Seattle Waterfront History, Chapter 5

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Denny Hill (with two summits) from the King St. Coal Wharf, ca. 1881.  Virginia Street was platted and eventually graded in the depression between the hill’s two summits.  The still forested Queen Anne Hill marks the horizon.   Courtesy U.W. Library

Denny Hill & The Waterfront
Of all Seattle hills, it is the missing one, Denny Hill, that most shaped the waterfront because through much of the hill’s length – roughly from Wall to Union Streets – it fell directly to the waterfront.  The lowest of Seattle’s central hills, Denny Hill crested like a ripple cast south from the much higher Queen Anne Hill.  David and Louisa Denny’s claim – Seattle Center – was in the trough between them.  Below Denny Hill the waterfront is the deepest, and there also the width of the made (or reclaimed) land is narrower than that section of the waterfront that is south of Union Street.  (Some of Denny Hill wound up on the waterfront but not nearly as much as some wanted.  Most of the hill was dumped just off of the waterfront creating a reconstituted Denny Hill in Elliott Bay that for the safety of shipping required dredging.)  Although the two summits of Denny Hill were razed between 1906 and 1911, the hill’s skirt, its lowest parts, the bluff and/or bank, is still hinted behind our applications and in a few places even exposed. [31]


Bank & Bluff

We will for the moment neglect the old harbor south and east of King Street, the part that once rinsed the salt marsh behind Gas Cove and splashed against the sometimes steep sides of Beacon Hill, and concentrate on the central waterfront north of King Street as far as Broad Street (where a slight prominence distinguished it in both the 1841 and 1854 maps.)  The native embankment along this line varied in both height – from a couple of feet to about one hundred – and pitch – from precipitous to something one could easily scramble.  As we will see below the little bluff at King Street seems even lower in the photographs than its depiction in Phelps drawing.  Just north of Washington Street, where at high tide the bay could intrude east to the salt marsh, the native ridge was so low that it might have been used as a bench for sitting.  Just north of Yesler’s wharf a knoll rose at the foot of Cherry Street, an obvious close-by prominence upon which to build the blockhouse.  This Cherry hump was later lowered with the 1876 regrade of Front Street (First Avenue) between Mill Street (Yesler May) and Pike.  North of the knoll the waterfront bank stayed low – something the athletic shellfish grubber could easily jump from – until near Madison.  North from there it climbed as part of what was really the southern slope of Denny Hill – or its cross-section as carved by the tides and storms on Elliott Bay.  This growing bluff was broken with a gulch at Seneca Street (the contents of which we will describe below).  Its elevation at University Street was such that steps were built there between Front Street and the waterfront even before the 1889 fire.  Following the fire the steps were quickly replaced but then soon usurped by a timber bridge that let wagons move directly from Railroad Avenue to Front Street without having to first travel south along the frequently congested waterfront to Madison Street.  Although Front Street was still higher above the waterfront at Union Street than at University, it was also further from the waterfront because it is between University and Union that the shoreline turns to the northwest.  A rather steep wagon road was in use here for a few years from the 1880s into the 20th Century.  Now, while standing at the waterfront foot of Union it is hard to imagine it. [32] [33]

North of Union Street

North of Union the bank became briefly a cliff.  (In the panoramic photograph ca. 1881 [31] this section is darkened by its greenbelt.  Although steep it can still support trees.  In a detail from 1887 the cliff north of Union is exposed. [34])  A short distance north at Pike, the hillside was again not so steep, and beginning with the Coal Railroad’s incline in 1871 there have been a number of different hill climbs built at Pike.  North of Pike near Virginia Street the bluff began to again define itself, and north from there it grew and reached a somewhat dangerous height approaching seventy feet at Lenora Street. [35] This was both railroad land and a squatter’s milieu – as we will again note in detail below.  Two or three steep stairways that resembled ladders climbed the bank in this section, making it possible for the agile to pass between the beachcomber’s community on the shore and the shantytown on the ledge above them.  It was a both challenging and engaging place to live – and cheap too.  North from between Lenora and Blanchard the elevation of the bank descended and again petered out before it reached Broad Street.  Just north of Broad there was a small cove (the site of the Olympic Sculpture Garden). It was bordered by a new but modest bluff that continued with a few small dips north to Queen Anne Hill.  There the terrain suddenly ascended to the forest that was dedicated in 1887 as Seattle’s second public park, Kinnear Park.

