(Published in the Seattle Times online on July 30, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on August 2, 2020)
In civil rights, what has – and hasn’t – changed in 57 years?
By Jean Sherrard
1963, the year of our “Then,” and today, arguably much has changed:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968.
So why do we often feel stuck in quicksand? Protest signs spaced 57 years apart could have been written by the same hand.
Nationally, amid a vision of hope, the summer of 1963 produced profound turmoil:
On June 11, Gov. George Wallace stood on the University of Alabama steps, blocking entry to two Black students until the National Guard cleared their path.
On June 12, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his Jackson, Miss., home.
On Aug 28, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place at the Lincoln Memorial, culminating with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s indelible “I Have a Dream” speech.
On Sept. 15, four young Black girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
In Seattle, 1,000 marchers gathered on the hot morning of Saturday, June 15, at Mount Zion Baptist Church at 19th Avenue and East Madison Street and were inspired by the words of Rev. Mance Jackson, pastor of Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (today’s Curry Temple CME Church at 172 23rd Ave.).
Jackson called for “a plan of action,” demanding fair housing and employment practices for Black citizens, whose 10% jobless rate tripled that of the city overall.
“The time is now or never,” he said. “We declare war on … America’s greatest enemies: discrimination, segregation and racial bigotry. … We will have to sacrifice and suffer. Somebody may even have to go to jail.”
Our “Now” is from Thursday, June 4, 2020, 10 days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody convulsed the nation. After days of angry protest, police erected a temporary barricade at 11th Avenue and East Pine Street, separating them from Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Late in the afternoon, a small group carrying bouquets of lilies and helium balloons pushed to the front of the crowd. A Black protester shouted an obscenity, stripped to his shorts and hopped the barricade, hands aloft. Alone, he advanced toward a line of squad cars.
Behind him, the crowd seemed to catch its breath. Some pleaded for him to turn back and avoid arrest. Others took up a chant: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Shortly, the protester was arrested and taken into police custody.
In 1963, King challenged us to envision a world in which we can “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Then and now, accomplishing that arduous task is our civic duty.
Also, check out our 360 degree video, narrated by Jean, shot on location at 11th and East Pine.
(Published in the PacificNW Magazine of the Seattle Times on July 19, 2020)
THE BACKSTORY: Chronicling the bright art of a dark, coronaviral time
By Jean Sherrard
(click to enlarge photos)
In the last week of March, witnessing the suddenly quiescent streets of Seattle, I assigned myself the task of documenting the changes that were sure to follow. All but “essential” businesses and services had been closed, and my near-deserted hometown carried more than a whiff of post-apocalyptic sulfur.
In the Pike Place Market, owners of restaurants and many dozens of shops had closed until further notice, leaving behind lonely, “essential” islands of grocers, produce and fish shops. Usually chockablock with artisanal crafts and flowers, the market’s long tables were abandoned. A place that for me represents the beating heart of Seattle had suffered near-cardiac arrest.
Yet this was not my first pandemic rodeo. In August 1976, I took a gap year from college and volunteered halfway around the world as an aid worker in South Sudan during the world’s first recorded encounter with the Ebola virus. After months of quarantine, the outbreak abated, and I could travel home to immensely relieved parents.
By comparison, while it bears a lower mortality rate, COVID-19 nevertheless has proven significantly more infectious, casting a planet-wide shadow for the foreseeable future.
In these uniquely dark times, however, my daily contact with works of art-in-progress provided me a palpable sense of hope, and I wasn’t alone. Many artists noted the warm reception from passersby as they worked. “So much gratitude,” marveled Katlyn Hubner, whose “Pup Pack” can be found just below. What’s more, the murals, interactive by nature, encouraged the recording of thousands of selfies.
No sooner had pandemic restrictions begun to ease than Black Lives Matter protests began, resulting in a vibrant new crop of political art, wielding its own set of fiery messages that demanded change. While this magazine’s deadlines limited me to chronicling art of the pandemic, the bare plywood installed more recently on the streets of downtown and Capitol Hill has opened up new vistas.
For those who seek an encyclopedic overview of the murals, local press Chatwin Books plans to publish a full-color book featuring more than 140 artworks from all over town, for which artists supplied their own photos. For more info, visit www.chatwinbooks.com.
THE MAIN STORY: Artists fill the bleak streets of our locked-down city with color and life
In many ways, it looked to be a spartan spring.
