Seattle Now & Then: Gas Works Park, 1910

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: Taken from northeast Queen Anne Hill, this 1910 view shows the coal gasification plant fully operational. Just behind it, across Portage Bay, stands the University of Washington, site of the previous year’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Virgin timber on the horizon lines what are known today as the View Ridge and Hawthorne Hills neighborhoods.
NOW: On a balmy June evening, park visitors dot Kite Hill. The preserved cracking towers, sometimes called Seattle’s iron Stonehenge, are the sole survivors among what were more than 1,400 U.S. gasification plants.

Published in The Seattle Times online on July 20, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on July 23, 2023

Gas Works: a belching hellscape turns post-industrial paradise
By Jean Sherrard

There was a time when gas lighting had no ulterior motives. The steady golden flame was an assurance of illumination on demand and a promise of innovations to come.

When the Seattle Gas Lighting Company lit up 5 city streets and 42 private homes on New Year’s Eve 1873, the sound of corks popping must have been accompanied by sighs of envy from denizens of darker Seattle.

For the fortunate few early adopters, the first gas, converted from Eastside coal, was delivered through hollowed-out cedar logs.

The nascent utility of settlers Arthur Denny and Dexter Horton grew rapidly to match increased demand, supplying more than 1,200 customers by 1892. By then, gas increasingly provided both light and heat for home appliances.

Eastern investors further expanded the utility, moving its production facilities to Brown’s Point on north Lake Union in 1906. Coal gasification was an immensely filthy process, requiring vast quantities of water that the then-undeveloped 20-acre lakeside tract could accommodate.

Over the next 50 years, belching out smoke, flames and fumes while contaminating soil, groundwater and sediment, the plant was an unwelcome neighbor, even after converting to marginally cleaner oil gasification in 1937. Many Wallingford houses were built to avoid the hellish view of tower effluvia. Complaints about the facility poured in throughout its half-century tenure.

: Spewing smoke and flames is the Seattle Gas Lighting Company’s facility, in a dramatic nighttime photo from 1947. For gasping, soot-covered Wallingford, it was a nightmare.

Relief greeted the plant’s closure in 1956 when the Trans Mountain Gas Pipeline opened, bringing natural gas from Canada to Washington state. The utility, renamed Washington Natural Gas, left 20 noxious acres behind. Given the view location, however, calls soon mounted to convert it into a city park.

Enter noted landscape architect and University of Washington professor Richard Haag (1923-2018). His 1962 proposal for adaptive reuse was revolutionary — and initially controversial. Following cleanup of the polluted site, Haag advocated preserving the 5-story cracking towers while converting the plant’s boiler house to a picnic shelter and its exhauster-compressor building into a brightly painted children’s play barn.

Richard Haag visits Gas Works Park in 2015 with colleague Thaisa Way, University of Washington professor of landscape architecture and author of “The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag.” The concrete pillars once supported tracks for coal trains supplying the gasification plant.

A 45-foot high Great Mound (aka Kite Hill), made of construction fill, would cover polluted soil while providing breathtaking vistas from what had been a choking hellscape.

In October 1973, Gas Works Park began opening in stages, and was immediately acclaimed as one of Seattle’s favorite parks. Designated a Seattle landmark in 1999, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Today, park cleanup is ongoing. Reducing toxic lake sediment is next in a series of environmental remediations. But this rough diamond in the crown of Seattle parks is worth the effort — no gas lighting required.


For Paul Dorpat’s original 2015 column featuring an interview with landscape architect Richard Haag, click here!

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