California: Always shining a bit brighter than Seattle

Seattle may feel it's catching up but it's clear the Northwest is still the lesser light culturally and economically.
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Sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge

Seattle may feel it's catching up but it's clear the Northwest is still the lesser light culturally and economically.

Seattle's ties to California go back to its very beginning and, like it or not, will not go away any time soon.

The major urban centers of the West Coast all sprouted within a decade in the mid-19th century, as Manifest Destiny was in full swing. San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego all began as Mexican settlements, and once the U.S. grabbed California in 1846, enterprising settlers converted them into cities, with the intent of making a killing on land sales. Portland was founded in 1845, as wagons streamed west on the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley, and Seattle was founded in 1851 by a handful of Oregon Trail pioneers who decided to turn right at Portland instead of left.

Which of these cities might break out of the pack and become the most prominent center of the West Coast was not preordained. Seattle, with its excellent harbor and strong natural resource base (timber, fish, coal, irrigation water), might have been that leader, were it not for an unforeseen event: the California Gold Rush of 1849. San Francisco's residents were just trying to figure out what it meant to be part of the U.S. instead of Mexico (not all favored the change at the time) when their town suddenly became the center of gold rush commerce.

As it grew rapidly, San Francisco needed more timber than it could find locally, and that is where Seattle came in. The first export of the young city was a load of logs that Arthur Denny sold to the captain of the schooner Leonesa for pilings in San Francisco Bay. After that, a steady stream of logs and lumber headed from Puget Sound to the Golden Gate. San Francisco's famous row houses were built with Northwest timber.

When coal was discovered in the foothills near Seattle, it became another major export to San Francisco, as did fish from Puget Sound and grain from the emerging agricultural areas of Eastern Washington. In return, Seattle residents got manufactured goods that had been imported to San Francisco, first by ship and then by the rails that arrived in Oakland 25 years before they got to Seattle. Recall, in that most authoritative history of Seattle, "Here Come the Brides," the crusty captain Clancy runs his ship between Seattle and San Francisco.

San Francisco was the unquestioned capital of the West Coast in the second half of the 19th century, growing to 300,000 people by 1890, when Seattle and Portland each had just 40,000 residents and Los Angeles had just 50,000. After it got its own railroads and had its own gold rush, Seattle's population swelled, to 250,000 by 1910, and its trade shifted from San Francisco to Alaska and Asia.

The social and cultural contrast that Seattle residents often draw between the Northwest and California goes back to the beginning of their relationship as well. The California gold rush was a rough, mostly male affair, and as the center of that action, San Francisco had a bawdy reputation. The founders of Seattle were well aware of this, and made it a point to grow their city along different lines. Seattle was not to be a louche and dangerous place, but one friendly to the comfortable urban middle class family life that was emerging in late 19th century America. Seattle had more than its share of vice, of course, but those activities were kept well away from the respectable neighborhoods on the hills.

Today, Seattle's relationship to California is built around the flow of people, not products. California is by far the largest source of in-migrants to the Seattle area. In 2013, more than 16,000 Californians traded in their drivers licenses in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, representing about 20 percent of all transplants tracked by the Department of Licensing. Texas is a distant second, with 5,500 license trade-ins.

California's high migration numbers result, in part, from its size and proximity. But they also reflect a complementarity of industries and the movement of skilled people. Southern California has always been a center of the aerospace industry and technology industry workers will move between the Puget Sound area and Silicon Valley. Both states have large tree fruit and wine industries, port and logistics operations and major military bases.

Geographers recognize a definite pecking order of cities, and it is clear that Seattle will always be the little West Coast sister to San Francisco economically. And despite the occasional flash of prominence, Seattle is unlikely to mount much of a cultural challenge to San Francisco and Los Angeles. As it did 150 years ago, California continues to provide object lessons that guide Seattle as it looks to its own future. The gentrification protests of San Francisco highlight the unintended consequences of economic success. The fiscal crises faced by many local governments in California show the dangers of excessive economic optimism.

Despite the obvious differences between Seattle and its California big sisters — Seattle reserve versus California exuberance — we can see some West Coast commonalities: business innovation, outdoor lifestyles, social informality. West Coast politics have given rise to a moderate progressive majority tempered by a strong strain of Western individualism. This is best seen by viewing the socially liberal, free-spending ways of Washington, Oregon and California alongside their utterly irrational tax structures.

The curious part about the relationship of Seattle to California is that no matter how many Californian's move to the Puget Sound area, the local culture and civic personality never seem to notice.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Michael Luis

Michael Luis

Michael Luis is a public affairs consultant with a focus on housing, growth and economic development issues and served as mayor and councilmember in Medina. He is author of Century 21 City: Seattle’s Fifty Year Journey from World’s Fair to World Stage. He can be reached at