Throughout Seattle’s now-deserted commercial districts – including Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, Belltown and Ballard – shop and restaurant owners shuttered their plate-glass windows and doors with protective plywood panels following Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home Stay Healthy” order to slow the coronavirus.
There was no telling how long the panels would remain during the pandemic, but once colorful and vibrant streets were left hollowed out and drained of purpose. Raw wood surfaces offered tempting targets for graffiti and taggers. Yet where some saw bleakness, others saw opportunity.
Muralist and sign painter VK recalls the shock of seeing First Avenue south of Yesler after the governor’s order. Within hours, graffiti had materialized haphazardly on the raw wood surfaces. “My first thought,” he says, “was we’ve got to get down there and paint some murals.”
All across Seattle, great minds were thinking alike. Kathleen Warren, artist and director of Overall Creative, working alongside the Alliance for Pioneer Square, the Ballard Alliance, the Broadway Business Improvement Area and the Downtown Seattle Association, put out a call for artists to submit proposals for mural art. The response was huge.
Belltown Pizza owner Doug Lee made a similar plea on Facebook and almost overnight was inundated with offers from more than 200 artists.
Adding to the mix, several business owners independently contracted with muralists to cover plywood with color.
In the weeks to come, murals reimagined and reinvigorated the empty streets. Some works were by established artists, others by street artists who cut their teeth on graffiti.
The response proved as myriad as might be expected from random humans facing times of turmoil. “Art is not about providing answers,” says Wakuda, another muralist, “but asking the right questions.”
Anne Siems, a prominent Northwest artist whose gallery show had just ended in February, had never painted a mural. The large format both intrigued and unnerved her. “Covering an entire wall with art is kind of like a cave painting,” she says. “It has an inherent power that can draw us in with beauty.”
From comfort and comedy to biting commentary and remonstration, the new murals recalled the past, reflected the present and affirmed the future.
As Inslee’s restrictions lift, the murals’ fate is up for grabs. Entering the next phase of pandemic response, many businesses have removed the painted plywood and put the art into storage. Some have postponed removal or incorporated the panels into their businesses. Other murals already have been sold to private collectors.
But the muralists continue to paint the town.
A new wave of political art is on the rise, embracing and illustrating this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. As our city confronts the canvas of an uncertain future, both art and artists will be on hand to help us ask the right questions.
So much remarkable art, so little space. First, heartfelt apologies to those artists whose stunning murals did not appear in the print version of the column. I include a portion of the remarkable artwork spread across town below, divided roughly by location.
(click to enlarge photos — Clay and Paul advise, ‘Click again’)
(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 24, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on June 28, 2020)
In challenging times, the Post Office delivers human connection
By Jean Sherrard
When it opened in October 1852, Seattle’s first postal station was little more than a mahogany desk in Arthur Denny’s log cabin at what is now First and Marion.
It had been 11 months since the Denny Party landed at Alki Beach. The urge to connect with the outside world was strong. Even a pocket-sized post office offered settlers a sense of stability.
For The Seattle Times, Arthur’s daughter, Louisa, wryly recalled perching on her dad’s desk as he sorted mail when a boat came in: “It was not a monumental task, as there was very little mail coming and going.”
Decades later, however, our “Then” displays a hive of activity at Seattle’s downtown post office at the northeast corner of what is now Yesler Way and Post Avenue. The scrawled inscription, “Waiting for mail at Seattle’s Post Office,” explains the long lines, adding cryptically, “Mostly strangers.”
The note may offer a calendar clue. By late 1886, with an economy recovering from three years of recession, hundreds of “strangers” arrived seeking jobs. The newly employed no doubt eagerly queued for mail from families they had left behind. By fall 1887, crowds abated when the post office hired four mail carriers and began the tradition of free delivery.
To document today’s version of this practice, with permission from Seattle’s postmaster I recently joined 12-year postal veteran Azuma Ohta on her appointed rounds, starting at the Seattle Carrier Annex at Fourth and Lander, where days begin with sorting letters and packages.
Beyond snow, rain, heat and gloom of night, every carrier bears scars from being chomped by dogs, clawed by cats and stung by bees and wasps. Azuma is no exception. Twice-bitten, with one attack by a canine whose owner left a door ajar, she still identifies as a “dog person.”
