Seattle Waterfront History, Chapter 7

[As always, click and click again to enlarge the pictures.]

The Turn at Broad Street

From his prospect above Main Street a few yards west of the pioneer Commercial Street (First Avenue South) the Denny Hill greenbelt at its north end seemed to George Robinson, the Victoria photographer visiting in 1869, to conclude with a profile made from trees leaning slightly towards Elliott Bay. [See illustration #51 in Chapter 6] At Broad Street the shoreline turns just far enough to the east (or to the map-north) that from old town there seems to be a formidable peninsula protruding there.  But the waterfront really makes only a slight turn north of Broad.  The “peninsular effect” is heightened by Magnolia, which in the distant haze is a lighter shade. The combined conditions of a slight turn and atmospheric perspective give this modest point near the future foot of Broad Street more prominence than it actually owns.  If Robinson had recorded the parts of his panorama from the deck of the Hunt, that point near Broad would have been missed or not noticed and, of course, with the slapping of the paddles his photograph would have also been out of focus.   For from the Hunt – where we see that Canadian side wheeler in Robinson’s pan – the shoreline beyond the point would have been revealed and joined in one continuous greenbelt with the green western slope of Denny Hill and with no Magnolia haze to confuse it or encourage a mistaken point.  [Using a straight edge and a map of Seattle one can easily warrant this observation about the deceptive point at Broad Street as seen from Piner’s Point, aka the Pioneer Square Historic District.  Near one end place the straight edge half way between First Ave. S. and Alaskan Way on Main Street – Robinson’s prospect.  Keeping this point fixed or stationary, pivot the same side of the straight edge or ruler so that it touches the intersection of Alaskan Way and Broad Street.  You will note that the waterfront north of Broad Street runs nearly parallel with the straight edge.  Consequently from Robinson’s second floor prospect it is only barely lost to view.]

The first U.S. topographical map of Seattle from the mid 1870s (already noted several times in previous chapters) shows this slight turn in the waterfront to be near Eagle and Bay Streets or just north of the foot of Broad Street. In Robinson’s 1869 photograph where the waterfront reaches Broad Street, the bank or bluff has petered out and the darker vegetation that reaches the beach is – to reiterate – marked by the leaning tree at Broad Street or very near it. [Again, see illustration No.51 in Chapter 6.] By the mid-1870s the lean in the tree at Broad managed to bend so close to the water that it was chosen as a defining landmark by the cartographer.  It is noted on a printing of the map.

1870: Census

Before we follow Robinson to near the northern edge of Yesler’s dogleg wharf to study his other view of the Seattle waterfront, we will first admit that for the moment the Robinson attribution is, perhaps, a sober hunch.  (The splendid informality of the blog means I can change or confirm it all later.)

Next we may also speculate on how many locals made it to the wharf on the 21st of July 1869 to survey emissary Seward during his brief visit to Seattle on his way to “proving” Alaska.  Most likely a telegram-ignited grapevine prepped all locals that he was on his way.  And what sort of population did he have to draw from? In the 1870 federal census Washington territory had 23,955 residents, and of these King County counted 2164 persons, or less than half the population of Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood now.   Of the few hundred only 243 were counted as Indians. (Some of them may have been living on or above the beach on Bell’s then inactive Belltown claim.)  In Seattle there were 1142 inhabitants including blacks, whites, Chinese and Indians.  Walla Walla with 1394 inhabitants was the largest town in the Territory and its namesake county was the most populated as well.  (Walla Walla kept this distinction throughout the 1870s and was again slightly more populated in 1880 than Seattle when figured by the Federal census that year.  However, it was a distinction lost to Seattle – by estimates – the following year.) It is left to the reader to approximate how many of Seattle’s 1100-plus citizens made it down to the dock to listen to Seward.  Without a news report or reminiscence of a nose-counter, my hunch is that at least half of those hundreds pulled themselves away from their home entertainments, responsibilities, or brooding introversion to attend.

1869: Robinson’s View of the Central Waterfront from Yesler’s Wharf

George Robinson’s second view of Seattle (if our attribution is correct) was photographed from near the end of Yesler’s dog-legged Wharf and on its north side. [52] It looks across Yesler’s millpond to Front Street (First Avenue) between Columbia Street on the far right and Madison Street on the far left.  Although Front still generally follows the contours of the native land, it has been graded for wagons, and the scrapings from the street can be clearly seen between it and the waterfront.  What is perhaps most startling about this earliest view of the central waterfront is how the bay nearly reaches Front Street.  At a not very high tide it would have flooded the narrow Post Alley that following the city’s 1889 fire was developed a half block west of Front Street on fill and pilings.


