Though the Duwamish people who have inhabited the Puget Sound region for 10,000 years bestowed their own tribal names upon lakes and rivers, it’s probably a good thing that Seattle (named for Duwamish Chief Sealth) no longer bears the aurally unfortunate title of Duwamps. It would be tough reeling tourism in to a city whose name evoked the sound of rubber boots galumphing through a thick bog.
George Vancouver, a captain of the British Royal Navy, led his famed northwest expedition in 1791-95 along the Pacific Coast, charting the coastline from Oregon all the way up to Alaska. But 60 years would pass before this mapped land was finally settled in 1851 by a party led by brothers Arthur and David Denny. The Dennys first set foot in Seattle in 1851 at Alki (the Duwamish word for “by and by” or “pretty soon”), optimistic that this would be a land of sunshine and promise—a city to rival the splendor of New York. So convinced were they of success that they named the area New York–Alki, or New York Pretty Soon. A skunk infestation, several downpours, and one axe injury-induced fever later, Arthur and David Denny had their inevitable reality check: this was not New York. Along with the realization that they were vulnerable to waterborne attacks in their current settlement, the party relocated to present-day Pioneer Square, whose adjacent Elliott Bay was a deeper, safer harbor than the waters near Alki.
Early Seattleites were no strangers to economic crisis. Jobs were extremely scarce, and the economy was based entirely upon Henry Yesler’s sawmill, built in 1853. What had once been a majestic forest of 400-foot-high trees pushing 2,000 years old took on the ghostly pallor of a field riddled with rotting stumps.
Amidst the bustle of creating a new town, clashes broke out between the settlers, who believed they were fully entitled to the land, and Native Americans, whose roots in the region extended all the way back to the end of the last ice age. In 1856, the settlers’ attempts to relocate the Indians culminated in the Battle of Seattle—a title that could very well double as a modern-day competition among musical groups. The battle, though, was anything but whimsical. The Indians attacked; the settlers countered with muskets and cannon fire. When the dust cleared, two settlers were dead. Two years later, another uprising led to the hanging of Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe, who was accused of leading the ambush.
The next ten years, from 1860-1870, marked a period of steady growth and improvement. The year 1860 saw the completion of the first road linking Seattle to other western cities. Washington Territorial University, known today as the University of Washington, was established a year later. In 1863, Seattle published its first newspaper, the Gazette (later the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which ran in print until 2009 when it became available only online). Seattle was incorporated as a city in 1869. In 1870, Henry Atkins was elected as the first mayor.
By 1880, the city’s population had exceeded 3,500. After years of lobbying for access to the transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern Railway came to Seattle in 1884—11 years after the Northern Pacific Railroad Company announced that its railroad would reach its western terminus in Tacoma, a city 45 miles south of Seattle. The new railway brought droves of families, and the fishing, trade, and shipbuilding industries boomed. Increasing numbers of residents necessitated the construction of the first horse-powered streetcar line in 1884. Then came the quintessential trifecta of 1889: the introduction of the electric trolley, the incorporation of Washington as a state, and the grand opening of the city’s now erstwhile Bon Marché.
Unfortunately, for every three steps forward, the city took one gigantic leap in the opposite direction. One June afternoon, an accidental blaze in the basement of a downtown building sparked the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which swiftly gobbled 116 acres—29 blocks—of the city’s mostly wooden business district, regurgitating a smoldering heap of ash. City leaders made the choice to build on top of the rubble rather than removing it and building in its place, taking into account the area’s proximity to Elliott Bay and the likelihood of structures sinking in the nearby tidal marshes. Today, visitors can tour the maze of walkways and store fronts underneath Pioneer Square that were left astonishingly intact when the city was reconstructed with less flammable materials.
The Great Fire was the cherry on the banana split of city deterioration. Relations with the Native Americans had worsened. Lynchings were lawful. Families were lucky if they had indoor plumbing. Potholes were so wide and deceptively deep that they accounted for at least one documented drowning. Sewage waste spewed from pipes protruding from the hillside above the beach, accumulating on the sand and ebbing and flowing with the tide.
