Pier 58 (Seattle)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 6/27/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22738
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Pier 58 was originally called Schwabacher's Wharf, built in the 1870s at the foot of Union Street by Louis, Abraham, and Sigmund Schwabacher, proprietors of a successful mercantile business. After the 1889 Great Fire, Schwabacher's Wharf was the only pier left intact, instantly becoming the city's sole shipping hub. In 1896, it welcomed the steamship Miike Maru, which inaugurated regularly scheduled shipping service between North America and Japan. In 1897, the SS Portland arrived, carrying a reported ton of gold from the Klondike, ushering in the Gold Rush years. As the northernmost of seven central-waterfront piers, the wharf became known as Pier 7, a designation changed in 1944 to Pier 58. In 1946, the city of Seattle purchased Pier 58 for $52,000 to build small-boat moorage. The project was unsuccessful, and the pier was demolished in 1965. Seattle voters approved a bond issue in 1968 to acquire more waterfront property. With funds in hand, Waterfront Park was constructed in the open area where Pier 58 once stood. As plans to enhance the Seattle waterfront got underway, ongoing inspections showed the pier's underwater pilings were failing. Before it could be dismantled, a large section of the pier plunged into Elliott Bay in 2020. Construction of a new Waterfront Park began in 2022.     

Schwabacher Wharf

Pier 58 began existence in the 1870s as Schwabacher's Wharf, also called Schwabacher's Pier. Located at the foot of Union Street along the central waterfront, the wharf was erected by the Schwabacher brothers – Louis (1837-1900), Abraham (1838-1909), and Sigmund (1841-1917). The family owned a mercantile business in Washington Territory, building an empire selling clothing, groceries, cigars and tobacco, building materials, carpets, paints, and agricultural implements. Their sister, Babette Schwabacher, married Bailey Gatzert (1829-1893), who was elected the first Jewish major of Seattle in 1875. 

Born in Bavaria of Jewish heritage, the brothers fled to America in the late 1850s to escape the anti-Semitism prevalent under Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), then minister-president of Prussia. The Schwabachers' first mercantile store opened in Walla Walla on September 1, 1860, and was extremely successful. Anticipating the growth of Seattle as a vibrant commercial center, the brothers turned their attention to Puget Sound, opening a wholesale mercantile store in Seattle on October 11, 1869. They also operated two grist mills in Walla Walla and one in Seattle, the largest of its kind in the west. All this commerce created the need for a wharf and a warehouse.

Schwabacher's Wharf played an important role in Seattle's early history. It was the site of the city's first customs house and the place where ships docked, laden with gold – first from the Skagit River Gold Rush in 1879-1880 and then the Yukon Gold Rush some 16 years later. When the Great Fire ravaged Seattle in 1889, the Schwabachers' store on Main Street was destroyed but the wharf, located further to the north, was spared. As the only pier to survive the fire, "in one afternoon it became the city's shipping center" ("Railroad Avenue, 1899"), serving as a temporary headquarters for railroad and steamship lines calling at Seattle. While the store was being rebuilt, the brothers moved their supplies into the warehouse and business continued.

From Seattle to Japan

On August 31, 1896, the Miike Maru, a liner owned by Japanese steamship company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK), docked at Schwabacher's Wharf, carrying 488 tons of freight, eight passengers, and 253 Japanese immigrants. Its arrival marked the opening of regularly scheduled service between North America and Japan. The ship was received with great excitement. Thousands of people lined the docks, and the bay was crowded with boats jockeying to get a look. NYK's selection of Seattle as its only North American port signaled an important beginning for the city's trans-Pacific trade. Seattle had beat out San Diego, San Francisco, and Portland for the business. 

The Miike Maru and other NYK steamships transported cargo and passengers regularly across the Pacific until 1929. The ships carried not only Japanese goods, but also items from China and elsewhere in Asia. On any given day, cargo might include tea, silk, ginger, paper, and curios. The vessels returned to Japan stocked with lumber, coal, metals, wheat and flour, cotton, hardware, beer, and tobacco.

On July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland docked at Schwabacher's Pier with 68 miners and what was reported to be a ton of gold from Canada's Klondike River valley. "The ensuing gold rush would make Seattle 'The Gateway to Alaska' and enrich local merchants, including the Schwabachers, who provisioned tens of thousands of eager prospectors" ("Seattle Central Waterfront, Part 7: Waterfront Park"). During this era, ships called regularly at Schwabacher's Pier on their way to British Columbia and Alaska, with ports of call at Victoria, Vancouver, Skagway, Copper River, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Haines, among other towns.

