The First Inhabitants
The original residents of present-day Seattle were the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, seminomadic people who relied on salmon and seasonal plants for sustenance. It was the chief of both of these tribes who contributed his name to the city, Chief Seattle, sometimes spelled Sealth. Today a bronze sculpture of Chief Seattle stands at the corner of 5th and Denny Way; his burial site, a peaceful Suquamish cemetery across the Sound, overlooks his namesake’s skyline.
Early White Settlers
David Denny and Lee Terry are credited as the first white men to arrive at the site that would become Seattle. Denny, Terry, and their 22 compatriots left Cherry Grove, Illinois, in wagons bound for Portland, Oregon. There, they boarded a schooner and sailed to the banks of Elliott Bay, where in 1851, they established their town site at the exposed and unfavorable Alki Point. What they lacked in planning, they made up for in ambition, hoping to establish "the New York of the Pacific Coast.” Time spent in the blustery Seattle weather convinced them to move down the bay to the much more sheltered area now known as Pioneer Square.
It wasn't long before the town fathers realized the cash crop they had in the gigantic coniferous trees that grew everywhere. Logs were skidded down the original "Skid Road," now Yesler Way, to Henry Yesler’s steam-powered sawmill. Still, getting these goods to market was a problem. The city’s position west of the intimidating Cascade Mountain range left expensive and slow boat transport the only option. The situation changed for the better in 1893, when the Great Northern Line railroad added Seattle as a terminus. Suddenly, the coal and lumber business had an economically viable outlet, and the population boomed to over 10 times its pre-railroad numbers. With the new townsfolk came the grading and planking of streets and sidewalks, the installation of sewer systems, electric lights, telephones, and home mail delivery. Seattleites were living high on the hog, and it seemed like nothing could stop the party.
The Great Fire
In the mid-19th-century American West, fortunes could turn very quickly, however. On June 6, 1889, 58 city blocks—the entire downtown area—were destroyed by fire when a burning pot of glue tipped over inside a cabinet shop. Within a half hour the entire young city was threatened. The town contained the conflagration by 8:30 that night, but its effects were to last a long, long time. The next morning it was decreed unanimously that the burnt district must be rebuilt in considerably less-flammable brick. Today, several of those buildings are still in use in Pioneer Square and beyond.
Other problems had yet to be solved. Building a town on mudflats has its disadvantages. Flooding was an annual event, and toilets and sewers tended to back up during high tides. A massive engineering project was proposed to solve the problem. The whole town was to be regraded—raised from its present level. Streets and sidewalks were raised, leaving storefronts below ground and forcing shopowners to cut doorways in what used to be their second story. As you walk through downtown, look out for purple squares of glass in the sidewalk—these are essentially skylights into the “Underground.”
The Klondike Gold Rush
As if timber, coal, and salmon weren't enough of a blessing, Seattle was soon to see the mother lode of economic stimulus. On August 16, 1896, George Washington Carmack and two friends, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley, discovered gold deep in Canada’s Yukon on a creek that fed into the Klondike River. A year later, when the first 68 wealthy prospectors and their gold arrived in the Lower 48, the "Klondike Gold Rush" was off and running. Fathers left their families, workmen left their jobs, and even Seattle’s mayor quit to go seek his fortune in the Klondike.
The trip to the Klondike was a rough one, and the North West Mounted Police required that each prospector carry a year’s supply of food plus necessary tools and clothing. Erastus Brainerd, a former newspaperman, tirelessly (and successfully) promoted Seattle as the place to get outfitted for the Klondike. Hoteliers, outfitters, saloons, and brothels all thrived even as the streets of Seattle become open markets. Some prospectors did strike it rich, but it was Seattle that emerged as the real winner. It’s said that half the $200 million in Klondike gold ended up in Seattle. More than any other event in the city’s history, the Klondike Gold Rush made Seattle the major city in America’s Northwest corner and the last bastion of civilization before the barren wastes of Alaska.
It’s impossible to dismiss the role of the Boeing Company in the growth and sustainability of Seattle. Prior to World War II, the Boeing Airplane Company eked out a living with a modest 4,000 workers at its Renton plant. With the outbreak of the war and the impressive success rates of Boeing’s B-17 bomber, employment swelled to 30,000 in 1942, soon to peak at 50,000. After the Allied victory in 1945, the factory saw an inevitable slowdown, resulting in massive layoffs. While production would pick up again briefly during the Korean conflict and Cold War, William M. Allen, Boeing’s postwar president, hoped for something more dependable. That innovation came in the form of the 707, the commercial jet-powered plane that changed the face of civilian air travel forever. Later successful developments—the 727, 737, and jumbo 747—helped establish Boeing as a worldwide leader in aviation and, for a time, giving Seattle fame as the “Jet City.”
In 1962, the city of Seattle decided to show off its success to the rest of the world and throw itself a party in the process. “Century 21” was a World’s Fair without peer. Drawing almost 10 million people, the event not only made Seattle an international destination, but also left behind the iconic Space Needle, as well as the Monorail, Pacific Science Center, and Opera House.
Today, the Seattle area is known for its individuality and entrepreneurship, supported by such major corporations as Starbucks, Boeing, Microsoft, Costco, and Weyerhaeuser, but also by thousands of smaller businesses.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition