Along Renton's shore, pre-Boeing history has been erased

Second of four parts: On her walk around Lake Washington, which separates Seattle from its eastern suburbs, the author endures a punishing Day 2 and is disappointed to find much of the shoreline in disarray from waterfront development.
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From top: The lovely path north of Seward Park in Seattle, right along Lake Washington; the Boeing plant in Renton, seen from across the lake; new construction sweeps away old industrial artifacts on the lake's southeast shore.

Second of four parts: On her walk around Lake Washington, which separates Seattle from its eastern suburbs, the author endures a punishing Day 2 and is disappointed to find much of the shoreline in disarray from waterfront development.

Second of four parts. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The next morning, the sun woke me up early. I packed my lunch, doubled my water, added Bruce Barcott's Measure of a Mountain to the pack, hopped in the car, and got a nice early start from Newport. The trail southward was perfect, running easily between Interstate 405 and the old railroad track. At times, the highway was deafening; at times, it slipped away. The morning was bright and clear, and the way was shady, the trees alive with birds, and I felt absolutely great. I could hear my footfalls and enjoyed their rhythm. A few houses were scattered along the lakeshore, and the water was shimmering blue in the lake channel east of Mercer Island. Houses that were softened by trees – firs, maples, noble madronas, and glorious willows – were so much more appealing to the eye than the harsh, angular show-offs. I tried to imagine Native freshwater canoes, settler rowboats and sailboats, then steamers of gradually increasing size and speed, as people used the lake as the quickest, most sensible way to get around.

Then from Newcastle south to north Renton, imagination fled as a series of noisy, dusty construction projects were almost solid along the lakeshore, replacing the funky old mills and coal bunkers. I was hunting for industrial survivals and finally saw a twisted heap of rusty metal, gathered at a construction site for removal. As late as the 1980s, this stretch of lakeshore retained traces of its roughneck industrial past. And I hoped to find, too, the site of the Colman house. McDonald's book included a photo taken from the house, still standing in 1955, that showed the southern tip of Mercer Island, behind which James Colman's boat disappeared as he rowed to his mysterious death in 1886. And I wondered, too, where the Kennydale Black Baptist Church had stood – how close to the water was it? And where, exactly, was the Renton settlement of Chinese immigrant workers who had built homes and planted gardens that made the river look like the Yangtze, to a Harper's journalist? And what was it like, in 1917, when the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened to fanfare, and the lake began to fall and soon Renton's Black River no longer drained the lake but its mouth was high in the air off the lake?

As Mike Sato quoted Duwamish Joseph Moses:

I remember when Lake Washington fell, when they opened the Ship Canal ... The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry, and there was no Black River at all. There were pools, of course, and the struggling fish were trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing fish into gunny sacks.

How much I yearned for some clues! Some insight into the manuscript that had been overwritten. The lake and its shore is an enormous museum of sites, structures and stories, but the artifacts don't speak for themselves, and the stories have fallen silent, not only muffled by the thunder of construction but the stilling of human voices through death and time. Everywhere I walked, Lucile McDonald had walked before me. Whose responsibility was it to remember what had once been? What we once knew? To interpret its meaning? If it is true that the past informs the present, what happens when the past becomes invisible and its stories become inaudible or indistinct? I never found the places I was looking for in Kennydale and Renton.

Coulon Park was a wonderful oasis – restrooms, running water, two fast-food concessions, benches – wow! I still felt great. No aches and just one pesky blister. This, I remember thinking, is fun and easy; I can do this. I read a bit of Barcott's book and dreamed about hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, too. I smiled when he wrote that "der Wanderschuhe hurt der feet"; but I was sobered when his first attempt at the Wonderland Trail ended ignominiously after four days. Hmmm. It was time to pack up and get back on my own trail. I was coming to the second rough patch – the bike map showed a gray area in Renton which certainly was Boeing property, where they build 737s, but did one really have to go that far south to cross the Cedar River? Really? And there was no way through the Renton Airport, only south and west of it? Really? Yes, really.

I cannot imagine what Renton's shoreline will be like in a year or two, but right now it is acres of screaming dust and desolation, the most enormous construction site I can imagine. Suddenly the sun was blazing hot, and I knew that I had sweated away all my sunscreen. My walking pace, which had felt so right on the lake's shady lane, was suddenly far too slow. I kept trying to make my way west, looking for a link to Rainier Avenue. But promising sidewalks simply ended in the middle of huge blocks, while a dozen huge construction machines ground and clunked along the broad roadways. Kindly construction workers re-directed me back east and south more than once, and I finally crossed the Cedar River bridge and was misled by a bicycle sign into walking up the east side of the Renton Airport hoping for a trail to the west along the field's north side. I had to retrace my steps and then circle the field to the south and west, finally turning north onto Rainier Avenue. I'd spent well over an hour walking from Coulon Park to Rainier Avenue.