But not all the marine traffic came from faraway lands. Josiah Merritt (1809-1882), a weathered and hardy pioneer originally from Ohio, frequently paddled his canoe to Schwabacher's Wharf to transport bacon, or so the story goes. Known as Uncle Si, in 1862 Merritt "built a cabin at the base of a peak in the Cascade Mountains, east of Seattle. The peak became known as Uncle Si's mountain and is now called Mt. Si … He raised vegetables and hogs and kept an orchard. According to local historians, he was a rugged man who sometimes hauled bacon to the large settlements. To do so necessitated hauling the load on a sled to the river, canoeing downstream, strapping the load to his back and climbing down 268-foot Snoqualmie Falls, hiking several miles, and then canoeing the rest of the way to Everett or Seattle" ("Northwest Pioneer Fiddlers").

With such comings and goings, it's no surprise that Schwabacher's Pier was the scene of many fond farewells and jubilant homecomings, often covered by the local paper. "Schwabacher wharf presented an unusual scene this bright morning," started a January 19, 1898, article in The Seattle Times:

"Congregated there was a motley crowd, which seemed to be gathered from the four corners of the earth, for today the steamer Portland returns for the first time since the gold excitement to the Yukon country. The laboring man jostled against the broadcloth of the capitalist, and for the time being all class distinctions were on a common plane" ("Love on the Klondike").

Waterfront Gridlock

By 1901, commerce along the waterfront was booming and the seven mid-city piers were exceeding their capacity. Schwabacher's Wharf was number 7, located at the northern limit of the central waterfront. Although the pier had expanded three years earlier – it was now 408 feet long on the south side, 385 feet on the north side, and 125 feet wide – it could not accommodate the increased shipping traffic. "Last year it was common for two or three steamers to be seen at the big wharves, one outside the other, and in not a few instances, people were compelled to pass over three steamers before reaching the one they desired to board … The waterfront is simply overcrowded with steamers. The wharfingers are at their wits' ends to know where they will put vessels due to arrive" ("Capacity Is Overtaxed"). 

In 1906, the dock was extended again by nearly 100 feet into the water and widened as well to allow a spur line to be built from the railroad tracks along Railroad Avenue. The Schwabacher mercantile business continued to grow.

"The company does business on an immense scale, occupying four stories and a basement at 300 Occidental Avenue, one of the largest houses on the Pacific Coast, besides four warehouses on Schwabacher's dock, whence they receive from many parts of the world and ship throughout Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, British Columbia, and the Canadian Northwest, employing eighteen traveling men to look after their business in this vast section" ("Wholesale Houses…").

When Sigmund, the last remaining brother, died in 1917, his estate was valued at more than $1 million. Continued to be managed by family members, the Schwabacher firm had offices in New York and San Francisco, and by 1937 boasted one of the largest payrolls in Washington state.

Schwabacher's Wharf Becomes History

In 1936, the Alaska Transportation Company moved its headquarters to Schwabacher's Wharf, now called Pier 7. During World War II, the pier was used by the U. S. military. On May 1, 1944, as part of a citywide plan to create a more standardized numbering system to accommodate future pier expansion, all the docks and piers along Seattle's waterfront were renumbered or renamed. Pier 7, owned by the City Dock Company, was renumbered Pier 58. 

In 1946, the Port of Seattle purchased Pier 58 for $52,000, renting it out for two years and receiving $17,580 in revenue. By this time the pier had begun to deteriorate significantly, and in October 1948 the port decided to demolish it. The work commenced in 1952. "The historic pier was not suitable for handling modern ships, and the Port Commission did not believe the cost of repairing it would be justified. So it was decided to tear down the pier, using salvageable material from it in the development program at the East Waterway Terminal" ("Boat Basin at Historic Pier").  

The Port redeveloped the site for small-boat moorage – the only public moorage for yachts and small vessels on the downtown waterfront. Two piers were constructed. The one to the north extended 180 feet into Elliott Bay and had floats on both sides to accommodate additional boats. The south pier extended 190 feet, then turned to the north and extended another 90 feet. The cost for both piers was estimated at $65,405.   

However, once the small-boat piers were constructed, they were little used and the pier again fell into disrepair, an eyesore with broken pavement and rotting timbers. "Thirteen years ago the Port of Seattle tore down most of the wharf, used part of the underpinnings to support a pleasure boat dock. Pleasure boatmen who had begged for it, didn't use it. The Port managed to make its money back leasing the pier first to Puget Sound Tug & Barge, then to the hotelship Catala" ("Pier 58 Still an Eyesore").

In the early 1960s, the central waterfront had begun transitioning from a commercial and industrial shipping hub to one accommodating more leisure and recreational vessels. This spotlight on recreation was part of the rationale behind the Catala, a 229-foot Canadian passenger ship that had once carried miners, loggers, and adventurers up and down the Canadian inland waterway. Spurred by potential profit to be had during the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, a group of four Seattle businessmen purchased the ship in 1961 for use as a floating hotel and docked it at Pier 58. The Catala received guests from April 19, 1962 to September 17, 1962, closing about a month before the fair did. Citing disappointing returns, its owners sold the ship to a couple from California for about $150,000. It was towed to Venice, California, where it operated as a floating restaurant and nightclub for a few months. 

