Celebrating the Northwest's floating world

Maritime advocates are looking to have Congress declare most of Washington's coastline, including Puget Sound, a National Heritage Area. It could be a boon for tourism, preservation, and the marine industry itself.
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The schooner <i>Wawona</i> was on the endangered list, but was demolished.

Maritime advocates are looking to have Congress declare most of Washington's coastline, including Puget Sound, a National Heritage Area. It could be a boon for tourism, preservation, and the marine industry itself.

There's a proposal making the rounds to designate a large chunk of Washington's coastline a National Maritime Heritage Area. Such an area would require an act of Congress.

The proposed Heritage zone would extend up Washington's Pacific coast from Gray's Harbor and include the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands. It would run south from the Canadian border to the southern tip of Puget Sound. In Seattle, it would encompass Salmon Bay, the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Lake Union. It would extend 1/4 mile inland, and could include other nearby designated sites.

The main idea is to provide a way to recognize Washington's maritime history and industry, from Coast Salish cedar canoes to old lighthouses, from World War II shipyards to houseboat communities. A Heritage Area designation allows locals to coordinate ways to recognize and protect local historic sites and structures, promote tourism, and develop a narrative that ties-in life today. It also views cultural heritage to be seen broadly, connected to living, inhabited, and industrious contemporary landscapes. A Heritage Area is no wilderness National Park, though the Park Service does provide technical assistance.

National Heritage Areas have proven popular, mostly in the eastern U.S, and the idea is spreading. According to a presentation by the state's Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, there are 49 such areas in the U.S., with nine of those designated just this year. The largest Heritage Area is the entire state of Tennessee, recognized for its Civil War era history. There has also been interest in creating a Heritage Area along the Columbia River, inspired in part by the recent Lewis and Clark expedition's bicentennial.

Washington's would not be the first to focus on an industry. Surrounding Dayton, Ohio is the National Aviation Heritage Area, home of the Wright Brothers, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and the Aviation Hall of Fame. In Michigan, there's the Motor Cities National Heritage Area which focuses on the U.S. auto industry (which is almost history) connecting factories, museums, and sites in Detroit, Lansing and Flint.

Washington's maritime heritage, past and present, is significant, but an official Congressionally-approved Heritage Area might give widespread locales a reason to coordinate efforts and find strength in developing interpretive centers and signage that tell the story of our relationship with the sea. In effect, a Heritage Area allows a kind of re-branding that can attract "cultural tourists" who want to learn something on their travels (they also tend to stay longer and spend more than other tourists). We may not have Europe's ancient cathedrals to offer sightseers, but we do have working and historic waterfronts. Maritime Heritage includes, but is bigger, than sailing ship replicas and historic tugboats.

One example of a creative packaging of maritime history is in Richmond, California, home of the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park. While not a Heritage Area (it's run by the Park Service) it's an example of what can be done to revitalize old shipyards and warehouses into a compelling story of life and work on the home front during World War II. It hosts a festival dedicated to the wartime contributions of civilians, and you can also see where Rosie lived, worked and visit the ships she built, like the surviving "Victory Ship" SS Red Oak. With so much to compete with in the Bay Area, it's hard to imagine a city like Richmond finding a way to make itself attractive to visitors, but it's been done.

A Heritage Area designation could also give some aid to preservationists who are fighting ongoing battles to save waterfront history. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's annual endangered list has included maritime structures consistently in recent years.

The 2009 most-endangered list worries about the historic structures at Seattle's redeveloping Sand Point, once home of a Naval Air station. In 2008, Bellingham's Old Granary building, threatened with demolition by the Port of Bellingham, was listed and is on the current "Watch" list. Also listed last year were Gig Harbor's waterfront fishing net sheds and Tacoma's Murray Morgan Bridge, which is also on the "Watch" list. And Seattle's Wawona sailing ship was listed in '05, but nevertheless demolished just this year.

Another notable example is so-called Collins Building in Everett, which once housed a casket manufacturing company, which the Port of Everett approved demolishing in a vote on June 16 despite loud and long public objection. Preservationists have been engaged in a multi-year battle to save the building with its important connections to the "city of smokestacks" blue-collar history. The Washington Trust listed it as endangered in '04 and it's on the '09 "watch" list.

Many of these struggles derive from the push and pull over redevelopment. The region's port authorities are are often unfriendly to historic preservation. This is partly due to the fact that port facilities often see the need to change for competitive reasons, and also because many have jumped into the real estate development business, turning once working port areas into marinas and condos. Another aspect is that port officials are often slow to see the historic or cultural significance or the potential of old warehouses.

It should be noted that a Maritime Heritage Area would not guarantee success in any of these preservation efforts. The entity would be run by a local non-profit, not the government, and no regulation whatsoever comes with it. It offers no protections, and it is not federally owned or operated (so property rights advocates can relax). Its leverage comes from creating a common purpose and awareness, opening an avenue for grant funding, and providing some strategic glue for tourism promotion. If a Heritage Area can't actually save anything, it might add something to the heritage protection tool kit by helping parlay maritime activity and legacy into another kind of money-maker.

Indeed, Ports and cities could see a Heritage Area as help in waterfront redevelopment in places like Tacoma, Everett, Olympia, Bremerton, and Seattle. The latter is already contemplating a massive revamp of its post-Viaduct downtown waterfront. The Maritime Heritage Area could help inform the planning and design process.

To be designated by Congress, the Heritage Area must be widely supported by locals. A steering committee that helped advise a feasibility study by the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation included stakeholders as well as staffers from Congressman Jay Inslee's and Sen. Maria Cantwell's offices. To get the word out, the state's head of historic preservation, Allyson Brooks, is currently making presentations about the proposal and spreading the word on how to take the next-steps in establishing the zone. She'll be briefing members of the Seattle City Council on July 14.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.