My goal was Seward Park, but I had really cooked myself walking into the sun through Renton, and things soon got much worse. The shore was fenced off by miles of walls, fences, and garage doors of lakefront houses. The sun just hammered in the angle of the upright walls and the sidewalk, but worse was the constant up and down of the driveways indented into the sidewalk. Hundreds of driveways, each with a down step and then an up step – it seems so trivial, but the irregularity broke my rhythm and each step hurt. The pesky blister had become painful – I tried to forget it, and I just couldn't. Barcott had written about singing advertising jingles on the Wonderland Trail – I found myself singing old camp songs that we'd sung at Camp Wiquanuppek so long ago.

I'm happy when I'm hiking, knapsack on my back;
I'm happy when I'm hiking, off the beaten track.
Out in the open country, tramping all the way.
With a right good friend, 'til the journey's end.
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty miles a day.
Hike, hike, hike; tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.

When you sing under your breath, along Rainier Avenue, you frighten people, even if it's camp songs. The ironies did not escape me: I was hardly in the open country, I was definitely on a beaten track, I had never owned a knapsack, I wasn't very happy, I was ignoring my friends for a week, and I couldn't conceive of hiking 50 miles a day. Again, this late afternoon stretch was a low point, and the miles seemed so long. Cars and trucks hurtled by, my water was tepid, and there wasn't much left. Compared to my walk so far, there were very few public places along Rainier Avenue: the street-end "parks" only needed punji sticks and razor wire to be less inviting.

Finally, as I walked closer to Seward Park, there were more shade trees and glimpses of the lake. This was Indian ground, much changed by the lake's lowering, but its uses, home sites, and stories were remembered by the names: Xaxao'Ltc near Brighton Beach for the "sacred place," SkEba'kst for the "nose" of Seward Park. The names of American hardscrabble settlers, shrewd investors, and distant politicians encode the changing lakeshore manuscript: E.A. Clark, Walter Graham, William Bailey, William Seward, the mysterious "Andrews" of Andrews Bay. I passed a busy marina and could see the park ahead, curving out into the water, and then – finally – I was there, and sat down hard on the ground, leaning against a tree, with my legs stretched out in front. I watched kids play at the beach, and I tried to cool off. I'd stopped perspiring and I knew that was not a good thing – I drank the rest of my water. I'd made my destination for the day, but I began to look north up the lake, to Interstate 90. Maybe it would be easier to get home on my own across I-90 than impose on anyone to fetch me. I felt more human, and the walk didn't seem too far. The path I could see curling north around Andrews Bay looked easy – perhaps I could make it, and then hop a bus across I-90 to Bellevue. Then, tomorrow morning, I'd just do the same in reverse, and it would be easy to get to the start of my short Tuesday leg. I had a meeting at the University of Washington at 5 p.m. – so it would just be I-90 to campus. A snap. I packed up, lurched to my feet, and stepped out.

Walking along Lake Washington from Seward Park north is an absolute joy, entering the magnificent Olmsted web of boulevards, trails, and parks. Hired in 1903, the Olmsted landscape architecture firm designed a peerless urban experience of artifice and nature, scaled to human beings on foot or on bicycles. More than a century later, the walker feels right in the Olmsted world, in its plantings, on its curving pathways. The cool breeze off the water was refreshing and exhilarating, and there was lots of welcome shade. And interesting things to see. Crews were setting up for the Seafair hydroplane races, and joggers, dog-walkers, and people like me were walking the trail.

When I was nearly underneath I-90, a long staircase led up from the path, and I climbed it, hoping that there would be a bus stop at its head. Nope. I topped out at the park overlooking the tunnel exits to the east, and I-90 lay before me, crossing Mercer Island to Bellevue. This was the 1940 bridge to the future that had changed everything, putting the lake ferries out of business, opening up the postwar Eastside to G.I. Bill suburbanization, putting an end to the industrial lake. The route for bikers and walkers down to the highway was clear, but I was afraid I wouldn't be able to make it across the lake on foot. So I gave up and phoned home, and Rob checked the Web and told me there was a bus route just two blocks west of me – Metro 14, heading down into town. Those last two blocks were brutal, climbing up the steep hillside into the sun, but I made it and waited for the bus, standing in the shade cast by a telephone pole. Once downtown, I transferred to the 255 and got home. My eyes hurt and my head ached, and I stayed in a dark room all evening. We did some do-it-yourself surgery on my blister. This had been a long, long day; I was glad that Tuesday would be a short one.

Tomorrow, Part 3: The Burke-Gilman Trail


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