The First Waterfront Park

In 1965, the Port issued a call for bids to raze the pier. Port officials expected to pay about $10,000 for this work, but the lowest bid came in at $23,400. Demolition firms attributed the high price tag to the fact there was nothing left to salvage. The Port declined to pay the cost and then offered the property to the city of Seattle. The city declined.   

In 1968, King County voters approved a bond issue called Forward Thrust, part of which was a parks initiative to acquire waterfront property. The bond provided $5 million for a park; another $900,000 was added by the city. In addition to the vacant space that had once been Pier 58, the city also purchased the adjacent piers of 57, 59, 60, and 61 for $1.8 million. (An earlier plan called for the purchase of Piers 55 and 56, as well, but the city ran out of money.)

Located at 1301 Alaskan Way, between Piers 57 and 59, Waterfront Park was the first designated public park created on the waterfront, featuring a promenade, planters, fountain-sculpture, and a large cement plaza. It opened on October 25, 1974, in a ceremony that included Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), Parks & Recreation Director David Towne (b. 1931), and other city officials. The opening garnered mixed reviews:

"The industrial character of the park's design, intended to honor the working waterfront and Pier 58's past as a shipping terminal, did not entirely succeed as its designers had intended … The decision to eschew traditional park features such as lawns and trees in favor of hardscapes that echoed the industrial, maritime history of the site resulted in a park that was hardly like a park, at least in the popular imagination" ("Waterfront Park (Seattle)").

The four-ton, $75,000 bronze sculpture-fountain, known as Waterfront Fountain, was created by artist and architect James FitzGerald (1910-1973), who had died nearly a year earlier. The sculpture was completed by the artist's wife, Margaret Tomkins (1916-2002), and assistant Terry Copple, and was installed at Waterfront Park as a memorial to Edward M. and Margaret J. Harrington, parents of Seattle arts patron Helen Harrington Schiff (1894-1980), who had donated the funds for the project.

A second sculpture commemorating Christopher Columbus, created by artist Douglas Bennett (1920-2010) and paid for with funds raised by the Italian American community, was installed in 1978. The sculpture was repeatedly vandalized, especially around Columbus Day, and was removed in 2013.

Over the years, Waterfront Park welcomed large public gatherings, including the popular Salmon Homecoming Festival, sponsored by the Seattle Aquarium and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. Other public activities included Seafair, Maritime Fest, and the Christmas Boat parade.

A Partial Collapse

The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, which triggered plans to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, created an opportunity to "address the larger issues of circulation and connectivity with the central business district … In the new plan, anchored in waterfront history, the historic piers 57 and 59 that are adjacent to Waterfront Park will largely be preserved, but the park will be entirely redeveloped. The new plan includes a new triangular pier, public art, open space for events, seating, and views across the water" ("Waterfront Park (Seattle)").

As plans were underway, a 2006 review of Pier 58 by the city's Department of Construction and Inspections showed that some timber pilings were starting to fail; corrosion and rust were visible on the concrete-and-steel legs. The city declined to make the repairs at that time and began to closely monitor the structure. More widespread corrosion was reported in 2011. When additional deterioration was seen on the wood pilings in 2016, the city decided to remove the old pier and scheduled the work for 2022.

But Mother Nature had other ideas. On August 5, 2020, an inspection found that Pier 58 had shifted several inches away from land. The park was closed off with fencing and barricades while the city hired Seattle Structural, at a cost of $120,000, to "design and plan the complicated process of safely demolishing a pier already in the process of self-demolishing" ("Understanding What Happened to Pier 58"). Orion Marine Contractors was awarded an emergency contract in the amount of $4.3 million to provide demolition and salvage services.

Barely a month later, on September 13, 2020, while workers toiled to dismantle the pier, the northwest corner of the structure abruptly plunged into Puget Sound, taking two workers with it. Fortunately, they were not seriously injured. Five other workers on the scene were not affected by the collapse. There was no damage to Piers 57 or 59, or to the seawall. Trees, the concrete terrace, and FitzGerald's bronze fountain-sculpture also fell into the water.

What happened? Over the decades, saltwater, tides, and winds likely caused Pier 58 to separate from the shore, and the rigid piles on which the pier sat "degenerated quicker than anticipated. Many structures, including Pier 58, draw at least some support from wood. This splintery stuff allows sea-submerged structures to move – albeit minutely – along with tides and winds. But this pier leaned heavily on old steel piles to prop up a concrete terrace. Instead of adjusting, these supports fought the ocean's pull – and lost" ("What Happened to Pier 58?")

