Seattle declares goal of sustainability--in 1863!

Read the city's first newspaper, published 150 years ago, and you'll find a town talking rain, coffee, growth, coal, and sustainability. Really.
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Seattle Gazette

Read the city's first newspaper, published 150 years ago, and you'll find a town talking rain, coffee, growth, coal, and sustainability. Really.

One hundred and fifty years ago this year, Seattle got its first newspaper when the Seattle Gazette a small four-page weekly, was born. Over time, it morphed into the daily paper that became the Seattle Post-Intelligencer which, alas, exists today as an electronic wisp of its former self.

In 1863, America was involved in a Civil War, and that news was in the pages of the press throughout the Washington Territory. But frontier concerns were mostly parochial. Seattle was a budding port but hardly the preeminent place on the Sound. In 1860, King County's entire population was 302 people.

Olympia, Port Townsend, and even Steilacom were much livelier scenes. Washington Territory was struggling toward, but not assured of, statehood. As the San Juan dispute with Great Britain dragged on and eastern parts of the territory, like Idaho, were carved off, even its boundaries were not fixed. But New York Alki had big ambitions and they could not be realized without a trumpet to sell the virtues of the city and the region. Frontier papers were little engines for urbanization.

Leafing through the first couple of issues of the Gazette (which can be found online here), it's striking to see how familiar it all is. Rain, coffee, transportation issues, worries about Olympia politics, even concerns about shipping coal, they're all in these pages. There's even a reference to drones!

One thing striking about 19th century newspapers is how familiar they would be to the iPadded or Kindled readership of today. They mostly featured stories aggregated from other sources topped off with hyperlocal details, like listing who had mail waiting at the trading post. The papers tended to be partisan and very opinionated, often using harsh and colorful language to excoriate their enemies. Frontier papers were more like the blogs and social media we rely on today than most modern metropolitan dailies. They were cracker barrel versions of Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and Huffington Post.

If the Gazette is familiar for its Webby feel, it's also eerily modern in terms of content. Take the vision for the city expressed in the very first issue on Dec. 10, 1863, which Seattleites read along with news reports on the successes of Ulysses S. Grant's Chattanooga campaign. After listing many of Seattle's advantages from the standpoint of geography and natural resources, the paper laid out an ambitious shopping list for a small village:

"We want roads, bridges, wharves, schoolhouses, churches, printing-offices and population. It takes all these to make towns, cities and a prosperous people, and the more numerous they are, in a country naturally capable of sustaining them, the better it is for the whole and each constituent part of the community."

This could be the platform for any of the candidates for mayor in 2013. We're building new bridges, expanding roads, designing a revamped waterfront, and Seattle voters just passed a schools capital levy. You might substitute "fiber optic broadband" for "printing offices" however. The Gazette even declares that Seattle is for sustainability long before that became a buzzword. We want growth but growth that the "country is naturally capable of sustaining." Seattle, a sustainable city since 1863, who knew?

Transportation was a big issue. The Northwest wanted the transcontinental railroad, but it also needed regular roads, and after sails and before rails Seattle's priority was a wagon road over the Cascades (preferably Snoqualmie Pass) all the way to Walla Walla for direct trade and communication with the interior. The Gazette made sure the road issue was front and center.

One interesting development was the importance of coal. Today, we debate whether to allow coal trains through our city, but the debate in 1863 was how to get more coal to Seattle. The second issue of the Gazette describes how "Coal Fever" has hit town. "The excitement at times has reached such a pitch as to recall to the minds of old Californians the 'gold fevers' of that auriferous country..."

Abundant coal close to the surface was discovered east and south of the city — that's where places like Newcastle and Black Diamond got their names. Roger Sale, in his classic history, "Seattle Past to Present," reminds us how in the mid-19th Century coal for a time became king in Seattle — most of the timber had been cut and shipped. For the decade after 1875, Sale writes, "coal was Seattle's leading export." An early rail link between Seattle and Renton made possible the easy shipping of coal from mine to port. Whatever you think about it today, you can credit coal with helping Seattle edge out its larger Puget Sound competitors like Tacoma for Sound supremacy.