The white classical symmetry of the Territorial University sits left of center on the horizon.  To the left and below it is Rev. Daniel Bagley’s “Brown Church” at the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Madison Street.  The paint job on the lower rear wall of the church – the attached one story western section – is darker than it appears in Robinson’s panorama where it seems to be a second and lighter tone than that used for the west façade of the main section of the church.


If these differences hold and are not simply the result of photographic effects, then Robinson would have recorded this scene and the merged panorama on different visits.  A study of the trees on the horizon (like fingerprints their branches don’t lie) shows that the panorama from Commercial and Main was photographed later than the view from Yesler’s Wharf.  One sizeable tree that appears in the view from the wharf is missing in the panorama from Plummer’s Hall.  But is this imagined what with trees overlapping and swaying this way and that?  There is, however, a clincher to dissipate these doubts.  A residence appears in the panorama that is not included in the view from Yesler’s Wharf.

[7-Ronbinson-Comerc-det WEB]

The missing house can be found in Chapter 6 in the printing there of the full Robinson pan.  For searching it is best to use the layered rendering of the pan, the one which includes the left half on top and the right half – the one of interest in this matter – on the bottom of the diptych.   Or the house can be seen here [above] in the detail extracted from yet another photograph Robinson recorded during the visit that included the panorama.  This one looks north up the middle of Commercial Street with Robinson’s back to King Street.  The “new” home appears on the right and the university on the left.  Judging from the home’s position in reference to the Territorial University’s main building at the northeast corner of Seneca and 4th Avenue, that freshly appearing home would be near what is now the intersection of 5th and Spring.


Granted that the Robinson detail is not so detailed itself, we can, I think, still find the home in question near the center of a view [above] taken from the Territorial University in 1887.  It looks southeast towards First Hill.  What appears like an attached shed to the rear, or north, in the Robinson view, has been upgraded with an Italianate bay window along the home’s west façade.  And in 1887 King County Treasurer George D. Hill lives there.  Most likely he had a family, although the 1885 directory that lists him residing at the northwest corner of Fifth and Spring does not make note of it.  Hill is not the old home’s first resident for he arrived in Seattle in 1879, or ten years after Robinson made his panorama that showed this home when it was alone and new.

Another view – or stitched views – from an upper floor of the University was recorded in the early 1870s.  George Moore, the city’s principal resident photographer then, may be responsible.  It looks [below] down 4th Avenue on the left (the Baptist church appears in the distance on 4th near Cherry) and over the tower of the first and here new Central School at the northeast corner of 3rd and Madison, and beyond that to Yesler’s Wharf.  Elliott Bay then was still its aboriginal size with tidelands – on the left washing against Beacon Hill – that had not yet been reclaimed and developed.


Returning to Robinson’s 1869 recordings from the end of Yesler’s Wharf we will make note of something that cannot  – yet – be noted in the photograph itself.   A beachside stone-covered tomb, mentioned by historian David Buerge, which was uncovered beneath a burial mound near Front Street and a little ways north of Marion Street was for Robinson and everyone still covered and undetected in the photograph from Yesler’s Wharf.  From Buerge’s description, in this 1869 view the mound is most likely somewhere near the shed on the left that is built in part over the beach.  [52]

Marion Street ends at Front Street on the rise just left of center.  [52] In 1872 the town’s first “pleasure garden”, a landscaped bower with hanging lanterns and beer, was developed on the hillside a little ways north of Madison Street and east of 2nd, which would put it directly to the far side of Bagley’s Brown Church as seen here.  [I have not as yet come upon a photograph of this attraction and may never. Photographs of Seattle in the 1870s are rare.]  Sited then between and in line with the Methodists and the University, the beer garden would thereby fulfill the trinity of basic human needs – understanding, redemption, and refreshments.

If taxes and fees are reliable signs of a community’s priorities and grudges, in 1869, the first year of its new status as a chartered municipality, Seattle considered the requirements of its streets more fundable than its dogs, but the dogs, at least, were dearer than the town’s deceased.  General taxes collected amounted to $494.23.  However more than three times that amount was got from a designated “road tax”: $1601.  Dog licenses yielded $119.50, an impressive sum when it is considered that only $47 was gained from cemetery lots.  The figure contributed from theatricals, only $20, is a dour sign of the part played by the professional performing arts in the still teenage community.



