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A look at the mountains and rivers moved to build Seattle

Seattle has tried all kinds of civic symbols: Chief Seattle’s profile, salmon, Mt. Rainier. Author David B. Williams’ new book, Too High and Too Steep, suggests another: the pile driver.

If cranes are the ubiquitous sign of change in the modern city, the under-appreciated pile driver is the tool that was, and is, deployed to do the dirty work. In my Madison Park home, I have often worked to the song of the pile-driver—as Walt Whitman might have phrased it—as the new 520 bridge works its way toward Montlake from Medina.

Come to think of it, my home is ground zero of an area that’s witnessed the massive terra-forming that literally makes up Seattle’s foundations: the building of the ship canal that connected Puget Sound with our urban lakes, the landfill at Union Bay and the Arboretum, the bridging of the waters with a highway on concrete pontoons, the lowering of Lake Washington in 1916 that rerouted a river and dramatically changed our urban shoreline. Fitting then that I should need an occasional Advil to alleviate the irritation of the work that continues, as the pile drivers pound on in the never-ending effort to make Seattle navigable, habitable, prosperous.

Williams is a brilliant writer who combines an intense and scholarly curiosity with in-the-field research, and has a gift for explaining—a talent he once honed as a tour guide at Arches National Park. He has explored geology for years, in books whose topics range from the stones of urban architecture to the meaning of rock cairns. His new history, as the book’s subtitle states, is the “Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.” Imagine if Murray Morgan’s Skid Road had been written by a geologist. Williams offers a detailed yet sweeping overview of the way Seattle’s landscape has literally been reshaped. Too High and Too Steep covers Seattle’s European settlement forward, but also includes an excellent account of Puget Sound in the Ice Age, and how vast glacial forces left us with such a complex geographic counterpane of gouged and scoured terrain.

It’s good background, but the real drive of the book begins with the settlers, who envisioned a major metropolis on Elliott Bay—New York Alki—and went about constructing that in a land that seemed designed to defy it. The Denny party and others had staked their claim on the best southern port as relates to the outlet of Puget Sound and the Pacific. The real issue, Williams writes, was how to take advantage of it?

SoDo, on the eve of being filled in with earth.
SoDo, on the eve of being filled in with earth.

Williams’ title refers to the burden of building a big city on Seattle’s hills, but the early problem wasn’t just “too high and too steep” but also too wet. The water and shorelines were tantalizing—deep port, tempting timber, nearby mineral wealth—but removing resources to match the scale of their abundance was a huge issue. So was expanding the working space so that industry had the room it needed to grow. Rail access was crucial, and even before Seattle was finally connected to the transcontinental railroad, the city built is own local rail line to speed the extraction of coal from the Cascades, turning Seattle into the West Coast’s major supplier of energy to cities like San Francisco. To get that coal required pile-driving for wharves and trestles to take shortcuts across the great Duwamish tide flats (you know them today as SoDo or the Industrial District). These allowed Seattle to send and receive goods and raw materials regionally, then nationally. The pile driver connected land and sea and hooked us to the world.

A conveyor belt for taking dirt to the water, down Battery.
A conveyor belt for taking dirt to the water, down Battery St.

The expanding railroad network transformed the original waterfront, which is still an ongoing project even today. Railroad lines were built out onto the tide flats, which were then filled in and fortified with a seawall. While we tend to think of Seattle being an early timber town, and we exported plenty of lumber, but the forests also gave us access to the trees which we pounded into the soft, deep mud of the waterfront and tide flats to support warehouses, whorehouses, and plain old houses. Many of Pioneer Square’s old buildings still rely on old Doug fir pilings for their foundations. As the city expanded on stilts the space between was filled in to create new and more stable property. Demolition debris, sawdust, garbage, sewage, ballast, junk of all kinds created new “land.” Eventually, the remaking of the shoreline connected with the idea of flattening the hills to make getting around and developing the city easier. It seemed like a win-win.