During the pandemic, postal workers older than 60 and otherwise at high risk have been allowed to take several months off. Younger carriers have filled in, so Azuma has been working 75 hours a week, more than during the hectic holiday season.
Another unexpected effect of the coronavirus has been to boost the contents of carriers’ mailbags. “People are hungry for physical connection beyond Zoom and email,” she says. “They’re sending more cards and letters than I’ve ever seen before.”
Tagging along on her Capitol Hill route, I can see that Azuma is a beloved fixture. Passersby sing out cheerful greetings. She has watched babies become adolescents and witnessed love and loss, marriage and divorce.
Tim King often meets her at his door for a chat. “We adore Azuma,” he says. “She brightens our days, and these days can use some brightening.” By any measure, that’s a monumental task.
Be sure to visit our Seattle Now & Then 360 channel, where you can listen to and view this column in glorious 360 degree color! Jean narrates.
(Published in the Seattle Times online on June 4, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on June 7, 2020)
Historic downtown church confronts Seattle’s ‘original sin’
By Jean Sherrard
This past Jan. 25, during an evening lecture at Plymouth Congregational Church, historian David Buerge spoke of the city’s “original sin”: 54,000 acres taken from the Duwamish Tribe without recompense, leaving Chief Seattle’s people, who had so warmly welcomed early settlers, landless and homeless.
In response, the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown, Plymouth’s lead pastor, had a forward-looking suggestion. “We have been squatting on First People’s land for nearly 170 years,” she said. “We’ve been blessed with the beautiful asset of this property. It’s time for the church to begin paying down our debt.”
Only a week past the 150th anniversary of the church’s first Sunday service, her audience voiced strong support for initiating discussions with the tribe. Those familiar with Plymouth and its long history of civic engagement were not surprised. From women’s suffrage and civil rights to immigration and homelessness, the church has wrestled with thorny issues of every era.
Before the church’s founding in 1870, Mayflower descendants John and Carolyn Sanderson determined that Seattle, with a population of nearly 1,000 mostly single men, lacked ecclesiastical choice. Methodists and Episcopalians had established solid toeholds here, but Congregationalism (with direct links to the Pilgrims) might add the tempting solidity of Plymouth Rock.
Their choice of pastor, charismatic John F. Damon – also a prominent Mason – was propitious. Church historian Mildred Andrews notes that Damon was “skilled at playing upon the emotions of his hearers” and in high demand for both weddings and funerals (at which there was “never a dry eye”).
Becoming known throughout the region as the “marrying parson,” Damon soon drew crowds of 100 for both morning and evening Sunday services, a staggering 20% of the town’s population. Pioneer Arthur Denny, lured from the Methodists, was inspired to donate a lot at Second Avenue and Spring Street for Plymouth’s first church.
Church membership soared. Besides the Denny family, notable congregants included James Colman (builder of the original Colman Dock), engineer Hiram M. Chittenden, developer James Moore (whose Moore Theater still stands at Fourth and Stewart) and Seattle’s first female mayor, Bertha Landes.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the church’s most ambitious offshoot. In 1980, after witnessing men sleeping rough on the church’s doorstep, the Rev. David Colwell braced his congregation: “One homeless person is one too many.” Today, Plymouth Housing provides supportive dwellings for more than 1,200 people in 14 buildings across the city.
For her part, Brown envisions a vital role for the church in years to come: “We must never lose sight of the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised, and make sure that as a church, the lens we use is one of justice.” Plymouth’s proposal to enfranchise the Duwamish people will take a pioneering step toward atonement.
Jean here. As many of you know, I’ve spent the last few weeks wandering the city, attempting to portray Seattle’s response to this pandemic. And it’s been nothing short of inspiring, particularly on the artistic front. Artists and muralists from across the region have gathered in Ballard, on Capitol Hill, in Pioneer Square, and Belltown, to bring color and form to otherwise dormant, plywood-covered streets. Here’s a selection of my faves (double-click to enlarge):
(Published in the Seattle Times online on March 19, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on March 22, 2020)
Roughing It on the waterfront with Mark Twain, 1895
By Jean Sherrard
In the hot, dry summer of 1895, virgin timber burned throughout the Pacific Northwest. For locals who only seven years before had witnessed the Great Seattle Fire that reduced 30 downtown blocks into piles of ash, the suffocating, brown pall must have evoked unpleasant memories.
