Seattle Neighborhoods: Pioneer Square -- Thumbnail History

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 6/20/2001
  • Essay 3392
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First settled in 1852, Pioneer Square encompasses the birthplace of modern Seattle and its first downtown. Most of the Square's buildings were erected within a decade of the disastrous Great Fire of June 6, 1889. The district began a slow decline during World War I and became better known as a derelict "Skid Road." Preservationists rallied in the 1960s to save the area's exquisite ensemble of Victorian and Edwardian Era architecture from "urban renewal." Pioneer Square was protected by a 30-acre Historic District in 1969, followed by a slightly larger Special Review District. The core of the neighborhood lies between Cherry Street on the north, 2nd Avenue on the east, Alaskan Way on the west, and S. King Street on the south.

Just Passing Through

Suquamish and Duwamish Indians occupied at least 17 villages in the general area of today's Pioneer Square. They named the vicinity Zechalalitch, "the place to pass over," because it offered a convenient route between the mouth of the Duwamps (Duwamish) River and Lake Washington on the east.

British explorer Capt. George Vancouver observed but did not note the Elliott Bay shoreline in 1792, and the area was not surveyed until a U.S. Navy expedition under the command of Charles Wilkes arrived in 1841. He named Elliott Bay for a member of his crew and sketched a shoreline of steep wooded slopes descending toward a level peninsula, Piner's Point, nearly surrounded by shallow tide flats.

King County's first permanent white settlers arrived in mid-September 1851 and staked Donation Claims to the fertile delta and shores of the Duwamish. Soon after, three scouts arrived from a party of settlers waiting in Portland. They staked a claim on West Seattle's Alki Beach, and a total of 24 men, women, and children led by Arthur A. Denny (1822-1903) assembled there on November 13, 1851. They were soon joined by David S. "Doc" Maynard, a physician and merchant who was urged to relocate north by Chief Seattle.

Deciding to Stay

Although Charles Terry (1830-1867) established a "New York" store at Alki and found San Francisco customers for the area's timber, most of the Denny Party decided to relocate. After sounding Elliott Bay, Arthur Denny, Carson Boren (1824-1912), and William Bell (1817-1887) decided it was better suited as a harbor for a future city. They filed claims on its narrow beach and ridges on February 14, 1852, while Maynard claimed Piner's Point and the mud flats to the south and east.

Carson Boren's younger sister Louisa (1827-1918) is credited with starting construction of the future town's first cabin at 2nd Avenue and Cherry Street in the spring of 1852. Doc Maynard built a second cabin at S Main Street and 1st Avenue S and established a general store, "The Seattle Exchange." Maynard also convinced his neighbors to rename their settlement, then called Duwamps, to honor Chief Seattle, and he used his political influence to have the Oregon Territorial Legislature name Seattle the seat of a new King County in December 1852.

Seattle's early success was guaranteed in 1852 when Henry Yesler (1810-1892) chose the village as the site of Puget Sound's first steam-powered lumber mill (in exchange for generous chunks of the settler's claims). He built his mill on a pier at the foot of today's Yesler Way, first called Mill Street and later nicknamed "Skid Road." Henry and Sarah Yesler built their first home at 2nd Avenue and James Street, and he erected a crude aqueduct system of elevated log troughs to transport water from ridge-top springs to the growing village below.

The mill's cook house and a later Yesler's Pavilion at 1st Avenue and Cherry Street served as Seattle's first social center. Captain Felker's home -- which served as a hotel, restaurant, and bordello near 1st Avenue and Jackson Street -- was also a popular gathering place under the management of a tart-tongued Irishwoman named Mary Conklin but better known as "Mother (later Madame) Damnable."

The First Gridlock

In the spring of 1853, Arthur Denny, Carson Boren, and Doc Maynard drew up plats for their claims, which abutted along Yesler Way. Understandably, Denny and Boren believed that streets should generally conform to the hilly topography of their holdings. Maynard, whose claim was mostly flat (when not submerged), insisted that the street grid be oriented strictly north-south and east-west.

