Pier 57 is one of five historic docks built on Seattle's central waterfront in the first four years of the twentieth century that are designated city landmarks. Located at the foot of University Street, it was built in 1902 by John B. Agen (1856-1920), a pioneering dairy-products wholesaler. Acquired in 1912 by the Milwaukee Road, it was known for much of the twentieth century as the Milwaukee Pier, used by shipping lines and other businesses. The Port of Seattle bought Pier 57 from the railroad in 1968 and three years later sold it to the city, which planned to remove it and nearby piers to make way for a park. With other waterfront business owners, Hal Griffith Jr. (b. 1937), who since 1968 had leased space at Pier 57 where he opened an import shop and developed restaurants, successfully opposed plans to demolish the piers. Griffith acquired Pier 57 from the city in 1989 and remodeled it, adding a carousel and other attractions. In 2012 he opened the iconic Seattle Great Wheel on the pier, which he had named Miners Landing.
A Father of the Northwest Dairy Industry
At the turn of the twentieth century Seattle was booming. The city's population nearly doubled between 1890 and 1900 and its economy grew accordingly. Growth slowed during the economic Panic of 1893, but resumed with a vengeance when the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush brought swarms of gold seekers through Seattle on their way to Alaska and the Yukon. Outfitting hopeful miners, transporting them to the gold fields, and shipping supplies north all further boosted Seattle's commerce and sparked a waterfront building spree. Among the many Seattle business owners who benefited was John B. Agen, already a leading figure in Washington's nascent dairy industry. Agen grew up in a dairying region of New York state. Moving to Iowa as a young man, he opened a dairy-product business that grew rapidly. Seeking to expand, he looked to Seattle. He arrived with a carload of butter and eggs in 1889, right around the time of the Great Fire, and his business grew rapidly.
At first, much of the butter and cheese Agen sold came from New York. That changed with the growth of Washington dairy farming, in which he played a significant role. Indeed, multiple sources suggest Agen could "claim to have fathered the dairy industry in the Northwest" ("Agen's Produce Business Sold ..."). In the 1890s, in addition to providing an expanding market for their milk, Agen advanced money and credit to help dairy farmers get established in Mount Vernon, Stanwood, the White River Valley, and other areas that became centers of the local industry. When he opened a creamery at Mount Vernon in 1890, it initially processed around 800 pounds of milk a day but within a decade was processing some 250,000 pounds daily. Agen located creameries and cheese factories elsewhere around the state; operated cold-storage facilities in Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota as well as Washington; and shipped products around the country and across the Pacific.
Agen's company benefited directly from the Klondike Gold Rush and the subsequent 1901 gold strike in Nome, Alaska. At the time, shipping perishable food was challenging, and Agen's tinned butter met the challenge. Promoted "with the slogan 'Agen's Best Has Stood the Test,' [it] soon became the best-known brand in the North" ("National Register ..."). Agen opened branch stores in Nome, Skagway, Valdez, elsewhere in Alaska, and around Washington. With increasing quantities to store and ship, it is not surprising Agen joined the central-waterfront dock-building boom at the turn of the century.
John B. Agen Dock
Like all downtown docks, the pier built for Agen in 1902 by the Miller and Geske Construction Company extended into the harbor of Elliott Bay from Railroad Avenue (now Alaskan Way), which was built on pilings above the tide flats. It was located across Railroad Avenue from the foot of University Street, between three piers to the south built by the Northern Pacific Railway in 1900 (now Piers 54, 55, and 56), and the Schwabacher Dock to the north. Then one of the city's oldest docks (it survived the 1889 fire), Schwabacher's was enlarged and realigned in the late 1890s.