Seneca Street Ravine

As already hinted two ravines – one small and one big – cut through this central waterfront bank, and both played special parts in Indian life before and after the settlers arrived to both name and claim them.  These ravines are now lost – filled-in and covered.  The smaller one was at Seneca Street.  In This City of Ours, a book of historical Seattle trivia written in the 1930s for the Seattle School District, J. Willis Sayers, the author, advised students that while out on a walking tour of First Avenue they should “stop a moment at Seneca Street.  This crossing, in early days, was a bridge; under it was a ravine through which passed all the travel from this section of the beach to Second Avenue.”   It is curious that the aging Sayers, who was himself nearly a pioneer, did not note that just above the waterfront at Seneca there was also an Indian burial ground.

Indian Cemetery

Years earlier another pioneer, A. Denny-Lindsey, included Seneca in her observations regarding early Seattle waterfront life for the June 22, 1906 issue of the Post-Intelligencer.  “The Indian cemetery that was on a bluff at what is now the foot of Seneca Street was a spot of great interest to us children.  The graves all had more or less of the personal belongings of the deceased on them.  The graves were shallow and we saw many ‘good Indians’ who were mummified.  A number of graves had roofs built over them of cedar slabs with posts driven at the four corners.  These were hung with clothing, tin ware, beads etc.  Some of the bodies had been laid to rest wrapped in rush mats and canoes turned over them.  Others were in the hollow trunks of large cedar trees.  Infants were almost invariably entombed in this manner.  When the banks would cave away during a thaw after a hard freeze it would expose bones and many stone implements and quantities of blue Hudson Bay beads.  Some of these beads were the size of a robin’s egg.  They are very rare at the present day.”  The Denny daughter’s description of the mortified Seneca is something of a rhetorical jumble as she concludes her description of the burial ground with a digression into pungency.  “The Indian camps were not as sweet as clover beds, for the hundreds of drying salmon that were hung on poles over small fires and inside the mat houses, also the strings of clams, were very loud in odor.”

It should be noted that while A. Denny-Lindsey does not mention the ravine, she does put a rather elaborate burial grounds both at the “foot of Seneca” and “on the bluff”, not that there is a contradiction in her description, only some confusion.  It is easiest to think of her graveyard as “on the bluff” and so really above the waterfront foot of Seneca.  And yet the ravine would have considerably increased the footage available for anything including graves.  And she does also make note that “the banks would cave away” from the gravesite. But when this sizeable funerary ground is mixed with Sayer’s pioneer throughway, a bridge, and the spring that another source describes as sometimes irrigating the ravine (and surely through time forming it), it is difficult to know where to put it all.  Certainly a mix of exposed graves, overturned canoes, spring freshets and tramping pedestrians would be messy in the extreme.  When the “hollow trunks of large cedar trees” is figured in it seems likely that the daughter of David and Louisa Denny is making something of an inventory of gravesites scattered along the ridge.  There certainly were other graves on the ridge besides those beside the Seneca ravine.  For instance, during an early grading of First Avenue in 1876 a little ways north of Marion Street, according to David Buerge, an expert on the region’s native culture, “a half-mummified body in a stone cyst tomb beneath a five-foot high grave mound” was uncovered.  Native American bones were also uncovered during the Port of Seattle work on the Bell Street Harbor in the late 1990s although, as we will explain below, it is more likely that they were not buried there but rather carried there during an earlier development.

