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?