The rebuilt Schwabacher's and all new docks including Agen's conformed to a new alignment of the piers along Railroad Avenue that City Engineer Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949) convinced private waterfront owners to accept in 1897. Until then piers, like the original Schwabacher's, had been built at right angles to the roadway. Because Railroad Avenue curved following the shoreline, wharves projected into the harbor at different angles, forcing ships using different docks to cross paths and limiting the length piers could be built before running into another dock. Under the new alignment, piers ran east-west, making them all parallel. This reduced potential for collisions between ships or docks and provided other benefits, including allowing trains on the multiple tracks along Railroad Avenue to pull onto docks without making sharp right-angle turns. Additionally, since the water level of Elliott Bay deepens quickly, having docks angle instead of heading straight out provided greater length in less-deep water, making it easier to build longer piers.
Agen and the other dock owners took advantage of the new alignment to build large piers, which followed the same basic plan. Of necessity, they were not rectangles but long parallelograms. Their east and west ends ran southeast-to-northwest, parallel to Railroad Avenue, while their north and south sides ran due east-west. The large buildings, often referred to as pier sheds, occupying most of each dock and providing warehouse, office, and retail space, were also built as parallelograms with east and west facades paralleling Railroad Avenue, rather than running at right angles to their other sides as in most buildings.
Construction of the Agen dock began in March 1902, when the waterfront building boom was at its height, with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporting "Within twelve months Seattle has reconstructed and built anew her waterfront. More than a mile of new wharves has been built, planned or is in course of erection" ("Progress of Many Improvements ..."). The new structure was named the John B. Agen Dock and designated as Pier 6 -- in addition to the new alignment, Thomson had established a pier-identification system for docks from Yesler Way northward, assigning pier numbers to docks previously identified only by name. Both the name and number featured prominently in signage on the newly built dock.
As initially constructed Pier 6 was 350 feet long and 160 wide. The pier was lengthened and otherwise altered over the years, especially in its first decade, and its current dimensions are approximately 442 by 156 feet, with the pier shed measuring 400 feet long and 140 wide. Most of the building was originally a long single-story structure composed of three bays -- a high-ceilinged center bay and lower bays with shed roofs on each side. The east end facing Railroad Avenue was different, a two-story box with ground-level storefronts and office space above. A spur track from Railroad Avenue was built along the south side of Pier 6 by 1904, and a second spur, along the north side, was soon added.
Agen's Alaska Butter and Cream Company utilized much of the main portion of the pier shed as a cold-storage warehouse, but other companies also used portions of the dock, pier shed, and office and retail space during Agen's ownership. Among those whose names were displayed on the pier along with Agen's were the Gordon Dock and Grain Company and the North American Transportation and Trading Company. In a storefront facing Railroad Avenue, Henry Doyle and Company advertised "Fish Nets, Twines & Supplies." Ships of various lines called at the dock. For a time, the Arlington Dock Company, a shipping agent for steamships serving Alaska, Asia, and Europe, which had occupied adjacent Piers 5 and 4 since the Northern Pacific built them, also used the Agen Dock.
In 1910, Agen opened a new, larger warehouse -- designed by noted Seattle architect John Graham Sr. (1873-1955) and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- located almost directly across Railroad Avenue from Pier 6. That location provided easy access between the warehouse and dock but, perhaps no longer needing the warehouse space in the pier shed, Agen did not retain ownership of the pier. In 1912 the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (the Milwaukee Road) acquired Pier 6, which soon became known as the Milwaukee Pier.
The Milwaukee Pier
The Milwaukee Road was a newcomer to Seattle, completing its tracks over Snoqualmie Pass and beginning limited service in 1909 (decades after the Northern Pacific and Great Northern reached the city) and inaugurating regular transcontinental service in 1911. The newcomer needed more than tracks to compete with its established rivals, both of which partnered with shipping lines to transport passengers and goods across the Pacific to destinations in Asia. Even as the Milwaukee Road built across the U.S., the Japanese shipping line Osaka Shosen Kaisha, which had a large network of shipping routes within Asia, decided to inaugurate service to North America. Finding an American railroad partner wasn't easy since the existing transcontinental lines had partnerships with other companies, but the timing worked for the Milwaukee Road and Osaka Shosen Kaisha to enter an agreement "for the interchange of ... traffic" ("Trans-Pacific Service ...").