In 1897, gold was discovered in along the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Still suffering the effects of the Panic of 1893, a nationwide economic depression spurred in part by the overbuilding of railroads, Seattle was eager to establish itself as the supply center and transportation hub for the Alaskan gold fields. Its close proximity to the Canadian border ensured its status as the major outfitting post for hopeful miners heading north.
Riding the high of its newly acquired gold rush fame, Seattle set about making its mark in other ways as well. In 1907, the world’s first gas station was opened on the corner of Holgate Street and Western Avenue. That same year, eight farmers wheeled their produce carts to First Avenue and Pike Place, and within three hours had sold every last vegetable. Thus began Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, the longest continuously operating farmers market in the country. In the 1920s, the city spearheaded a movement to establish its downtown as a hotbed of arts. Galleries and speakeasies appeared seemingly overnight, and by the 1950s two men named Ray Charles and Quincy Jones—perhaps you’ve heard of them—had launched their careers in the burgeoning jazz scene along Skid Row.
The shipbuilding industry was also in ship shape, having garnered international attention after the opening of the Port of Seattle in 1919. At the height of World War I, the port handled 20% of the nation’s cargo. The end of the war brought an abrupt demise to this prosperity, however, and further losses came during the Great Depression when ship and dock workers were laid off in throngs.
The Depression hit Seattle hard, forcing many residents into cardboard shacks in one of the nation’s many “Hoovervilles” in an abandoned shipyard near Pioneer Square. The Boeing Company, an aerospace corporation started in 1916 by William Boeing, faced particular challenges in the period between the wars. Aircraft demand was excruciatingly low—so low, in fact, that the company found itself assembling furniture for a struggling corset shop.
Boeing quickly became the economic gauge of the city: the unveiling of the 707 streamliner jet in 1956 launched Seattle into a stint of economic success, while the cancellation of the supersonic transport program forced a layoff of 37,000 employees—nearly half the company’s workforce—between 1970 and 1971. The bust that followed was seen by most residents as permanent. People were so ready to desert the crippled city that they erected a billboard with the question, “Would the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?”
But the city was not doomed. Miraculously, businesses regained their footholds. Freeways were built, and in 1962 Seattle sponsored the World’s Fair, also known as the Century 21 Exposition, for which the Seattle Center—including the Monorail, Space Needle, and Pacific Science Center—was created. Counter-cultures emerged. Bill Gates and Paul Allen arrived in 1979 toting their Albuquerque startup (rhymes with Ficrosoft), which earned over $140 million in its first six years and took a mere 16 years to become the most profitable company in the world.
With Microsoft and Boeing bringing Seattle international acclaim, the city was bound to have its lapses. In 1999 the World Trade Organization’s negotiations conference erupted into a mass riot of over 40,000 people in Westlake Center. The air was hazy with tear gas, the downtown area was closed, a curfew was put in place, and 600 protestors were handcuffed and taken to jail. It was the largest demonstration associated with economic globalization that the country had ever seen, and the second city incident to be referred to as the Battle of Seattle.
But the city made improvements and began living up to its 1982 nickname “the Emerald City.” In 2000 it became the first city in the United States to adopt a Sustainable Building Policy, which required all city-funded projects and renovations to earn at least a Silver rating on the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system. By 2010, Seattle was at work on 38 LEED projects, including the Cedar River Watershed Education Center and the Seattle Central Library. Today, the Emerald City is one of the largest LEED owners in the world.
From the major gold rush outpost to the headquarters of eight Fortune 500 companies, and from New York Pretty Soon to the gem of the Pacific Northwest, it’s clear that Seattle has undergone one remarkable transformation after another. A far cry from its Depression days, the city is now a magnet for those seeking eclectic cafes, bookshops, libraries, museums, and heart-stopping panoramas of the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound.
It is a city rebuilt from ashes.