History of Seattle
From Timber Town to High Tech Metropolis
“The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Seattle. And the hills the greenest green, in Seattle. Like a beautiful child, growing up, free an’ wild. Full of hopes and full of fears, full of laughter, full of tears. Full of dreams to last the years, in Seattle.”
– Seattle, sung by Perry Como/lyrics by Ernie Sheldon and Jack Keller
The settling of Seattle was hardly the stuff of songs. It was a cold, rainy day when the first white settlers landed near Alki Point on November 13, 1851. The site was among the most exposed to winter storms and the date, as future climatic data would reveal, was one of the wettest of the year. Alas, Arthur Denny and his small band of pioneers had already trekked west from Illinois on the Oregon Trail and then sailed north from Portland on the schooner Exact. They forged a tiny community of log cabins near the beach and endured their first wind-swept winter on Puget Sound before moving to a more sheltered, permanent location along the Elliott Bay tidelands in the spring of 1852.
British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver had explored Puget Sound more than 50 years earlier, bestowing nearly every visible landmark with an English name to honor friends and re-pay political debts. The process of naming Seattle was more circuitous. The pioneers originally selected the grand but spoken-for “New York,” later qualified by the town’s relatively slow growth as “New York Alki,” or “New York by-and-by” as translated from native Chinook trading jargon. Next was the original but underwhelming “Duwamps” after a tribe on the nearby Duwamish River. Soon thereafter that name was changed in honor of Chief Sealth, the respected leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish people who had welcomed the newcomers.
The little pioneer outpost was platted in 1853 and the arrival of Henry Yesler and the area’s first steam sawmill sparked the local economy. A town called Seattle rose on the western-most edge of the American frontier.
Growing Up, Free an’ Wild
During the last half of the 19th century, Seattle gradually grew to become a major port of call for ships plying the Pacific Coast. The surrounding hills and islands supplied thousands of shiploads of lumber and coal for California towns. The term "skid road," meaning an unsavory part of town, is said to have originated in Seattle from the route (Yesler Way) down which logs were skidded from the hills to the waterfront. South of the road, brothels and saloons thrived; the respectable part of town began north of the road.
On June 6, 1889 a disastrous fire burned most of the city to the ground. Seizing the opportunity for urban renewal, city engineers raised downtown streets several feet above the high tide level, leaving intact store fronts below street level. Within a year of the great fire, some 130 structures were rebuilt with brick and mortar atop the rubble. Known as Pioneer Square today, the district is a showcase for Victorian Romanesque architecture and the Underground Tour explores the ruins below street level.
The young town’s growth was fueled by the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1884. Though first connecting Tacoma, 30 miles south, a northern spur later established Seattle as the de facto terminus for the transcontinental route.
“Gold!” On July 17, 1897, a steamer filled with gold from the north arrived on Seattle’s waterfront. The Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890’s transformed Seattle into an outfitter, ship builder and transshipment port for the thousands of prospectors and millions of tons of goods heading north to Alaska and the Yukon. Today, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Pioneer Square offers perspective on this wild and prosperous chapter in Seattle’s development.
Moving Mountains, Building Rivers
Between 1880 and 1910, Seattle’s population grew from 3,500 to 230,000 and several annexations extended city boundaries in all directions. The resulting construction boom displayed some remarkable feats of engineering and civic resolve. To facilitate the northward expansion of Seattle’s commercial district, 400-foot Denny Hill was razed and pushed into the Elliott Bay tidelands as fill. Led by city engineers, the project spanned 32 years with its final phase completed in 1930.
In 1917, the Army Corp of Engineers finished the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which provided a water passage from Puget Sound to Lake Union in the heart of the city with continuing passage to Lake Washington on the Seattle’s eastern shore. The canal required digging cuts between Salmon Bay and Lake Union at Fremont and between Lake Union and Lake Washington at Montlake (called the Montlake Cut). When complete, the canal permanently lowered the water levels of Lakes Union and Washington by approximately nine feet. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, at the western end of the canal near Salmon Bay, were constructed to raise and lower ships (between six and 26 feet depending on the tides), allowing them to pass between fresh and salt water bodies. Today, the locks are one of Seattle’s most popular visitor attractions and offer a visitor center and a fish ladder with public viewing and interpretation.
Seattle’s Olmsted-designed park system was built throughout the first four decades of the century. Expanding from the original 1903 master plan of John C. Olmsted (stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park) Seattle’s 50-mile-long “Emerald Necklace” of parks, linked by scenic waterways and boulevards, unfolded throughout the city. Olmsted also designed the grounds of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition, a legacy for the design of the University of Washington Campus in Seattle. Following Olmsted’s death in 1920, the Olmsted Brothers firm continued consultation on several of the city’s parks through the early 1940s. The Olmsted legacy ranges from small play fields to Seattle’s grandest parks including Volunteer Park, Seward Park, Woodland Park and the Washington Park Arboretum.