Front & Seneca

In 1876, when Seattle first got resolute about grading streets, it turned the natural ups and downs of Front Street (First Avenue north of Yesler) into one smooth and wide avenue between Yesler Way and Pike Street.  For this the Seneca Avenue Ravine was partially filled and capped with the timber cribbing that was a feature of most of the new street work on First.  (If there is a record of what became of the graveyard at Seneca during this work I have not stumbled upon it.)  Thirteen years later the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889 burned through both the timber retaining wall and planking at Seneca Street exposing the ravine, or what remained of it, for as just noted most but not all of it had been filled for the 1876 regrade. (This scene will be visited and illustrated below at least twice more.)  Because the Front Street Cable Railway used its namesake avenue it received speedy attention after the June 6 fire. The Times for June 10 reported, “A large force of men are at work on the Front St. cable, near the crossing of Seneca.  It was at this point that the fire crossed over from the electric light building and burned the beer saloon on the northeast corner of Front and Seneca.  The burned space in the road is about 50 feet.”  Also on the 10th the Seattle Daily Press noted, “Repairs on the Front St. cable road commenced yesterday.  The bridge destroyed by the fire at Seneca Street was rebuilt, and in a few days new rails will arrive to replace those destroyed.  It is thought in the course of a week the Front Street Cable cars will be running.”   In 1922, part of the bulkhead at Seneca Street was replaced.  Much later, during work on the foundation for the Harbor Steps development between Seneca and University Street, parts of both the original 1876 bulkhead and its repairs following the ’89 fire were once more exposed, to the considerable surprise and delight of the engineers involved.  The general pioneer sweetness of this part of the waterfront – north of Columbia Street – was so corrupted following the 1889 fire that it became a cause of the Council.  David Kellogg moved his tanning and hide depot onto the ruins and built a new waterfront warehouse between Seneca and University streets.  On June 6, 1891, or two years to the day following the fire, the Post-Intelligencer reported Kellogg’s depot had “caused many hot debates in the city council by its offensive odors.”  (Considering the graveyard at the ravine, followed by Kellogg and his rendering, any future archeological probing near the foot of Seneca may test the popular sense that the smell of a place is often the last thing to abandon it.  That is, be prepared for both the macabre and the noisome.)


Belltown Ravine

The second ravine that once interrupted the bank on the central waterfront was much the larger.  Since it survived into the early 20th Century there are a number of photographs that hint of it, although none so far uncovered look directly into it from its mouth.   The Belltown Ravine (the name I used while studying it for evidences of the source for the human bones uncovered during the construction of the Port of Seattle’s Belltown Harbor in the late 1990s) was between Blanchard and Bell streets, somewhat closer to Bell.  Topographic maps show the ravine extending as far east as First Avenue, a considerable distance from the Bay. [36] A photograph from the mid-1880s looks down from First Avenue over the inland end of the ravine into some fill dirt, which has been dumped perhaps from the 1882-83 regrading of First Avenue north of Pike Street. [37]  An early description that appeared in the Post-Intelligencer for June 26, 1891 gives some indication of the depth of the ravine, or gulch as the reporter calls it, near Western Avenue, a block or more east of its opening.  Under the title “A Boy’s Great Fall”, the report continues, “Yesterday afternoon about 3 o’clock the little 8-year-old son of Andre Mikulicich, fishmonger at 115 Bell Street, fell from the encased sewer pipe which extends across the gulch between Bell and Blanchard and Front and West Streets.  The distance of the fall was nearly twenty-five feet.  The casing is only eight inches wide, and the temptation to small boys to try to cross over the gulch on it is almost irresistible.  It is about seventy-five feet long.  It was thought for a time that the little fellow was killed, but he eventually regained consciousness and gives promise of living to a ripe old age yet.”


Belltown Ravine partially filled at Front Street (First Avenue) in the mid-1880s.  Courtesy MOHAI

Belltown Waterfront Community

Two partial views of the entrance to the Belltown Ravine were recorded from the offshore railroad trestle.  Both show the community of squatters shacks nestled between a jerry-rigged seawall and the opening.  (We will show the earlier view here and attach the later view, no. 212, in the “image stream” below.) [38]  The earliest view dates from the late 1890s and includes part of the bank that runs south from the ravine.  The beginning of the south side of the ravine – the corner where the bank turns east into the ravine – shows on the far left of the photograph by the Norwegian photographer Andres Wilse.  The second intimate view dates from about 1902 or 3 and looks over the same community of shacks, but in the opposite direction.  Other photographs from the water and also from West Seattle are obscured at the ravine’s lowest elevation where it meets the bay behind the railroad trestle.  The ingenious cluster of squatters’ shacks at the entrance was moved in 1903 with the beginning construction on the north portal to the railroad tunnel.  At first, this did not change life deeper within the ravine.  But soon during the various stages of the Denny Regrade the ravine was filled until it was closed off at its entrance with the 1912-14 extension of Elliott Avenue between Bell and Lenora Streets.  The human remains that were found during excavations for the Port of Seattle’s Bell Street project in 1998 were probably carried there in the fill that was used to extend Elliott Avenue across the opening of the ravine.
Native Bones

