dougherty (b. 1959), and Kit Oldham (b. 1957), who all joined by the early 2000s, also authored HistoryLink books. Wilma, a former University of Washington police officer, began writing for HistoryLink in June 1999 and served as deputy director through July 2007. Oldham, a lawyer, wrote hundreds of articles before replacing Long as senior editor in 2013. Ott, an environmental historian, wrote articles on the waterfront and was involved in HistoryLink's collaboration with local tribes. Dougherty wrote histories of many Washington communities. Long, while serving as senior editor, wrote on bridges and more. Former Post-Intelligencer columnist Frank Chesley (1929-2010) started as a HistoryLink contributor in 2003. Daryl McClary (b. 1944) contributed articles on historic tragedies. David B. Williams (b. 1965) wrote on geology and the waterfront.
In 2001, the City of Seattle commissioned HistoryLink to create profiles of every neighborhood. That same year, the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake shook Puget Sound. Crowley's reaction during the quake was to dive on top of the web server to protect it. The following day HistoryLink featured a picture of its trashed office and a history of local earthquakes dating back to 1700.
In 2002, the Paul Allen Virtual Education Foundation granted HistoryLink $100,000 to expand statewide -- a dream since the beginning. In 2005, the Washington State Legislature appropriated $150,000 to support HistoryLink.
Teams Across the State
Another dream was to have HistoryLink core writers based in every Washington region. In 2006 the first HistoryLink county team was established in Snohomish County, led by Margaret Riddle (b. 1942), a librarian at the Everett Pubic Library from 1977 through 2008. Riddle appreciated the flexibility HistoryLink's format offered: "As a historian, when you're writing something there are always those things that end up on the cutting room floor, that don't quite fit in places. But they did fit into timelines, and at HistoryLink there is a way to use that material" (Riddle interview).
Crowley assigned the Snohomish County team 100 articles -- including timeline entries, biographies, city profiles, and people's histories -- to be written primarily by Snohomish County historians. Those initial 100 articles, funded by a grant from the Henry M. Jackson foundation, were completed by the end of 2008. This accomplishment helped secure additional funding for Snohomish County coverage from the Snohomish County Community Heritage Fund. Later HistoryLink also received grants from the Tulalip Tribes, helping expand Snohomish County Native American coverage. Local teams were subsequently formed in San Juan, Pierce, and Spokane counties using the model created in Snohomish County.
In Spokane Jim Kershner, a longtime Spokesman-Review reporter, was working on a book about influential civil rights leader Carl Maxey (1924-1997) in 2006 when Laura Arksey (b. 1936), a HistoryLink contributor and archivist at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, suggested Kershner write a Maxey bio for HistoryLink. He did, and by 2018 had written more than 200 articles, including histories of Eastern Washington cities and of Washington wheat farming, and biographies of Columbia band of Indians leader Chief Moses (1829-1899) and Chief Spokane Garry (ca. 1811-1892). He said:
"Being a journalist you wrote a lot of stories and they're not totally in depth and you might be working on three or four at the same time. It was really nice for me to get in-depth into one topic, and I really loved that. ... 100 or 200 years from now people will have this resource ... an easy and accurate history of what happened in the state from the beginning. I think that's phenomenal, and I think about that all the time when I'm writing these pieces" (Kershner interview).
Kershner wrote a HistoryLink book on Northwest power utilities. Kershner and Jack (b. 1949) and Claire (b. 1952) Nisbet were among the historians creating Spokane-area content for HistoryLink in 2018.
"As a journalist I had already used HistoryLink for stories because it had a reputation -- still does -- as a place you can get really reliable, verified, cited information. ... You can find a lot of stuff on the Internet, but you need to make sure it's accurate. With HistoryLink, it's rigorous. And journalists know that they can rely on it safely" (Kershner interview).
End of an Era
On July 15, 2005, after several years of chronic throat and voice problems, Crowley was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation didn't eradicate the disease, requiring the removal of his larynx on February 9, 2007. Hosting a "Famous Last (Natural) Words" party the night before the surgery, Crowley's last words in his natural voice, and then the first with his electrolarynx, were "I love you, Marie." But the cancer returned, and on September 20, 2007, Crowley had surgery at Virginia Mason Medical Center to remove a small growth. The surgery was successful, but that night Crowley suffered a massive stroke. He was on life support until the next day when dozens of friends -- business leaders, professors, media representatives, politicians, artists -- packed a waiting room. Those friends, and ones who joined by phone, held an impromptu memorial.
Crowley died at 8:15 p.m. on September 21, 2007, surrounded by family and friends. At the time of his death, HistoryLink had collected more than 3 million words and 12,000 historic images in more than 4,400 articles -- and had become a national model for history sites and encyclopedias around the country. "With so many [Seattle] newcomers in the last 10 years, it was vitally important to have a record made of history, because history sums up the character of a community," said John Carlson, Crowley's partner on the KIRO TV Point-Counterpoint debates from 1986 to 1993, who was at Virginia Mason, adding "And no one chronicled the history and character of Seattle and Washington better than Walt Crowley" (Bruscas).
