Geography. People. Events. Dumb luck. Which was it that made this relatively remote city in a rainy corner of the Pacific Northwest one of the world’s recognized centers of international commerce, culture, and innovation? The correct answer is all of the above.
That question was framed in this way at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Museum of History and Industry as part of its celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962. “We have the chance to hear people who actually made the history,” said Leonard Garfield, MOHAI Director. “In some cases we have changed the way we think of events based on what we have heard.”
The question of Seattle's favorable history has long been debated. A century ago, the answer might have been "Destiny." Consider, for example, the report written by W. H. Ruffner for the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railway in 1889, the same year the big fire wiped out most of the city. Ruffner saw Seattle as a gateway to Asia, noting shorter travel distances and the Japanese Current: “the famous Kuro Shiwo, or Japanese current; a current which gives a gain to every ship of 20 miles a day in distance.”
A map accompanying Ruffner's report was prescient, showing routes from Puget Sound to Russia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. Interestingly, he left off Japan; perhaps with the current, trade with Japan was a given.
Bill Stafford, former president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle and Crosscut contributor, chaired the panel comprising Dick Ford, an attorney and former head of the Port of Seattle; Shan Mullin, an attorney and former chair of the TDA; and Diane Adachi, Director for International Relations at the University of Washington.
Stafford observed that one element that made Seattle a global city was that it was one of the few places in the United States where “an immigrant from Europe met an immigrant from Asia.” That produced an interesting mix of immigrants and perspectives. Already by the 1880s, one sixth of Seattle’s population was Chinese, for instance.
Mullin cited the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the abundance of natural resources for export. He added that one of the trademarks of Seattle is a strong spirit of collaboration, “the idea of bringing people together to promote the region internationally.”
Ford said the natural deepwater port here was a strong factor in the development of Seattle as a global city, as was the city's role as the major maritime connector to Alaska in the 1897 Gold Rush. The population of the city rose from 42,000 in 1890 to 80,000 in 1900 to 240,000 in 1920. “That did not occur from people taking in each other’s laundry,” Ford said.
Seattle also was selected for the first regular shipping service to Japan, Ford said, noting that the steamship Miike Maru arrived in Elliott Bay in 1896. The Miike Maru — owned by Nippon Yusen Kaisha, the Japanese shipping company that is still a customer of the Port of Seattle — was the first ship to begin a regular run between Japan and North America. The Great Northern Railroad also was a factor when it reached Seattle in 1893, providing direct access to the Midwest and Eastern markets.
Ford recalled the history of the silk trains, making the run from Seattle to New York in 90 hours, a remarkable feat in early 20th century. The silk business was huge, Ford said, citing figures that put the value of silk at nearly 10 percent of all imports.
Seattle was also the beneficiary of two huge innovations, Ford said — the jet engine and the container. Both put Seattle on the map through Boeing jets that soon made international travel accessible to almost anyone and the container, an intermodel shipping system developed after World War II that reduced transport costs and supported a vast increase in international trade. Some of the first containers were developed for the Seattle-Alaska market.
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