Seattle Now & Then: Duwamish River, 1891


BJ Cummings’ book The River That Made Seattle: A Human and Natural History of the Duwamish won the 2021 Virginia Marie Folkins Award for Publication of the Association of King County Historical Organizations. The award was presented May 25, 2021. Congrats, BJ!

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: Eight men, women and children, perhaps on a family outing, gather in 1891 at Cassell’s Point along the not-yet-industrial west bank of the Duwamish River. Beyond the group, to the southeast, is the Eighth Avenue bridge, which, starting in January 1892, carried a Grant Street Electric Railway streetcar connecting unincorporated South Park and Georgetown a half mile north of today’s South Park Bridge. (University of Washington Special Collections, LaRoche 159)
NOW: On the future site of a Seattle Public Utilities flood-reduction pump station and public open space along Riverside Drive in South Park, barges and docks cramp the view of the Duwamish. Socially distanced are (from left) author BJ Cummings; Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition; and James Rasmussen, Duwamish tribal leader. Cummings’ book, “The River That Made Seattle” (University of Washington Press) will be launched online July 11 from the Duwamish Longhouse. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on July 2, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on July 5, 2020)

Seattle arose from a tortuously transformed Duwamish River
By Clay Eals

When we think of waters that define Seattle, which ones come to mind? Puget Sound and Elliott Bay, with Lake Washington and Lake Union close behind. Perhaps Green Lake. Don’t forget the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

But what about the seemingly invisible Duwamish River, harnessed (some say ravaged) beyond original recognition and poisoned beyond palatability? Shouldn’t it rise to the top?

That’s the question behind a new social and environmental history book with a provocative title: “The River That Made Seattle.” Is it really true that the Duwamish “made” our city?

Author BJ Cummings – serving for 25 years in leading roles for Puget Soundkeeper, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Sustainable Seattle and the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program – “makes” a potent case.

For starters, she says, most of the waterways that surrounded and fed Seattle once drained through the Duwamish. Also, and not incidentally, the river is named for the tribe whose chief’s bowdlerized name became that of the city.

Cummings further points out that, contrary to commonly told history, the city’s first white settlers (she calls them “immigrants”) were not those who alighted Nov. 13, 1851, at Alki Beach but rather those bearing the names of Maple, van Asselt and Collins, who roosted two months earlier along the Duwamish.

In time, city-builders’ projects diverted or dried up feeder rivers so that by 1920, a watershed of more than 2,000 square miles had shrunk to fewer than 500. The spaghetti-like course of the Duwamish itself also had been straightened and the channel widened and deepened to make way for enormous ships and an industrial identity that nearly erased a tribal homeland.

Even so, portions of the original riverbed survive – some barely. One is shown in our “Then,” taken in 1891 from a bend in the Duwamish west bank (present-day South Park) called Cassell’s Point, named for longtime Seattle railroad engineer John Cassell, who may be the gent pointing the umbrella. This spot also lies across from where Chief Seattle paid his final visit to the river.

Though we strain today to imagine the river before unwieldy industry and its persistent pollutants transformed it, Cummings bears a bottomless affinity for its past via her long ties to the tribe and others who care about the Duwamish.

“This trashed river made its way into my heart,” she says. “There have been seven generations of immigrant history and 10,000 years of native history here. The city was built on the back of the river. The river gave the city the riches and the infrastructure it needed to grow, and it’s time for us to give back a little of that love.”


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are two additional photos, a video link and a clipping  from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Also, scroll to the bottom to see a 1945 report on sources of pollution on the Duwamish River.

The cover of BJ Cummings’ new book, “The River That Made Seattle.” (Courtesy BJ Cummings)
On May 13, 2020, Jean Sherrard (far right) shoots the 360-degree video for this column. Socially distanced are (from left) author BJ Cummings; Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition; and James Rasmussen, Duwamish tribal leader. (Clay Eals)
VIDEO: Click this photo to view a four-minute video of BJ Cummings talking about her new book. (Clay Eals)
Dec. 19, 1924, Seattle Times obituary for railroad engineer John Cassell.
This 34-page report on sources of pollution in the Duwamish-Green River drainage area was published Dec. 6, 1945. Click on the front page to read the full pdf. (courtesy Judy Bentley)

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Duwamish River, 1891”

  1. BJ’s grandfather was Bob Moch, the coxswain of the 1936 Boys in the Boat.

    I haven’t read the book yet, but one thing that bears consideration from an equity/access perspective is that the people who live along the Duwamish now have virtually no access to it. There are no public floats, and almost no parks. The Duwamish Rowing Club must carry it’s boats down a street and then a long way up through the one existing park where they must then cross mud infested with toxic chemicals to get them into water deep enough to launch.

    A recent study highlighted the fact that only South Park/Duwamish Valley and Rainier Beach/SE Seattle lack signature, waterfront parks and waterfront activities for people. There is no Green Lake Small Craft Center, no Mt. Baker Rowing and Sailing, and no rows of private, not for profit rowing and paddling clubs like there are on Lake Washington, Green Lake, Lake Union, and the Ship Canal. As a site for youth waterfront activities that help kids to reduce stress, be healthier, get better grades in school, and learn valuable lessons, the Duwamish River could be as good or better than Green Lake, the ship canal, or the Charles in Boston, or the Schuylkill in Philadelphia because there are five miles of calm, relatively quiet, flat water. There are good sites for a WAC, all that is needed is a little will to make it so. (Source: Rainier Beach Institute)

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