The “Jet City” Takes Off
During World War II, Seattle and many other U.S. cities boomed. The Puget Sound area became a major base of naval operations; tens of thousands of troops received their training at Fort Lewis and shipped overseas from Seattle's waterfront. The Boeing Company, a small airplane manufacturer founded in 1916, grew to become a primary manufacturer of heavy bombers flown by the U.S. Army Air Force - the B-17 and B-29. Today, Seattle’s Museum of Flight traces Boeing’s history in an exhibit that is housed in the company’s original “red barn” factory that now adjoins the museum.
Boeing figured prominently in the post-war era, introducing America's first passenger jet (the 707) to commercial aviation in 1954. By 1957 Boeing and its suppliers accounted for nearly half of the jobs in King County. In the 1960s the company gained its leadership as the world's leading manufacturer of commercial jet aircraft, the B-52 bomber and the Saturn V booster for the Apollo program. However, just as Seattle’s economic prosperity was tied to Boeing’s, so were its periodic downturns. During Boeing’s workforce cuts of the early 1970s, a now famous billboard on Highway 99 near the city limits read: “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?”
It Happened at the World’s Fair
The city’s tourism industry took flight with the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Aptly themed "Century 21,” the fair unveiled the 605-foot Space Needle observation tower as a permanent and ever-futuristic civic icon. Still on record as one of the few world’s fairs to earn money, the Seattle World’s Fair was a stunning success for the young metropolis, drawing international attention and mobilizing local support for the city’s future growth.
Over the next two decades, Seattle’s population grew to nearly 500,000. While the forestry, fisheries and agricultural industries experienced gradual declines, aerospace continued to dominate Seattle’s economy. International trade also grew, thanks to the city’s proximity to the Pacific Rim, growing port facilities, communications industries and educational institutions. Seattle attracted major league football and baseball franchises with the completion of the Kingdome stadium in the mid-1970’s, making it one of few cities to boast pro football, baseball and basketball.
By the late 1980’s, diversified economic success showed in Seattle’s dynamic skyline. The 42-story Smith Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1914, stood just blocks from its nearest successor, the gleaming 76-story Columbia Tower (today named Bank of America Tower).
The ’90s Were Very, Very Good to Seattle
Nothing could prepare Seattle for the attention it would receive in the 1990’s. Locally-based Microsoft led the world in the development of computer software and became the region’s largest private sector employer. Seattle companies such as Amazon.com forged the way for Internet commerce. Gourmet coffee pervaded nearly every Seattle street corner, spurring an international trend led by locally-based Starbucks. Grunge rock exploded from Seattle music clubs and garage bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam established a new music genre.
The confluence of consumer trendsetting, business innovation and a growing appreciation of Seattle’s quality of life garnered the city an abundance of accolades. Seattle was lauded as the most livable city in the U.S. by Money magazine, the best city for business by Forbes and among the top-ten visitor destinations in the U.S. by readers of Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure. The feature film Sleepless in Seattle lured tourists with scenes of romantic waterways and houseboats. Each week, NBC’s Frasier spoofed the city’s sophisticated, though somewhat urbane, culture. And, Seattle’s pervasive acclaim hit a pop culture pinnacle when Seinfeld’s fictional George Costanza called it “The Pesto of cities.”
Century 21: History in the Making
Today Seattle is a leading leisure travel and convention destination, attracting more than eight million visitors a year who spend $3.6 billion and contribute some $300 million in state and local tax revenues. Lured by Seattle’s mythic lifestyle, new residents from the U.S. and other parts of the world have boosted the city’s population to nearly 570,000 and its metropolitan population to more than 2.5 million. Entrepreneurialism still thrives in Seattle, its computer software industry leading the world in development and its biotech industry showing strong momentum. While Boeing’s corporate headquarters are no longer in Seattle, its manufacturing presence throughout the region remains sizable.
The Port of Seattle is the largest port in the Pacific Northwest, among the ten busiest container ports in
the U.S., and its two luxury cruise terminals host 150 sailings and 250,000 passengers each year.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, Seattle is still a frontier town in spirit, an outpost on the future and
a destination for pioneers.
Resources for Journalists
A free online historical encyclopedia for Seattle, King County and Washington State and the first of its kind in the nation. HistoryLink offers more than 4,000 original, sourced essays and its staff are happy to assist journalists, scholars, researchers and the public.
Museum of History & Industry
2700 24th Avenue East (Montlake neighborhood)
Seattle, WA 98122
Public Phone: (206) 324-1126
The city’s premier history museum showcasing extensive historic and cultural collections of the region.
Seattle Then and Now (hard copy edition)
by James Madison Collins
Thunder Bay Press
Available online via Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble or at local Seattle book stores.
Download in PDF format