Seattle, Washington

March 2000

I have been to Seattle many times, usually to visit my classmate Chad and his wife Angie.  I usually don’t take a camera.  But in March of 2000, our classmate Mike and his girlfriend Brigette were visiting Seattle, so I brought the camera and drove up to spend some time with my friends.

We started out at Chad and Angie’s apartment in Capital Hill, then spent most of the day walking around the old part of downtown, called Pioneer Square.

From Occidental Square, a lifeless pedestrian walk that’s never really caught on, we could see the Kingdome, and beyond that, Safeco Field.  This just so happened to be the day before they imploded the Kingdome, so it was pretty well gutted by that point, and they were probably completing the process of wiring it up for the blast.

Pioneer Square and Early Seattle

Suquamish and Duwamish Indians used the area where Pioneer Square is today as a temporary stop between Lake Washington and the mouth of the Duwamps River (now called Duwamish).  A US Navy expedition led by Charles Wilkes surveyed the area in 1841, giving the name Elliot Bay to a large sheltered inlet of Puget Sound, and Piner’s Point to a low peninsula, nearly surrounded by tide flats.  In 1851, the first settlers to the area arrived and staked claims near where Alki Beach is in West Seattle.

They decided to relocate in 1852, however, sensing that Elliot Bay would be a good harbor for a future city.  One of the settlers, David “Doc” Maynard, claimed Piner’s Point and the surrounding mud flats.  Others soon joined him, and they changed the name of the village from Duwamps to Seattle, in honor of Chief Seattle.  Maynard convinced the Oregon Territorial Legislature to name Seattle the seat of a new King County.

Later that same year, a man named Henry Yesler built a steam-powered lumber mill — the first in Puget Sound — on a pier at the end of what is now called Yesler Way.  Back then it was simply known as Mill Street, but later earned the nickname “Skid Road”.  The story goes that logs were dragged down the street from First Hill to the mill, leaving skid marks in the mud, but this is probably apocryphal.  If “skid road” seems to ring a bell… well, more about that in a bit.

The three most prominent members of the community, Doc Maynard, Arthur Denney, and Carson Boren, drew up plats for their claims.  Denney and Boren held land on the wooded hills behind Piner’s Point.  There was considerable disagreement about the orientation of streets, which resulted in a tangled mess of intersections that remain along Yesler Way.

After dispelling a native american attack in 1856, the town prospered by exporting timber, salmon, and soft coal, mostly to San Francisco.  Seattle had 40,000 residents by 1889, when a fire broke out in a cabinet shop near First and Madison, eventually destroying nearly 30 blocks.

The city was quickly rebuilt, this time in brick and stone, and today remains one of the largest collections of Victorian and Romanesque Revival buildings in the country.  While the reconstruction was going on, the city engineers decided to take care of chronic drainage and sewer problems by raising the streets a full story.  The original ground floor of numerous buildings now became the basement, and businesses there soon faded away.  Today you can take a colorful guided tour of Seattle’s “Underground”, getting some glimpses of this city beneath the city.  I’ve never taken this tour, but I’ve heard it is quite entertaining, if not entirely historically accurate.

The local economy had endured a four-year depression in the 1890’s, when the steamship Portland arrived at the docks in 1897, carrying “more than ton” of gold, and 63 successful prospectors returning from the Klondike River in Alaska.  Business leaders quickly established Seattle as the “Gateway to Alaska”, and the city boomed as thousands of people headed north to seek their fortune.

City leaders turned the triangluar plot of land at First Avenue and Yesler Way into Pioneer Place park.  In 1899, a group of businessmen stole a Tlingit Indian totem pole from a village on Southeast Alaska’s Tongass Island, and installed it at the park.  After the pole was destroyed by an arsonist in 1938, the city sent the remnants along with $5000 to the Tlingits to have them carve a new one.  Reportedly, the tribe cashed the check and then sent a note saying “Thanks for finally paying for the first one.  A new pole will cost another $5000″.

As the city center moved north from the old Pioneer Square neighborhood, the old downtown began to decline.  From Yesler Way south, the old town was filled with saloons, brothels, and gambling houses.  In the Prohibition movement of the 1920’s, a Presbyterian minister named Reverend Mark Matthews led a crusade against the city’s well-established tolerance of vice along “Skid Road”, giving rise to the term “skid row” to mean either the physical location or the lifestyle results of frequenting such establishments.