In Seattle, although they also utilized other terminals, much of the interchange between the Milwaukee Road and Osaka Shosen Kaisha took place at Pier 6. Milwaukee Road's 1912 acquisition of the dock allowed the companies to establish a direct connection between their trains and steamships on a waterfront otherwise largely dominated by their rivals (including the Northern Pacific's three docks just south of Pier 6). Osaka Shosen Kaisha ships began calling at Pier 6 in 1913, and the pier prominently featured the signs of both companies.
The pier became a terminal for other steamship lines as well. Within the first years of the railroad's ownership, it displayed signs for the McCormick Steamship Company and the Munson-McCormick line. Around 1920 another international shipping company, the Hamburg-America line, was calling there. The Arlington Dock Company used Pier 6 during the 1930s and 1940s. From the 1930s, although still owned by the Milwaukee Road and called the Milwaukee Pier, the dock was also being referred to as the McCormick Terminal and even occasionally as an Arlington Dock (other docks occupied by Arlington were also so-called).
By then the entire waterfront was undergoing significant changes. Seattle's downtown business district was expanding, encroaching on the limited space for shipping and freight-handling along the central waterfront. The public Port of Seattle was building large terminals both south and north of downtown, which became the primary sites for most long-distance and international shipping. And with the rise of highways, the percentage of both freight and passengers carried by railroads began a steady decline. Waterfront redevelopment reflected these changes. In 1936 a seawall was built along what had been the outer edge of Railroad Avenue. Fill behind the wall created solid ground where the old planked roadway had rested on pilings. The new paved street that replaced Railroad Avenue was named Alaskan Way.
Large-scale shipping along the central waterfront generally continued to decline, but saw a temporary increase during World War II as large numbers of troops and supplies were shipped through Seattle. In 1944, to reduce confusion for those passing through, the Army led an effort that created a single uniform numbering system for all Seattle's piers and terminals. Under it the former Pier 6 became Pier 57.
New Plans for Old Docks
Pier 57 was still owned by the Milwaukee Road, but as its business continued to drop -- the company would end passenger service in Seattle in 1961 -- other enterprises occupied more of the pier space. In the 1950s, some of it was being used by the Kayler-Dahl Fish Company for fish processing.
As the shipping and rail traffic for which the central waterfront docks were built moved elsewhere, civic leaders and city and Port officials began considering new uses for the area. The focus was on "developing the waterfront as a tourist attraction and a very profitable real estate venture" ("Context Statement," 43-44). Most plans called for demolishing existing piers or at least their pier sheds. None were fully implemented, but the extended planning process played a significant role in the history of Pier 57. A 1965 plan by John Graham and Company (headed by the son of the architect who designed Agen's warehouse) proposed to replace pier sheds with businesses, parking, and a large waterfront park. The city council approved the plan and the 1968 Forward Thrust bond measure included funding for the park.
The park site envisioned by city officials included Pier 57, then owned by the Port of Seattle. The Port had purchased it from the Milwaukee Road in early 1968 with its own plans for the dock. Port commissioners looking to develop a World Trade Center on the waterfront saw Pier 57, along with the adjacent Pier 58 site (formerly the Schwabacher Dock, which the Port acquired in the 1940s and later demolished) as one possible location. According to city records, Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman (1901-1980) urged the Port to acquire Pier 57 to ensure public ownership of the facility and with a verbal agreement that if commissioners did not use it for the trade center they would sell the pier to the city.
Port officials soon decided they could not build a trade center at Piers 57 and 58 (three decades later the Port ultimately developed its World Trade Center across Alaskan Way from Pier 66), but it was not until 1971 that the sale to the city was finalized. In the meantime the Port made Pier 57 available for public recreation by opening a public fishing pier there in November 1968. It remained open under city ownership until replaced in 1981 by a new Port fishing pier north of downtown.