On Aug. 13, when a 59-year old Mark Twain (given name: Samuel Clemens) stepped onto Colman Dock, his eyes and throat were irritated by not only the smoke but also the ill effects of a rare cold.
Earlier, the chair of a reception committee had tendered profuse apologies: “I’m sorry the smoke is so dense that you cannot see our mountains and our forests.”
“I regret that your magnificent forests are being destroyed by fire,” replied Twain. “As for the smoke … I am accustomed to that. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”
Nevertheless, he may have considered delaying or canceling his sold-out performance that evening at the Seattle Theater, Third and Cherry — a 90-minute comedic lecture with an unlikely subject: “Morals” — were it not for his recent bankruptcy and pressing need for cash.
Internationally celebrated for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and its sequel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (widely considered the greatest American novel) as well as humorous short stories and travelogues such as “Roughing It,” Twain was less fortunate when it came to money. An ill-advised publishing venture, compounded by the crash of 1893, had left him more than $80,000 in debt, which he felt honor-bound to repay.
“I do not enjoy the hard travel and broken rest inseparable from lecturing,” he said, “but writing is too slow for the demands that I have to meet. Therefore I have begun to lecture my way around the world.”
Entreated by Australian promoter Carlyle Smythe, who long had sought his participation in a tour abroad, Twain committed to a packed set of performances across the northern United States, then to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
His friend and manager, Major James B. Pond, who accompanied him on the U.S. portion of the tour, described Twain’s reception here: “A great audience in Seattle … The sign ‘Standing Room Only’ was out again. He was hoarse, but the hoarseness seemed to augment the volume of his voice.”
Critics concurred. “A great literary improvisation,” gushed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “To tell the story of such a lecture is like trying to narrate a laugh.”
In Victoria 10 days later, accompanied by beloved wife Olivia and daughter Clara, Twain boarded the Warimoo, bound for Australia. Before departure, Pond recalled, the perpetual smoker bought 3,000 “Manila cheroots” (cigars) and four pounds of Durham tobacco, calculated to be just enough for the month-long voyage.
A special thanks to David Horsey and Colleen Chartier for the assist. For Jean’s narrated 360 degree video, click here.
(Published in the Seattle Times online on Feb. 20, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on Feb. 23, 2020)
Seattle’s Deepest Snow, at First & Cherry, 1880
By Jean Sherrard
Since 2005, when I began contributing photos to this column, whenever flakes of snow begin to fall, I pack a camera bag and hit the slippery Seattle streets, clutching a sheaf of old photos to repeat. However, in those 15 years I’ve repeatedly failed to capture snow blanketing First and Cherry, as shown in this week’s classic “Then” photo from 1880. The Captain Ahab in me calls it my “white whale.”
Longtime Seattleites may recall wistfully the rare blizzards of 2018, 1996, 1969 and 1950 (whose 20-inch blitz set the latter-day record for greatest one-day snowfall).
Their effects were dwarfed by Seattle’s second biggest snow, beginning Feb. 1, 1916, when 21.5 inches nearly KO’d the young city. On Groundhog Day afternoon at 3:13, the dome of St. James Cathedral collapsed under the extra load, only hours after a morning Mass attended by a group of schoolgirls from Holy Names Academy.
My grandmother Dorothy later recalled that as a girl of 10 she joined thousands of skaters on frozen Green Lake in the cold snap preceding the snow.
But the king of snows in the Queen City was crowned the same year that Seattle, its population having grown to 3,500, overtook Walla Walla as the region’s largest town.
In a “state of the territory” address published Sunday, Jan. 4, 1880, in the Seattle Intelligencer, territorial Gov. Elisha P. Ferry warmly promoted our region’s temperate, near-Mediterranean climate. “Ice and snow,” he wrote, “are of rare occurrence and almost unknown in Western Washington.”
That same evening, the weather gods replied with a vengeance. Bitterly cold winds invaded homes “through cracks not before known to exist,” the paper reported. The next day, snow began to fall and continued through the week, collapsing awnings and threatening buildings across town.
Yesler’s Hall, used for dances, concerts and theatricals, was “in danger of wrecking; the walls cracking and opening from the enormous weight upon [its] roof.” Only the quick action of men paid an exorbitant $1 an hour to shovel off the snow averted disaster.