The scene above is nearly as old as Robinson’s record of Seattle’s waterfront. This view was also made from the end of Henry Yesler’s wharf, and looks across his millpond to the side-wheeler Alida. Above and behind the steamship’s paddle is the dirt intersection we are by now familiar with, that at Marion St. and Front St. (now First Ave). That puts the side-wheeler in the parking lot now bordered by Post and Western avenues and Columbia and Marion streets or just behind the Colman Building. The occasion is either in the summer of 1870 or 1871. The by now familiar steeple-topped Methodist Protestant Church, the “Brown Church,” on the left was built in 1864. In the summer of 1872 its’ builder and pastor, Rev. Daniel Bagley, added a second story with a mansard roof, which can be studied in the Peterson study of the same waterfront also recorded from Yesler’s wharf and included soon below in this chapter.  Bagley was also the main force behind the construction of the University of Washington, which shows off quite well in this view with its dome-shaped cupola at the center horizon. The photograph’s third tower, on the right, tops Seattle’s first public school. Central School, which we just inspected from the campus, was built in 1870 back from the northwest corner of Third and Madison. If the bell in its bell tower were still calling classes, it would be clanging near the main banking lobby of the SeaFirst tower.  [Actually, I no longer know how the “old” 1968 SeaFirst tower is used or if there is still an upscale restaurant on the top floor.  Last I was there may have been in 1982 – before the bank crashed – or was unloaded – because of bad oil-related securities, I believe.  It was in the restaurant that I coincidentally was introduced to the banker who, it was later revealed, was principally responsible for the bank’s failure to stay a locally-owned institution: Seattle’s first bank, started by the honest old pioneer, Dexter Horton and, at first, named after him.  Some readers will remember the bank’s advertisements that purred with Horton heritage.]

The Alida’s 115-foot keel was laid in Olympia in 1869, but its upper structure was completed in Seattle, in June of the following year, at Hammond’s boat yard near the foot of Columbia Street, and so just to the right of this scene. Perhaps, the occasion for this photograph has to do with her inaugural launching. Ellliott Bay first tested the full Alida on June 29, 1870. Captain E. A. Starr invited Seattle’s establishment on the roundtrip trial run to Port Townsend. The July 4 edition of the Weekly Intelligencer reported that “During the passage down, the beautiful weather, the delightful scenery, the rapid and easy progress made, and last though not least, the excellent instrumental and vocal music which was furnished by the ladies, all contributed to the enjoyment of the occasion.” The steam to Port Townsend took four hours and eight minutes, and a little more on the return.  Then or now, who could complain what with the summer scenery and the music?

The Alida’s 20-year career on Puget Sound began with a few months of glory. She was the first steamship to successfully intrude on the monopoly that another side-wheeler, the Eliza Anderson, had established on the Sound.  [The Eliza Anderson is seen – twice – and described in chapter three.]  The satisfactions (customers) that the Alida’s owners, the Starr brothers, had taken from the older vessel were, however, short-lived. The Alida proved herself too slow and too light for the open waters of the straits. In 1871 the Starr brothers introduced a second and stronger side-wheeler, the North Pacific. For ten years it controlled the Victoria run, while the Alida was restricted to steaming between Olympia and Port Townsend and way points, including Seattle.

The Alida came to her somewhat bizarre end in 1890. While anchored just off shore in Gig Harbor, a brush fire swept down to her mooring and burned her to the water. As we shall note (perhaps too often below in this waterfront history,) a year earlier the Seattle waterfront was also swept by fire. When it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1889, all of what is water in this historical scene was planked over and eventually filled in to the sea wall 500 feet out from First Ave.