Hal Griffith and Pier Preservation
One of the most significant events in Pier 57's history occurred early in the Port's ownership when entrepreneur Hal Griffith, who would play a central role in the pier's preservation and subsequent development, first rented space there for an import business he was expanding. Harold E. "Hal" Griffith Jr. was born in California and moved to Washington state as a child. He began his first business ventures as a high-school student in Gig Harbor, selling shoes door-to-door and running concession stands at the school and the ferry terminal. Graduating in 1956, he moved to Seattle and worked in sales for a fertilizer and chemical company. Griffith "had an entrepreneurial streak" and before long started an advertising and public relations firm ("On Board ...").
Even as he sold fertilizer and began his marketing business, Griffith was "dabbling" in the import business that would bring him to Pier 57 ("Griffith Lights ..."). He found he could purchase import shipments that shippers were unable to deliver, due to damage, over-shipments, or other reasons, and re-sell the merchandise. What began as a hobby "working out of the trunk of a car just [for ]fun" expanded as Griffith the marketer saw the potential in the business ("Business: Big Dream ..."). By 1968 he was looking for storage and retail space and found what proved to be a perfect location at Pier 57. He rented warehouse space in the pier shed and opened an import shop he named Pirates Plunder in the storefront. Because of the plans for replacing Pier 57, the Port granted only a 30-day, renewable lease, and at first did not even let Griffith renovate the leased space himself. When he was able to remodel the front building in 1969, business at Pirates Plunder rose rapidly. By then, while still buying undeliverable shipments, Griffith was importing most of the stock directly from around the world.
Along with growing his business, Griffith became a strong advocate for the waterfront and a vocal opponent of plans to demolish the historic pier sheds, in which he saw great potential. He developed a plan of his own for Pier 57, to enlarge Pirates Plunder and restore the pier shed for additional retail uses, including restaurants, a fishing-supply store, a gourmet store, other importers, and more. In 1970 he was able to implement some of the plan, expanding Pirates Plunder to become, he said, the largest import store in the Northwest, and restoring more of the pier-shed interior while retaining the original walls and timbers.
Griffith also played a leading role in organizing waterfront business owners to advocate for preserving the historic piers. They established the Seattle Central Waterfront Association in March 1970 and Griffith was elected president. As the city moved forward with plans to remove piers to develop a waterfront park, Griffith and the association were among the few advocating another course. They urged the park be limited to the vacant area between Piers 57 and 59, which had been Pier 58 (Schwabacher's), rather than displacing businesses occupying existing piers. Their argument did not sway the city council. In November 1970 it approved purchasing Pier 57 as well as the Pier 58 area from the Port, with Hal Griffith noted as "the only objector to purchase of the piers" ("Council Approves ..."). Two months later when George Rockrise and Associates, hired by the city to prepare a development plan for the waterfront, released its final report, The Seattle Times asserted "[p]rincipal opposition to the park has stemmed from private businesses [that] ... might have to move," suggesting "nearly everyone else agrees" the city should move forward (Lane, "Waterfront-park Plan ...").
Griffith and other owners did seek to preserve their business locations on the piers -- the Rockrise plan called for shortening Pier 56 and removing Piers 57 and 59, displacing Pirates Plunder and more businesses, including a fish-processing plant then operating at Pier 59. But their opposition was based on more than self-interest. They recognized the historic significance of the docks and pier sheds and saw them as providing public benefits the city's plan did not. Griffith had earlier said of the historic waterfront:
"People nearly forgot Seattle's heritage ... It has been here all along, waiting for somebody to wake it up. This port neighborhood is where we started ... This building [Pier 57] is old, worth saving. It is special" ("Griffith Lights ...").
Besides preserving heritage, retaining the piers would provide a year-round attraction, which the Waterfront Association argued the Rockrise plan did not. Griffith said the proposed park's outdoor space didn't provide what was "most needed -- enclosed areas" and would only be used about three months a year ("Another Plan ..."). Besides criticizing the Rockrise plan the association prepared its own waterfront plan, which included park amenities but retained most existing piers and sheds "to provide people something to do" ("Another Plan ...").
Those arguments ultimately were heeded. In June1971 the city hired a new firm, the Bumgardner Partnership, to design the waterfront park. Unlike earlier city plans, "the historic element was a major factor" in Bumgardner's design, which called for retaining and redeveloping most of the piers, locating the new park in the space between Piers 57 and 59 (Lane, "Waterfront Park Shaped By History"). Construction began in October 1973 and Waterfront Park opened a year later.