At week’s end, the Intelligencer projected the snow “would average a depth of six feet on the townsite of Seattle.” In a petulant potshot (take cover, Elisha), it continued, “If any one has anything to say of our Italian skies and climate, shoot him on the spot.”
On Jan. 12, the Seattle Fin-Back, a free weekly rag, polled elderly natives on “the snow question.” Chief Seattle’s daughter Kikisoblu, known as Princess Angeline, said she “had never seen so much snow at any one time.” Old Ned, however, who lived at the foot of Battery Street, was less impressed. He boasted that he had “seen snow 50 years ago over seven feet deep” when Angeline was a mere child.
Check out Jean’s visit to First and Cherry in our delightful 360 video.
(Published in the Seattle Times online on Feb. 6, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on Feb. 9, 2020)
Tripping the light fantastic at Seattle’s Trianon Ballroom, ‘Cupid’s Headquarters’
By Jean Sherrard
Advertising that patrons would “trip the light fantastic,” the legendary Trianon Ballroom, designed by architect Warren H. Milner, opened its doors on May 20th, 1927, at Third Avenue and Wall Street. With its springy, white-maple floors, overseen by a giant, silver, clam-shaped bandshell, the Trianon quickly became Seattle’s premier dance palace.
Held the same day Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, the Trianon’s inaugural drew the city council, chamber of commerce and Bertha Landes, Seattle’s first female mayor. Four-thousand dancers foxtrotted to the sounds of Herb Wiedoft and his Brunswick Recording Orchestra. Between sets, dancers were entertained by vaudeville acts and a dancing exhibition by Priscilla Pharis and George Blanford, a couple who had triumphed at a recent dance marathon in Los Angeles.
The Mediterranean-style dance palace showcased the nation’s biggest of big bands, including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and Louis Armstrong, along with the local Max Pilar and Vic Meyers bands. (In 1932, Meyers, swapping bandstand for grandstand, would be elected Washington state’s lieutenant governor, serving 20 years.)
The Trianon became “Cupid’s headquarters,” contended Ted Harris, its longtime manager, in a 1975 Seattle Times interview, “because so many guys and gals met their future mates there.” Couples, he said, gathered on the long, open balcony, with its 17 arched windows facing Third Avenue, for “a little romantic action.” For late-night swing shifts and visiting servicemen during World War II, the Trianon remained open till 5 a.m.
Despite condemnation from some Seattle pulpits, couples continued dancing cheek to cheek at the Trianon until its closing in 1956. By then, ballroom dancing was declining in popularity as youths of America fell under the spell of the less formal dance moves of rock ’n’ roll.
Here we must sound a particularly sour note.
Through much of its tenure, the Trianon’s owner, John E. Savage, insisted upon a segregated dance floor, claiming repeatedly (and falsely) that a city ordinance prohibited “mixed [race] dancing.” The result: hugely popular African American musicians were welcome to perform, while African American dancers were turned away. For Seattle’s growing black community, this irony was painfully bitter, scarcely remedied by management’s “compromise” of selected Monday night shows set aside for “Colored Folks.”
After the ballroom’s closure, the building was converted for use as a Gov-Mart department store, then into an exhibition warehouse for a business selling pool tables, shuffleboards and jukeboxes.
Before partitioned office spaces took over the vast Trianon interior, the maple floor was cleared one last time. On May 18, 1985, two days shy of the 58th anniversary of its original opening, the Trianon held its last dance in the ballroom. All were welcome.
(Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 23, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on Jan. 26, 2020)
Connecting thirsty Seattleites with the life blood of water
By Jean Sherrard
Begin with a taste test. Fill a glass with water straight from the tap. Take a sip. Before swallowing, swish it between your teeth and over your tongue. If you’re in or around Seattle, the water you’re savoring likely flows directly from the Cascades, filtered from snowpack down through mountain streams and rivers that have supplied the city and environs for more than a century.
This week’s photos reveal obscure vestiges of the infrastructure that has made it all possible.
Arguably, our earliest water-supply system began with Henry Yesler, who in 1854 ran a suspended V-flume from a spring near Eighth Avenue and Madison Street just past his original homestead (near the heart of today’s Pioneer Square) to his waterfront sawmill.
Other settlers followed suit, tapping the abundant streams and springs of First Hill, then still crowded with virgin timber, improvising a creaky patchwork of wooden pipes and flumes.