The bones were discovered near the south entrance to the ravine.  Although there is considerable correspondence between the city and F. McLellan, the contractor who placed the 1912 fill, there is no record of where he got it.  McLellan was required to find his own dirt and carry it to the site.  Obviously, the shorter the move the less the expense.  By 1912 the Denny Regrade had reach 5th Avenue and stopped.  With the cutting, a temporary bluff was left along the east side of Fifth Avenue.  The freshly graded land between First and Fifth Avenues was in many sections still in rough state.  It is possible that McLellan got his fill from the “rough edges” of the momentarily stalled Denny Hill regrade.  The use of fill dirt from the Denny School site at Fifth and Battery for the 1914 construction of the Port of Seattle’s off-shore headquarters at the foot of Bell Street indicated that it was still possible to take fill material from the regrade.  A 1912 correspondence, between city engineer Dimock and a neighborhood property owner named Oldfield, is also suggestive.  It regards the latter’s willingness to sell cheap to the city fill which was conveniently near at hand for the Elliott Ave. project – some six or seven hundred yards of it.  Oldfield writes, “If this should interest the contractor because of its nearness to where the arterial is required he can have the same at a very low figure.”  Dimock’s answer is evidence of how little the city knew or recorded from where the fill in their improvement might come.  “McLellan is required to supply all earth needed for fills on the same and it will be necessary for you to arrange with him. I will, however, transmit your letter to him for such action as he may think necessary.”


Beach community at foot of Belltown Ravine, by Andres Wilse, ca. 1898  Courtesy, MOHAI


Soon after the bones were found and identified as most likely native remains it was speculated that they might be connected with Baq’baqwab (BAHK-bah-kwahb), the other Native American community on the central waterfront that was long in use before the mid-western farmers arrived.  (We will refer to this as the “North Camp” to distinguish it from the larger south camp on Piners point already described.) The Lushootseed place name Baq’baqwab is the plural form of ba’qwab, ‘meadow’ and was associated with the meadows between Queen Anne Hill and the now-vanished Denny Hill that stretched from the bay to the southern end of Lake Union.”  As local historian David Buerge notes, “The site was probably chosen because of its proximity to potable, fresh-water springs, draining from a nearby area know as boloc (bo-LOTS). That part of these meadows nearest Baq’baqwab was distinguished for its salal berries.  This suggests that the beach site camp named for the meadows was not necessarily identified with the meadows broadly conceived (including the present site of Seattle Center) but rather an entree to them with the advantages of being near both the bay and springs.  With this interpretation the beachside borders of Baq’baqwab were flexible, inflating and shrinking with whatever operations or ceremonies were current, like the acts of medicine men and bird-netters.  (The first settlers on Puget Sound – by a few millenniums – had apparently no tradition or use for arbitrary borders – legal and proprietary – that would at once rationalize and alienate the “given” topography and yet were of such great interest and fenced security to the latecomers from Illinois and New York.  In that sense Baq’baqwab had no borders.)

Two daughters of the pioneers recalled the site.  In Pigtail Days in Old Seattle, one of the little classics of pioneer reminiscences written by members of the Denny family, the author, Arthur and Mary Denny’s granddaughter Sophie Frye Bass, recalls, “Bell Street ran from Depot Street, now known as Denny Way, to salt chuck (water) where the beach was fine and sandy, and there were springs of good water.  It was one of the camping grounds of the Indians while they hunted and fished.  They called it Muck-muck-wum but we call it Bell Street Dock.”  By Abbie Denny-Lindsey’s recollections, “In Muck-muckum (Belltown) there was a permanent camp where the medicine man lived.”  Buerge advises that Bass and Lindsey-Denny’s names — Muck-muck-wum and Muck-muckum, respectively – were tongue-tortured variations on Baq-baqwab created by occidentals “struggling with the native language.”