Improvements also continued at Pier 57. In 1971 Griffith had renovated the storefront south of Pirates Plunder for a new seafood restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. While building the park, the city restored the aging pilings and dock of Pier 57, which formed "the southern anchor for [the] park" (Dorpat, 161). In conjunction with the park, Bumgardner's plan envisioned additional remodeling of Pier 57, including squaring off the western (waterward) end of the pier shed and adding a projecting bay there containing a viewing gallery and restaurant space.
By 1976 Griffith had a longterm lease from the city and embarked on a $1.5 million renovation and expansion of Pier 57 that incorporated the remodel of the west end. The renovation, which provided space for more restaurants, stores, and other attractions, featured a Gold Rush theme inspired by the pier's history. Griffith coined the name "Miners Landing" by which Pier 57 is known today. Through the 1970s new shops and restaurants opened regularly at Miner's Landing, and exhibits and old photos highlighting the Gold Rush history were installed. In 1979, the Fisherman's Restaurant and Bar opened in the recently-constructed space at the end of the pier, where it remains as of 2023.
In addition to developing Pier 57, Griffith leased space for restaurants at Seattle Center and at the Washington State Ferry Terminal on Pier 52. He expanded out of state, opening restaurants on several public piers in California. In 1984 he unveiled major new plans for Seattle's central waterfront. He bought a half interest in Piers 62 and 63, located below Pike Place Market a few blocks north of Pier 57, from Razore Enterprises and formed a partnership with Razore to renovate their pier sheds into a large complex named Bay Pavilion, with shops, restaurants, a fresh-fish market, and a historic carousel. They also envisioned an aerial tramway carrying visitors from downtown to the piers over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and possibly "even ... a Ferris wheel" (McDonough). Griffith and his partners spent $7 million restoring the pilings and decks but did not build Bay Pavilion there.
Instead, Griffith's co-ownership of Piers 62 and 63 led to his owning Pier 57, where he'd been since 1968. The City of Seattle in 1988 adopted yet another waterfront plan, the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan, and was eying Piers 62 and 63 as a site for waterfront open space it called for. In 1989, Griffith and Razore sold the two piers to the city in return for $3.8 million and the city transferring Pier 57 to Griffith.
The new owner immediately embarked on a major remodel of Pier 57, incorporating much of what he had planned for Piers 62 and 63, including the name -- for the next two decades, Pier 57 would be known as Bay Pavilion rather than Miners Landing. By summer 1989 Bay Pavilion had a new arched entrance and many new attractions including a fish market -- something Griffith noted earlier was "long ... missing from Seattle's docks" (DalBalcon) -- and a 36-foot carousel that quickly became a favored waterfront destination.
And although it took another 30 years, Hal Griffith, with his sons and business partners Kyle and Troy, eventually realized his dream from the 1980s of bringing a Ferris wheel to the waterfront. The Seattle Great Wheel opened at the end of Pier 57 in June 2012 and soon rivaled the Space Needle as a Seattle icon and photo subject. By then the Griffiths had restored the name Miners Landing to the pier and Seattle had designated it a city landmark.
The Landmarks Preservation Board approved the designation of Piers 54, 55, 56, 57, and 59 as Seattle Landmarks in 2007. In April 2012, after reaching agreements with each pier owner, the city council enacted ordinances acknowledging the designations, imposing development controls, and granting preservation incentives. A survey of Pier 57 prepared for the designation said:
"Along with Piers 54 to 59, Pier 57 retains the most important elements of its original appearance and a strong sense of its original architectural character and workmanship. All represent the last and best examples of Seattle's waterfront transit sheds that played an important role in the development of Seattle's early economy. Pier 57 is particularly significant because of its association with John B. Agen ... Of four adjacent piers ... it is significant as the only pier owned and operated by the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company, while the others were owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad" ("Seattle Historical Sites").