Another early and therefore rare 1870s view [above] of the central waterfront from Yesler’s wharf includes several new structures, like the three-story “box” built nearly off-shore at the foot of Marion Street.  Many of the structures familiar from Robinson’s recording and the Alida photograph appear here as well, ready for the reader to find.  This view also includes a few of Henry Yesler’s (or whomever was then running his mill) logs floating in the “pond” on the north side of his wharf and mill, here on the right.   And this record also extends north as far as Spring Street and a glimpse at the home built there by another lumberman, Amos Brown.  [We noted Brown in an earlier chapter as the neighbor who was principally responsible for helping rebuild Princess Angeline’s home near the waterfront at the foot of Pike Street in the early 1890s.  We shall visit that site again in a later chapter. ]


1878: Peterson Bros. View from Yesler’s Wharf

In 1878 the north end of Yesler’s Wharf was chosen again as a prospect from which to look back at the central waterfront.  This time it yielded the next grand panorama of Seattle, although it was probably not intended for that role. [53] Rather our rendering of the Peterson Bros panorama was stitched from three roughly overlapping negatives.  In the blow-up included here, [above and below], the seams between them have been partially exposed along the bottom of the photograph by the irregularity of the logs in Denny’s millpond.  Although clearly photographed from the same location – within inches – they may not have been recorded even on the same day.  The middle of the three images fills most of the right half of the photograph, and the tide appears in this section to be about a foot higher than in the image on the left and perhaps two feet higher than in the smallest part on the far right.

Much has changed and some of it implied like the photographer’s perch at the end of Yesler’s Wharf. The dogleg to the north has been lengthened.  From this extended platform the Territorial University is left of the Brown Church, not to the right as in Robinson’s view.  The Methodists have also added a second floor to their sanctuary for a Knights of Pythius meeting hall whose rituals had a southern exposure through the Mansard windows in the new roof.  The photographers for this and many of the best surviving early photographs of Seattle was, as noted, the Peterson Bros, whose studio was at the foot of Cherry Street.  The larger Peterson detail printed here, [54] roughly repeats the section of waterfront between Columbia and Madison streets recorded by Robinson nine or more years earlier.


The 1878 Peterson view can be compared with Robinson’s 1869 record in every part, for instance, the homes that have survived the decade.  Mary and Arthur Denny’s distinguished home at the southeast corner of Front and Union is there, although it may be hard to decipher without an enlargement of its detail.  [55] (It is about 1/5 of the way into the panorama from the left and near the clump of fir trees to the right of the summit of Denny Hill on the horizon.  It is also directly above the larger warehouse on the new wharf that extends into the bay from a shore insertion that is left of the center of Peterson’s panorama.  A 1890s close-up of the Denny home is also attached. [56] Closer by, a study of the intersection of Front Street and Marion Street – near the center of the Robinson view from Yesler’s wharf and to the right of the church in both views – shows structures that are still in place in 1878, although with changes. [57] [58] Some of the homes have been improved and at least the small residence at the southeast corner of Marion and Front has also been lowered to fit the new grade on Front Street.

1876: Front Street Regrade

Peterson photographs are the best evidence of what a marked effect the 1876 regrade of Front Street (between Yesler and Pike) had on the waterfront.  [There will be more on this regrade in the next chapter.]The smoothing of the street behind the timber bulkhead introduced some inhibitions.  One could no longer scramble onto the waterfront from Front Street.  The few exceptions were at street ends.  One of these “holes” was at the foot of Marion. [57 again] As the detail reveals, the cribbing of the timber retaining wall has there been turned out like a gate. Perhaps this exception is meant to allow the dumping of fill for an eventual extension of the street into the bay.  Whether intended or not, in effect, this is what happened.  It is repeated one block north at Madison Street where a similar break is evident to the left of the four story structure on the water side of Front Street and at its southwest corner with Madison. [53, just left of center.] (It was at this corner that the city’s Great Fire of 1889 was ignited.)  It also appears that the bulkhead is open at the foot of Columbia Street, far right, [53] although the roofs of the sheds that have been built on the beach block an inspection of most of the street end.  (It may be remembered from the introduction to this history that it was at the wet foot of Columbia that pioneers described the smell of the waterfront as turning sulfuric to the south.  If the Petersons had continued their panorama with another frame to the right in the direction of the wharf on which they were standing, we might have seen the discoloration that was described of beachside constructions south of Columbia.)