As the young city grew, need for a less Balkanized water supply became apparent. The privately owned Spring Hill Water Company, incorporated in 1881, initially fit the bill, integrating sources and expanding to meet the needs of a thirsty population. In a substantial upgrade, the company studded First Hill with large wooden tanks, and a newly built, steam-powered pumping station on Lake Washington kept a 4-million-gallon reservoir on Beacon Hill brim full.
But on June 6, 1889, nearly 30 blocks of downtown Seattle burned to the ground, largely due to the failure of the Spring Hill water supply system. Tanks and reservoirs alike ran dry before the fire could be doused. Out of those flames a public utility was born.
Within months of the fire, the City of Seattle purchased Spring Hill Water Company and planned for expansion. All eyes
turned to the Cedar River, long recognized as a potential source of abundant, pure water, flowing from Cedar (now Chester Morse) Lake, some 35 miles southeast. The proposed gravity-fed water-supply system would be the one of the largest engineering projects yet undertaken by the rapidly rebuilding city.
Politics and economics might have shelved the project were it not for the vision and leadership of a newly appointed city engineer, Reginald H. Thomson, known for a formidable drive and intelligence.
Throughout the 1890s, Thomson lobbied tirelessly for Cedar River water, identifying the liquid as “the life blood of a city.” At last, on Jan. 10, 1900, from the Landsburg timber-crib dam (elevation: 536.4 feet), water coursed through 28 miles of wooden stave pipes around the south end of Lake Washington and north to two city reservoirs on Capitol Hill.
The expansion was just in the nick of time. Over the next decade, Seattle’s population exploded to nearly 240,000 from 80,000, tripling its thirst for pure mountain water.
First, a huge thanks to Dave Muto of the Seattle Public Utilities, a veritable fount of information and my generous tour guide at Lake Youngs.
I’ll add in a few photos of the water works at Lake Youngs. Dave kindly provided several of the captions.
(Published in the Seattle Times online on Jan. 9, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on Jan. 12, 2020)
Just as Seattle’s viaduct tumbled, so did a coastal sea stack
By Jean Sherrard
In our rapidly changing cityscape – where viaducts may crumble, buildings may tumble and residents surely grumble – we depend on increasingly fewer fixed points to ground us (the Pike Place Market is here to stay). Out on the coast, however, even the points of reference that we perceive as immutable can give way in our lifetimes.
Today’s example is one of the tough rock spires whittled from coastal bluffs and headlands, surely noted by sea captains Cook, Bodega y Quadra, Gray and Vancouver and other meticulous 18th century mapmakers who sought an elusive Northwest passage and maritime shortcut between Europe and China.
The spires are known as sea stacks. In a landscape slashed and walloped by wind and tide, they generally stand as unyielding sentinels of things past.
Our “Then” photo is one of many I’ve taken at Rialto Beach north of the mouth of the Quillayute River near La Push. It features an intact sea stack, one of many that my extended family have appreciated as we combed the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula for more than 50 years.
Late last summer, however, we initially were oblivious as we passed the jumbled slabs of rock captured in our “Now” photo. Negative space, we discovered, can be hard to comprehend – in particular, the loss of structures of such seeming permanence.
But after a momentary loss of bearings and a literal double take, we noted that one of our reference points – a singular pillar emerging from eroded, softer soils over hundreds of years – had toppled into rubble. Just when did this happen? And was it a rare event?
For answers, I turned to Bill Baccus, the Olympic National Park’s physical scientist. After nearly 35 years, he works in the “vital signs” program, which monitors the parks’ ecosystems over time. His patrols range from remote mountain lakes and glaciers (nearly half of which were lost to global warming during his tenure) to the outer coast’s intertidal zones.
“The coast is a constantly changing landscape, especially in terms of morphology,” he said. “One month, the beach will be totally scoured. You’ll see exposed rocks you haven’t seen for months or years. The next thing you know, the sand or gravel has returned. In contrast, the sea stacks are some of the few static features that don’t really change over time. This is the first time I’ve ever seen one entirely collapse.”
Baccus first noted this stack’s demise in June 2016. He surmises that it must have occurred during an especially violent series of storms the previous winter. The precise date, however, is unknown. We invite readers who regularly visit Rialto Beach to submit an earlier photo of our tumbled spire.
As promised, here are a few photos snapped over the years, summer and winter, at LaPush.