Industrial scale landfill began in the 1890s with an attempt to dig a canal through Beacon Hill to Lake Washington. That project dumped more uniform soil into what became SoDo. Regrading and landfilling expanded into multi-year regrades around town, most notable the washing away of Denny Hill in what is now Belltown and the Denny Triangle which created a vast, flat area supposedly ripe for redevelopment. It took awhile for that to happen—completed by the 1930s, it saw development bursts in the 1960s, then the ‘80s, and is only now fulfilling its urban promise by transforming into an extension of downtown connecting to South Lake Union and South Queen Anne.

A ship built to dump earth into the harbor does its job.
A ship built to dump earth into the harbor does its job.

From the standpoint of urban development in the early 1900s, it made sense. While it took longer than expected to come to fruition, the scale of change would likely be a source of wonder and satisfaction to the engineers and business barons who wanted it.

On the other hand, much of what Seattle builders did would now be considered environmental depravity. Our shorelines, rivers, lakes and tidelands were devastated. The scale is mind-boggling. Williams reports that by 1931, an estimated “75 million cubic yards of material had been moved by dredging, regrading and filling.” That works out to something like 3.6 million train carloads of stuff.

The Duwamish River—straightened and poisoned—is the poster child for eco-wrecking, but the damage everywhere was significant. We gained parks, but lost ecosystems. Our attempts now to “restore” areas are expensive, and we’re often fighting an uphill battle against time, budget, regulations, necessity, greed, and apathy. Today, we would not dump entire hills into Elliott Bay, but oil from our cars still flows there. Today we have turned former garbage dumps like Union Bay into natural areas, or industrial zones into parks, like Gas Works, but the ecosystems now require much management by man to keep the salmon alive, to prevent toxic seepage. The water quality of the once natural Lake Washington is largely controlled now by the Army Corps of Engineers, Metro and Seattle Public Utilities, public entities that manage water quality, sewage, salinity, salmon and the lake’s water level.

Regrading Seattle.
Regrading Seattle.

Williams enriches his book with personal observation. He walks around Seattle’s landscape and describes its history—what you would have seen in the past, what is there now. That cut you drive through on Columbian Way? Part of the failed Beacon Hill canal. The site of the onetime Sears and now Starbucks headquarters? There were mud geysers there after an earthquake.

He goes up the Space Needle and describes the geography, the excavations, the challenges our city’s builders faced, and still face. Much of what we’re doing today we have done before and, he says, we must do again. Seattle’s topography is still imprinting itself on both us and the built environment. We dug a downtown tunnel along the waterfront, and are doing it again. We built a seawall, and we’re building a new one. We’ve built bridges across the lake, and we’re building another. We require rail lines to keep people and good flowing, and regional rail is expanding.

“Seattle,” Williams writes, “is a city of hills and valleys, ridges and bluffs, creeks and lakes, faults and landslides. It is a city governed by its geology.” The engineers will always have work. Our geography is more stubborn than Seattle process.

Sixth Ave and Marion.
Sixth Ave and Marion.

The trick now, he says, is that we no longer have the ability to simply assert our will upon the landscape. Unlike our 19th- and early 20th century builders, we have more rules and regulations. We know we have to protect the environment from the consequences of our vision, and repair the damage done. We have challenges that cannot be wished away—climate change, sea level rise, seismic faults—that were previously unknown. We also have a more settled landscape, with powerful industrial and civic interests that can push back harder than the trees and soil once did.

The future landscape, Williams concludes, will be transformed, but the difference now is that “change will not be about what we want to do but about what we have to do.” We came, we saw, we conquered, but in the future, we’ll have to adapt to forces beyond our control, and to a landscape that continues to challenge our ideas of what a city should be.

The "final shovel" of dirt is removed from Denny Hill, attracting a crowd.
The “last shovel” of dirt is removed from Denny Hill, attracting a crowd.

David B. Williams will be reading from his new book, “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography” (University of Washington Press) at the Seattle Public Library. Oct. 10 at 2pm.

All photos courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archive. 

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