"Marie Amazed Us All"
McCaffrey was a HistoryLink co-founder. She also was the graphic designer -- a key role, but one that wasn't public-facing. After Crowley's diagnosis, he nudged McCaffrey to speak for him more often at public events. After McCaffrey succeeded Crowley as HistoryLink's executive director -- approved by a unanimous board vote -- she realized she wasn't afraid to speak in front of a group. "That's what he was trying to do" (Lewis, "Under the Needle ...").
Crowley had squirreled away money from grants and donations -- so much that HistoryLink didn't need to immediately raise money in 2008, the year that saw the worst economic downturn in seven decades. Before his death, Crowley assigned tasks to longtime staff members. Long remained senior editor; Stein continued the weekly website updates, among other roles. Tom Brown, a former Seattle Times reporter, became assistant director and took over managing HistoryLink book projects (later managed by Documentary Media). Crowley also penned a Just in Case letter -- one that explained his hopes for HistoryLink and those who created it. He hoped McCaffrey would serve as executive director if she wanted to.
For years, McCaffrey was on the Seattle Public Library Board of Directors and also served in other board roles, including for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and the Center for Contemporary Arts. Though she always was an integral part of HistoryLink, during the first decade McCaffrey felt best in the background. "But I'd listen to everything. And [Walt would] come home and talk about it" (McCaffrey interview). Crowley's various roles as director were much more a passion than a job and McCaffrey came in the same way, seeing her role as an enabler of historians. McCaffrey battled feelings of anxiety during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, wondering how the organization could continue financially. Long called her a genius at fundraising and networking, pointing to the creation of HistoryLunch, the annual fundraiser that in 2017 raised $110,000 for site content and new initiatives. "Marie amazed us all. [Walt] knew a lot of people ... But there were a lot of people he pissed off. Marie was able to come in and that whole barrier was gone" (Stein interview).
The New Era
In 2013, Long retired from the senior editor position after editing more than 6,000 articles -- becoming Founding and Consulting Editor -- and Oldham became senior editor. Around this time, to avoid confusion, the non-profit corporation started doing business under HistoryLink instead of History Ink.
Major projects at the time included organizing the San Juan County team, followed by Pierce and Spokane teams. San Juan articles included biographies of Friday Harbor town founder Edward Warbass (1825-1906) and Orcas Island photographer James Geoghegan (1869-1953) and features on the Roche Harbor Lime Works and Coast Salish camas cultivation. For Pierce County, entries included histories of Tacoma's Japantown (Nihonmachi) and the Skansie Shipbuilding Company of Gig Harbor. Spokane County articles included early fur traders and missionaries, Colville tribal members, and Spokane's Peaceful Valley neighborhood.
One of McCaffrey's first projects was to connect with Fort Lewis (the army base in Pierce County that in 2010 became part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord) -- a partnership that led to military historian Duane Colt Denfeld (b. 1937) writing more than 150 entries on Washington military history and other topics. Another key project, stretching across the state, focused on Washington's 75 public port districts, resulting in 75 timeline entries and 10 features covering the history of the state's public ports since the first were created in 1911.
Seattle and King County continued strong support, funding articles by Ott, Williams, and others on aspects of the Lake Washington Ship Canal beginning in 2016. The next year Blecha completed a book on Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington's largest fine-wine producer. Blecha's 2016 article on Seattle lounge-piano legend Merceedees Walton (1913-2000) inspired a 2018 performance-art piece at Belltown's Jewelbox Theater about Walton and other lesser-known figures in city history.
By 2018 HistoryLink had some 20 core historians and almost 50 additional contributing historians across Washington, including former attorney John Caldbick (b. 1946), who became associate editor; Linda Holden Givens (b. 1956), granddaughter of great jazz musician Oscar Holden (1886-1969); and author and historian Fred Poyner IV (b. 1969), also collections manager of Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum. The encyclopedia had posted numerous timeline entries and feature articles on the arts, cities and towns, maritime and military history, biographies, and sports, many of the latter by former Post-Intelligencer sports editor Glenn Drosendahl (b. 1945). The WTO-Cam video that helped put HistoryLink on the map remained on the site.
Antonia Kelleher (b. 1988) joined in 2015 as a contributing historian and in 2016 became HistoryLink's executive assistant. In March 2017, Ott became assistant director. Between 2016 and 2018, HistoryLink completely redesigned and upgraded the website, and began replacing some 20,000 images with higher-resolution versions. In 2018, HistoryLink moved from the Joshua Green Building to an office in Seattle's historic Pike Place Market.
"So what use does history serve?" Crowley asked in 2001: "Ultimately, just one: it helps us to be more human. Subtract any and all analytic or pragmatic applications, and you are left with THE story -- the essential narrative defining our place in time and in the stream of our culture" ("Turning Point 17").
Two decades after its creation, HistoryLink's mission remained what it was at start: "to pioneer innovative approaches to historical research, education, and publishing. Its primary public service activity is production of HistoryLink.org" ("About HistoryLink.org").