Duwamish River tideflats Credit: Museum of History and Industry
Love him or hate him, would-be stadium builder Chris Hansen is just the latest in a long line of entrepreneurs hoping to exploit the expanse of real estate south of downtown. The property he has acquired sits on what was once the tideflats of the Duwamish River, a land coveted by everyone from former governors to out-of-town speculators to mollusk farmers. This vast protean landscape, which once spent half the day covered in water and the other half a stinking morass of mud, embodies the frontier spirit of Seattle like few other places.
When members of the Denny party, one of the families who settled Seattle, first arrived on the eastern shore of Elliott Bay in April 1852, they found a great port and a daunting challenge. To the north, the land rose steadily; to the east abruptly and to the south there was the Duwamish River delta. The future city would be pretty, but hilly. There was almost no level land upon which to build.
But Arthur Denny and his fellow pioneers were determined to make Seattle a great city, so when Henry Yesler launched Seattle’s first startup business — a sawmill — they supported the effort by filling in the lowlands with sawdust from the Yesler mill.
As Seattle prospered, the city continued to colonize the tideflats. First, it was piers and wharfs for the maritime trade. But the Seattle establishment knew that the city needed railroads to prosper. With a transcontinental terminus, Seattle’s citizens would assure their destiny of becoming the Pacific coast’s premiere city.
Despite a pledge from Seattleites of 3,000 acres of land, 4,800 feet of waterfront property, 750 town lots, $50,000 in gold coin and $200,000 in bonds, the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Tacoma as its transcontinental terminus in 1873. (And thus began the more than 100-year rivalry with our neighbor to the south.)
Crushed but not defeated, Seattle said to hell with Northern Pacific, we’ll build our own railroad. It was one of the earliest signs of what became known as the Seattle Spirit — the city’s optimistic, can-do attitude.
By early 1877, the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad was running. Traversing the tideflats required pile-driving thousands of logs for a two-mile-long trestle. Crossing the flats was a huge achievement for Seattleites; it showed that we could build around our natural obstacles and shape the land to meet our needs.
The successful spanning of the tideflats spawned a real estate bubble: Speculators tried every means imaginable to acquire property (even though it was still not solid land) that they could sell to the railroads — or to someone else. A Baltimore syndicate used government scrip that allowed the holder to place claims on 120 acres of “unoccupied and unappropriated” public lands.
Some took advantage of a new law that allowed people to start cultivating oysters, then claim the land they farmed. Others pounded in piles to enclose “their” territory. A few built cabins, floating the building materials out piece by piece and erecting the cabins on pilings. The Duwamish tideflats had become Seattle’s Wild West, with the requisite gun toters protecting their claims.
Ultimately, the real estate schemes failed. When Washington became a state in 1889, the new state Supreme Court blocked all claims. The court argued that the federal government had owned the tidelands in trust for when Washington Territory became Washington state. The tidal real estate was never really available to be claimed. The oysters didn’t fare any better than the claims; they couldn’t tolerate the Duwamish sediment.
But the Seattle Spirit didn’t quit. In 1895, a company started by ex-Territorial Governor Eugene Semple proposed building a canal through Beacon Hill to connect Lake Washington with Elliott Bay. (This “south” canal was an alternative and competitor to the “north” canal — the eventual Lake Washington Ship Canal — which was favored by landowners around Lake Union and Lake Washington.)
Although the south canal was never built, Semple’s company did dredge the East and West Waterways at the north end of the tideflats, and used the dredgings to create Harbor Island. Semple planned to pay for the canal work by selling liens on the new land in the tideflats created from the excavated mud. The press hailed the project as “the greatest enterprise yet inaugurated in this city.”
Within a year, 70 acres had been created on what had once been tideflats. Then came the lawsuits, from south canal opponents who stood to benefit from construction of a north canal, and from the railroads who hoped to build more tracks across the flats. Public opinion also started to change as naysayers convinced local newspapers that Semple’s grand scheme wouldn’t work.
In the end, delays from the lawsuits and rising costs eventually forced Semple out of his company. Even so, the filling in of the tideflats continued and by 1917 more than 1,400 acres had been reclaimed.
Like Chris Hansen, these early day entrepreneurs saw the tideflats as an opportunity — primarily to make money, but also to fulfill their idea of Seattle’s destiny. The railroad, the canal, the waterways, the arena — each would make Seattle bigger, better.
But there is something else about the tideflats that seems to foster dreamers. As new land made by us, the Duwamish tideflats could be shaped by us. It could become a place where people realized their own vision for the city.
Now, we are seeing that clash play out again. Chris Hansen dreams of an entertainment district, enticing people with hoops and a place to hang out. Opponents want to preserve the area’s industrial past, though it’s ironic that some of the fiercest resistance comes from those who are trying to protect the interests of the railroads — the earliest encroachers on the flats.
Whether Hansen succeeds or fails in his 21st Century bid to transform the tideflats, he won’t be the last pioneer who hopes to shape the area. That impulse is simply the Seattle Spirit.