Construction of a new Waterfront Park began in September 2022 and is expected to last two years. The new park will "echo the hardscape of the old Waterfront Park, except for a small lawn area and significantly more plants and trees on the pier and in the upland area" ("Waterfront Park"). Billed as a family-friend space, the park includes elevated seating and grassy areas with scenic views of Elliott Bay, a plaza and event space, a tree grove, and a marine-themed playground with an 18-foot slide and a four-level jellyfish tower for kids to climb.

FitzGerald's fountain-sculpture was retrieved by divers and refurbished. It will be placed in the southeast corner when the park re-opens. A Northwest Coastal art installation called "Family," created by artist Qwalsius-Shaun Peterson (b. 1975) of the Puyallup Tribe, will be installed along the promenade. "Family" features three figures gazing across Elliott Bay in the direction of the Kitsap Peninsula where Chief Seattle is buried. 



HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Schwabacher Brothers open store in Walla Walla in the fall of 1860" (by Michael J. Paulus Jr.), and "Schwabacher Bros. & Company opens Seattle branch in Autumn 1869" (by Lee Micklin); "Seattle Central Waterfront, Part 7: Waterfront Park" (by Paul Dorpat), "Seattle Docks and Piers are Given New Designation on May 1, 1944" (by Daryl C. McClary), "Seattle Arts Commission Meets to Review Last Public-Sculpture Fountain by James FitzGerald and Margaret Tompkins on March 5, 1974" (by Fred Poyner IV), "Waterfront Park (Seattle)" by "Jennifer Ott), "Seattle's Pier 58 Collapses into Puget Sound on September 13, 2020" (by Rita Cipalla), "Gatzert, Bailey (1829-1893) (by Lee Micklin) http://www.historylink.org accessed May 15, 2023; Sara Marian, "Miike Maru Historic Marker," September 5, 2016, Clio: Your Guide to History blog website accessed May 16, 2023 (https://theclio.com/entry/24739); "Uniting of the Orient and the Occident," The Seattle Times, August 31, 1896, p. 1; "Love on the Klondike," Ibid., January 19, 1898, p. 9; "Wholesale Houses That Make the City of Seattle Their Headquarters," Ibid., Industrial Review Section, February 7, 1904, p. 2; "Schwabachers to Have Birthday," Ibid., October 15, 1937, p. 4;  "Schwabacher Bros. Observe 65th Birthday," Ibid., October 11, 1934, p. 8;  "Waterfront Firms Moving," Ibid., March 1, 1936, p. 16; "Historic Pier 58 Bows to Progress," Ibid., May 11, 1952, p. 23; "Boat Basin at Historic Pier," Ibid., August 8, 1952, p. 19;  Polly Lane, "City Dedicates Its Waterfront Park Friday," Ibid., October 20, 1974, p. E-1; Paul Dorpat, "Seattle Now & Then: Railroad Avenue, 1899," Ibid., Pacific Magazine, November 12, 2000, p. 52; Jean Sherrard, "Seattle Now & Then: Waterfront Park Fountain," Ibid., February 19, 2011; Asia Fields, "'Substantial' Pier Shift Closes Seattle's Waterfront Park, Ibid., August 9, 2020, p. A-18; Lewis Kamb, Mike Lindblom and Daniel Beekman, "Investigations Launched into Pier 58 Collapse," Ibid., September 15, 2020, p. A-1; "In Waterfront Park, the Seeds of a Better Seattle," (Editorial) Ibid., March 20, 2022, p. D-3; "Capacity is Overtaxed," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 24, 1901, p. 12; "Dock Will Handle Larger Business," Ibid., May 14, 1906, p. 4; Don Page, "Pier 58 Still an Eyesore," Ibid., August 5, 1965, p. 21; Annette Maxon, "What Happened to Pier 58?" Winter 2020, Seattle Met website accessed May 18, 2023 (https://www.seattlemet.com/news-and-city-life/2020/11/what-happened-to-seattle-pier-58); Vivian T. Williams, "Northwest Pioneer Fiddlers," 2016, Voyager Recordings & Publications website accessed May 18, 2023 (https://www.voyagerrecords.com/arNWFiddlers.htm); Jean Roth, "The Schwabacher Family," The Seattle Genealogical Society Bulletin, Summer 1997, Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State website accessed May 15, 2023 (https://jgsws.org/schwabacher.php); Kevin Schofield, "Understanding What Happened to Pier 58," September 18, 2020, Seattle City Council Insight website accessed May 16, 2023 (https://sccinsight.com/2020/09/15/understanding-what-happened-to-pier-58/); "Pier 58 (Waterfront Park)," Waterfront Seattle website accessed May 25, 2023 (https://waterfrontseattle.org/waterfront-projects/pier-58).

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