The structures that the Denny descendents remembered were not the long houses that were most likely built above the beach somewhere near the lip of the low bank but later beach structures.  Native accounts put two medium-sized (50 to 100 feet) longhouses at this the northern of two native camps on the central waterfront.  David Buerge continues, “While visitors increased the population at the site periodically, the longhouse inhabitants were permanent residents who, at death, were interred in an extensive local cemetery.”  However, Buerge also admonishes, “we know little about the actual history or size of Baq’baqwab even during the early years of pioneer settlement.  The native census made in 1856 by Indian Agent George Paige identifies Cultus Curley’s band encamped about one mile north of Seattle numbering 30.”  Buerge figures that “thirty inhabitants would have fit comfortably in the two longhouses described.  However, these numbers probably swelled after the citizens of Seattle first incorporated themselves in 1865 and wrote laws that prevented the camping of Indians on any ‘street, highway, lane or alley or any vacant lot in the town of Seattle.’  With this exclusion by statute some of Duwamish Indians still living at Jijilalec, the southern camp, would have moved north to Baq’baqwab.  It is believe that among the exiles was Chief Seattle who apparently had houses erected there to stay with his retinue when he was not at Fort Kitsap.  However, since the Chief died in 1866 in the old man house at Suquamish it would not have been a long stay beside Bell Street.  At some point Angeline, his daughter, moved into a shack near the waterfront foot of Pike Street and remained there until her death in 1896.”


Princes Angeline by F. J. Haynes, 1890. [The 1891 date listed for this Haynes photo in the montage above is wrong and one year later.] Courtesy Tacoma Public Library

Princess Angeline’s Cabin

Some historical references to Angeline’s beach shack put it near Pine Street but most describe it as closer to Pike than Pine.  Most likely it was between them but closer to Pike or some little ways north of the lowest steps in the stairway that now reaches the market.  As noted earlier, this slope was a little ways south of the point where the bluff near Virginia Street began to form extending north as far as Vine Street (with the Belltown Ravine interruption.)  And as also treated above – and will be noted again below – this natural separation also began the division of the beachcombers below from the higher – in elevation and income – residents of Shantytown above.  But without a bluff Shantytown extended to the beach on Pike Street.  In 1890 the Northern Pacific photographer F. J. Haynes visited Angeline and her hut and its proximity to the beach (far left) is revealed in the photograph he recorded of the scene. [39] In 1891, her prosperous neighbor on First Avenue, the lumberman Amos Brown, built her a better hut that was likely very near the spot of the old one. [40]  (Determining the precise location for the Angeline home is as yet an unsolved puzzle.  And, again, was the second home built on the site of the first?  Before his sudden death in 2001Seattle historian Michael Cirelli was on the trail of Angeline’s home.  He was not able to show me a photograph he’d found of her second residence that he claimed included the stump that appears on the right of the Haynes view.  Up close a stump could be as convincing as a fingerprint, but this was a neighborhood of shacks and stumps.  A recent discovery may have located Angeline’s last home but cannot be shared with Cirelli.  Angeline’s “Brown home” may appear in a view recorded from the Schwabacher’s Dock at the foot of Union Street after her death.  The two finished sheds look alike and the place is within feet of the conventional descriptions just noted. [41]  This image was struck during the historic docking of the “gold ship” Portland in 1897.  Although Angeline died the previous year someone else, perhaps her grandson Joe Foster who had lived with her may have still resided there.  That may be Foster on the far right of the 1890 Haynes view.)

[When there is time to “groom” it for this site, Chapter Six, of this pictorial will begin with more speculations about the bones found at the foot of Bell Street, followed by contemporary descriptions of the cosmopolitan community of shacks that developed there following the 1893 economic crash, and the years also of booming growth of the city.  The next chapter will then move south to Yesler’s Wharf for a revealing study of both the Sammis (1865) and Robinson (1869) panoramas of pioneer Seattle and a broad sketch of the community’s first boom year, 1869.]

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