Denny later grumbled that Maynard, "stimulated with liquor," had decided he was "not only monarch of all he surveyed, but of what Boren and I surveyed, too." So the pioneers filed conflicting plats for "The Town of Seattle" on May 23, 1853, and their spat survives in the tangled intersections still found along Yesler Way.

Raids, Rails, and Riots

The town had grown to about 300 residents by late 1855, when some local Indians began rebelling against relocation required by new tribal treaties with the U.S. Government. A large party attacked Seattle proper on January 26, 1856, forcing settlers to retreat to blockhouses and a stockade. After a daylong battle, in which two settlers and an unknown number of Indians died, the raiders were repelled by Marines and cannon fire from the U.S.S. Decatur anchored in Elliott Bay.

The attack so discouraged Doc Maynard that he exchanged his Pioneer Square claim for Charles Terry's New York Alki tract (Maynard later returned and his wife Catherine became a prominent civic leader). This was probably the most imprudent land swap in local history, for Seattle soon prospered while Alki languished.

The early economy was fueled in large part by San Francisco's demand for the area's timber, milled lumber, salted salmon, and, later, abundant soft coal. So many ships dumped their ballast in and around Yesler's Wharf that they created an artificial island near the foot of S Washington Street.

Seattle's development accelerated with construction of its first railroads in the 1870s and coal mines in south King County. Much of the city's first infrastructure was built by imported Chinese workers, who clustered in an informal Chinatown centered around 2nd Avenue S and S Washington Street. Initially welcomed, these immigrants became the target of white resentment during the economic downturn of the mid-1880s. Some 300 Chinese were forcibly expelled from Seattle during labor riots in February 1886.

An Urban Phoenix

Despite such disturbances, Seattle ranked as the state's largest city with 40,000 residents by the end of the 1880s. Then, on June 6, 1889, an untended glue pot in a cabinet shop near the corner of 1st Avenue and Madison Street overheated and ignited a blaze that consumed 29 downtown blocks within hours.

The city quickly rebuilt -- with brick and stone -- and most of these buildings survive in Pioneer Square. Architects such as Elmer Fisher (1840-1905) had a field day designing a spectacular ensemble of new office buildings. Meanwhile, city engineers took the opportunity to solve Pioneer Square's chronic drainage problems by elevating its street level a full story. This isolated some of the new buildings' original ground floor businesses in subterranean sidewalk spaces. These catacombs were ultimately sealed up and forgotten until the early 1960s.

The Golden Fleece

Seattle's growth hit a brick wall in 1893, when a national economic "panic" plunged the region into a four-year depression. Then, on July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland docked at present-day Waterfront Park with "more than a ton of gold" and 68 suddenly rich prospectors fresh from the Klondike River. Seattle business leaders and boosters scrambled to establish Seattle as the "Gateway to Alaska" as thousands of naive "sourdoughs" passed through its port, enriching Seattle's merchants if not themselves in the process.

Klondike gold and prospectors' wallets funded a surge in population and industry. Civic leaders turned the little triangle formed by 1st Avenue and Yesler Way into a park and named it Pioneer Place. A group of businessmen later stole a handsome Tlingit totem pole from an Alaskan village and installed there in 1899 (a successor pole now occupies the spot). A decade later, the city installed underground "comfort stations" and an ornate Pergola to serve tourists and transit riders during Seattle's first world's fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

Zenith and Nadir

Meanwhile, the revolutionary technology of steel-frame construction allowed new buildings such as the Alaska (built 1903-1904), Frye Hotel (1906-1911), and Hoge (completed in 1911) to reach unprecedented heights -- culminating in typewriter magnate L. C. Smith's gleaming namesake Tower, which reigned as the tallest west of the Mississippi until 1962.

By the time the Smith Tower opened on July 4, 1914, Pioneer Square's prominence as Seattle's economic center was already beginning to slip. Extensive street regrades and a burgeoning system of electric streetcars and cable railways had opened areas beyond Pioneer Square to new office and retail development, and downtown was already marching north along 2nd and 3rd avenues.

Meanwhile, social reformers and prohibitionists gained power and attacked Pioneer Square as a symbol of the long-standing civic policy that tolerated saloons, brothels, and gambling south of Yesler Way. Anti-vice crusaders such as First Presbyterian Church pastor Mark Matthews denounced "Skid Road" as the path to sin and ruin.

All of Seattle suffered with the great Depression, but no area worse than Pioneer Square. Its grand hotels became flophouses; pawnbrokers occupied its once-elegant storefronts. Hundreds of unemployed men converted an abandoned shipyard south of the Square into a sprawling "Hooverville" shantytown.

A Second Rebirth

Pioneer Square's older buildings were badly shaken by a major earthquake in 1949, but man posed a greater threat than nature. By the early 1960s, Seattle's business establishment had targeted the area for "urban renewal" into a complex of parking garages to serve the downtown. The 1962 demolition of the venerable Hotel Seattle, which had occupied the salient formed by Yesler Way and James Street since the Great Fire, and its replacement with a hideous "sinking ship" garage rang alarm bells for the city's nascent historic preservation movement.

Pioneer Square's architectural treasures were already being rediscovered largely through efforts of architect Ralph Anderson (d. 2010) and art gallery owner Richard White. Journalist and historical author Bill Speidel attracted new publicity in 1964 when he began conducting the first "underground tours" of Pioneer Square's abandoned sidewalk areaways.

The election of a new generation of reform-minded city officials such as Mayor Wes Uhlman and Council members John Miller and Phyllis Lamphere gave preservationists new clout, which they applied to win approval of a 30-acre Pioneer Square Historic District in 1969.

Wealth and Poverty

Pioneer Square became a magnet for Seattle's burgeoning cohort of young urban professionals, as entrepreneurs converted decrepit buildings into stylish taverns, music clubs, offices, and loft apartments. Despite sympathetic social policies and numerous missions, this redevelopment put pressure on the area's low-income residents, but their displacement was chiefly caused by strict new fire codes following the 1970 Ozark Hotel fire, which closed scores of single-room-occupancy hotels in Seattle.

Private developers financed most of Pioneer Square's redevelopment. One long-time property owner, Sam Israel (1899-1994), declined to gentrify his numerous buildings and thereby helped to preserve the Square's funky character. Since his death in 1994, a successor Samis Foundation has pursued a more aggressive policy with his estate.

Public improvements to the Square included addition of a 1st Avenue planter strip and Occidental Park in the early 1970s. The Annie E. Casey Foundation funded rehabilitation of the Pioneer Place park and Pergola in 1973, and the Committee of 33 salvaged the former Seattle Harbormaster station at the foot of S Washington Street. Service on the nearby Waterfront Streetcar began in 1982 and was extended through the Square to the International District in 1990. That same year, Metro Transit opened a Pioneer Square Station for its new downtown transit tunnel.

From Dome to Doom?

The most significant if debatable improvement, however, was construction of the Kingdome south of King Street S in 1976. Anticipation of its economic and traffic impacts led to creation of an expanded Special Review area two years prior, but the Dome's real effect was to flood the Square with waves of sports fans, alienating retail customers and residents. The Dome was imploded in March 2000, and a new Safeco Field and Seahawk's Stadium, which may prove to be better neighbors, now serve its functions.

Pioneer Square was rocked by three traumas in early 2001. First, a wayward truck toppled its beloved Pergola on January 15 (it was repaired and restored in August 2002); Then in late February, gangs of young thugs attacked the crowds attending the area's "Fat Tuesday" festivities, a local version of Mardi Gras launched in 1977, injuring scores and killing one bystander.

Finally, a major earthquake rattled the district and damaged several buildings on February 28, 2001. Fortunately, most of the Square's structures had already undergone seismic retrofitting and suffered little harm.

As its history demonstrates, accidents, riots, and earthquakes are nothing new to Pioneer Square, which should endure as long as the city whose infancy it cradled.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916); Edmond. S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan, 1909); Gordon Newell, Westward to Alki (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977); Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1931); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: Viking, 1951); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: Wiley & Sons/Preservation Press, 1998).
Note: This essay was updated in May 2004.

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