Seneca to Union Streets Revisited

The Peterson pan includes a hint of another of the waterfront’s natural remnants, one noted earlier: the ravine at Seneca street, or more correctly here the bridge over it and the bulkhead hiding it.   The large deciduous tree that breaks the horizon about one fourth of the way from the left border of the pan [53] is its marker – nearly.  Below the tree and a short distance to the right the bulkhead reveals a darkened section. [59] This is Seneca Street – today where the off ramp from the viaduct to the central business district meets First Avenue.  In this view the bulkhead is two years old, time enough apparently for the springs that irrigated the ravine and continue to seep through the fill to nourish whatever growth has attached itself to the bulkhead between the street and the waterfront.  There is a possibility that the wall itself is constructed differently here.  Seen in detail it seems (the effect is perhaps too subtle) to take a corner and turn towards the ravine (to the east) on the left side of the darkened section.  A railing for the bridge is evident a short ways to the right of the darkened area on the bulkhead.  This railing is on the east side of Front and is easily detected because it contrasts with the dark north bank of the ravine that appears behind it.  (A white arrow is also pointing at it.)  A railing on the west or bay side of Front is more difficult to decipher, and yet when seen in detail is at least suggested by other but softer lines.  Or may not be.  The east side of Front was developed for pedestrians, and not the west.  Along the west side all that would be needed was a low “fence” of logs running end-to-end between the openings at the end of the streets noted above.

Both University and Union Streets are also distinguished in the Peterson pan in ways noted earlier.  One short block north of Seneca the bulkhead is broken by what appears to be a negotiable incline of dumped earth. [60] It may also be, in part, the natural contour of the native bluff.  The trees directly to the north of this break are much older than the bulkhead and spring from ground that is not very far below Front Street.  This is also where the shoreline below begins its turn to the northwest.  Consequently, University Street between Front Street and the waterfront has at least since the 1880s been outfitted either with steps (as now) or ramps to the waterfront.  As noted above, and will be shown in a later chapter, soon after the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889 the stairway that had been built there earlier was replaced by a bridge for wagons that passed over both Post Alley and Western Avenue and reached Railroad Avenue directly.  This bridge allowed the movement of freight between this north section of the waterfront and the growing north section of the Central Business District.

One long block further north on Front (between University and Union the blocks get longer), Union Street continues only a little ways west of Front Street before it runs out of the picture.  In a panorama of the waterfront taken from the King Street Coal wharf about nine years later, Union Street seems to continue to the beach. [61] After the fire of 1889, the newspapers made considerable note of the wagon road on Union Street and what a hard but necessary haul it was for moving building materials up from Schwabacher’s Dock at the foot of Union Street (the only wharf of size on the central waterfront to escape the ’89 fire) to the many building sites in the city.  As we shall repeat below this was a temporary hardship.  Following the fire Western Avenue between Union and Belltown was soon improved, and the waterfront itself was speedily rebuilt into a wider Railroad Avenue with several accesses to the business district on Madison, Marion, Columbia and Yesler.

We insert here (above) what might be a “sidebar” in any coffee-table book for visiting guests.  Still the comparison below does include a revelation.  The etching is from a 1870 Harper’s Monthly article on Puget Sound, titled “The Mediterranian of the Pacific.”  Before comparing them to earlier Robinson view from Yesler Wharf, the structures in the oft-reproduced etching puzzled me.   Now when compared to Robinson there places, at least, become obvious.  When time allows we intend on reprinting the entire Harper’s article with commentary and added illustrations as another of our – and Ron Edge’s –  “Edge Clippings.”



On the West Coast the 1870s were generally years of growth most of it fed by the new transcontinental to California.  Seattle grew too, and this was in spite of the community’s dashed hopes for Puget Sound’s transcontinental terminus.  Instead, the Northern Pacific publicly chose Tacoma, or rather its own New Tacoma, in 1873.  By fits and starts the NPRR reached Tacoma in 1883, and with ironic effects for Seattle.  In spite of at first no rail service and then poor service from Tacoma, Seattle grew right beside Tacoma – even a neck again – with such vigor that its extended boom years really begin with the ’83 completion to Tacoma of the Northern Pacific.   But unlike Tacoma, Seattle’s growth would continue to quicken until the First World War.  At a little more than 3000, Seattle’s population in 1880 was deceptively small because the city was also the cultural, transportation, and financial center for what went on all around the Sound and in the woods.  This depth to its culture and economy is what gave Seattle the substance to survive periodic nation-wide hard times like those ten-year panics of 1873, 1883 and 1893.   This last, the Panic of 1893 and years following, was especially hard on Tacoma.


We close this chapter with a panorama of the Seattle skyline taken from Colman Dock – the northwest corner of it where the pedestrians walk directly from the ferries to a level one floor above the exiting vehicles.  This pan was taken for Jean’s and my book Washington Then and Now but not used.  So we revive it.  The date is 2004.  The position is not really a repeat of the outer end of the Yesler’s wharf.  That would be on the other side, the south side, of Colman Dock and a few feet closer to the seawall.

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