Another thing that hasn't changed is suspicion of Olympia. The territorial capital was a mire of controversy, patronage and corruption. The Gazette was all over that. Again, in its first issue, the paper looked ahead to the coming legislative session:

"Under no dynasty since the organization of the [Washington] Territory had the present Capital been anything better than a political trading post or slaughter house. It is a seething cauldron wherein is cooked the annual hell-broth which has poisoned the rest of the commonwealth — a hive wherein the drones hold absolute sway, and honest labor cannot live unless it moils on subservancy to grunting Shylocks or bends to official imbecility 'the pregnant hinges of the knee, that thrift may follow fawning.'"

That last phrase about the bended knee indicates subservience, but note the mention of drones! Unfortunately, these drones are beyond banishment by mayoral decree.

The anti-Olympia language is gloriously colorful, and expresses sentiments still shared by contemporary anti-tax activists like Tim Eyman and liberal Democrats enraged by the Rodney Tom Senate coup. Both recent candidates for governor, Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna, ran as Olympia outsiders. And who doesn't regard the state biennial budget as a "hell-broth" produced for the body politic? The political cauldron still seethes.

The Gazette was also not above promoting its advertisers, which included "Doc" Maynard pushing his medical practice and an ad about a cure for venereal diseases, so essential in a seaport where one of the very first commercial establishments was a bordello. One advertiser the editor liked was the Fashion Saloon, recommended by the Gazette for its "hot coffee, cakes, fresh oysters, stewed and in the shell, with various accompanying nick-nacks, which are exceedingly pleasant to take at any time of the day or night."

Since by this time some Puget Sound towns had their own breweries and distilleries, one assumes the Fashion Saloon was a good place to eat and drink locally, a kind of combination coffee house and cocktail/oyster bar. Not sure what a nick-nack tastes like.

As to rain, the second issue of the Gazette recorded that the weather in Olympia was rainy and dreary and the roads muddy. It was December, after all. But the paper also published an unsigned poem that gets at how people complained about the weather. The first stanza of "The Rain" goes like this:

"We heard a dozen men complain
When Wednesday it began to rain:
Just as before, when it was dry.
They mourned a drought with many a sigh
And seemed strangely to forget,
The Lord made the weather wet!
If all men's prayers were heard together
The world would have the queerest weather."

I'm sure Cliff Mass has noted that Seattleites are highly conflicted about the weather and the importance that we all remain philosophical about it.

The poem brings up the subject of the "creative class," which was alive and growing in early Seattle. Some of the founders realized that intellectual capital would give the city a competitive edge. A Methodist minister named Daniel Bagley pushed to have Seattle designated as the site of the Territorial University (founded in 1861), which was a heck of a lot better city-building-wise than getting the capital, the custom's house or the state penitentiary. Writes Roger Sale: "Bagley not only wanted a secular university but seems to have glimpsed its potential power for the city in which it was settled." That's right out of the Richard Florida playbook.

In 1863, the UW was recruiting students and according to an announcement in the Gazette, students were expected to observe the Sabbath and were warned that the "Frequenting of saloons, and attendance upon theatres and balls are not allowed." Doesn't sound like much fun, but you couldn't beat the price. College tuition was $10 per quarter.

It was on those foundations too that the modern city was built. Timber and coal were eventually augmented and replaced by affordable higher education as an economic engine, though Bagley himself was both educator and manager of the Newcastle coal mines. They were not mutually exclusive. The preservation of the balance between "education" and "affordable," and between "creative" and "blue collar" is something we're struggling with today.

Note: Knute Berger is participating in the Washington State Historical Society's "Civil War Read-in," which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It is one of the largest crowd-sourced historical research projects undertaken. Hundreds of volunteers are scouring old records, including newspapers, to learn more about the Civil War period in Washington Territory. You can learn more about the Volunteer Reader program here.

For more Mossback, click here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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