Seattle Waterfront History, Chapter 2

[Here continues the illustrated text for The Seattle Waterfront: An Illustrated History.
This second contribution completes the book’s introduction.]

Covered Parking

In the beginning Ivar advertised the Alaskan Way Viaduct as “blocks and blocks of covered parking.”  Later he would revise this and confess to what he considered an early naiveté.  “People – some people – weren’t finding us.  It was like we were locked away.  How many tourists wanted to get to Alaskan Way and instead climbed onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct and wound up on the waterfront in Everett?  And many of the locals stopped seeing us too.  There was this thing in the way.  Now I appreciate that the thing gives one a hell of a view from the top in every direction, but at what cost?  How long does it take to get between Dearborn and Battery up there?   Well, I don’t know, but I do know that the thrills received from that free concession come with a heavy price.  The more one carries on about the view from the attic, the less one cares for the living room.  When you spend a lot of time below – on the sidewalk – you learn what this thing is – a kind of factory of noise and odors and also an exceedingly ugly fence.  It’s funny what boosters we were for the viaduct when it was built.  Some day it will come down, but I hope not on its own.  When it does, the waterfront will awaken like Sleeping Beauty to the kiss of its prince, the city.  But I doubt that I’ll ever see it.”  In spite of his “on its own” remark, like most of us before the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake came a few seconds from turning the viaduct into a concrete smoothie, Ivar had little appreciation for how flimsy it was.  (During the planning the decision to build the viaduct from reinforced concrete rather than steel was a fateful one.)  Perhaps Ivar’s change of heart was also insightful.  The great thing that had first excited him had become a barometer for how far some locals had distanced themselves from their waterfront while happily flying by above it.

John Colman

Columbia Street Distinction

The smell that Ivar detected flying from the viaduct keeps on giving but it is a different odor from the one familiar to the pioneers.  Actually, they were familiar with two odors.  If we first imagine John Colman (of the dock) looking at Elliott Bay at low tide from the foot of Columbia Street, and then ask him to turn south towards Yesler’s wharf, he would look across an expanse of slimy mud that he would have also smelled.  The odor was sulfuric – a perfume made from parts thrown from Yesler’s wharf and other parts blown there from the brackish tideflats south of the King Street.  One pioneer account describes pigs rooting in this mud while opportunistic crows stood on their backs waiting to see what their snouts might bring up.  The acidic power of this section was such that structures built beside the beach south of Columbia were discolored by it.

On the other hand if James Colman looked north, he would have admired a beach of fine hard sand.  In the summer of 1878 he could have also counted the bathhouses constructed there by Captain William Jensen.  But he’ll need more than the fingers on his hand.  There were a dozen of them.  The captain gave up captaining to become the proprietor of Seattle’s first improved bathing beach.  It was located between Union and Pike Streets.  A representative collection of his changing huts appears in the 1878 birdseye drawing of Seattle.  Jensen supplied his recreational beach not only with the bathhouses but also with suits and towels for rent.  The smell at this end of the central waterfront was sweet, at least by association.  It is a coincidence, and a curious one, that after the Second World War the playful side of the central waterfront developed more to the north of Columbia Street while the piers south of Colman Dock still preferred to work at water-related chores like shipping and fish.
[Returning to James Colman imagined looking to Elliott Bay from the foot of Columbia Street, if his visit there had been on the Saturday morning of September 21, 1877 he would have witnessed what was then a record – or so the Daily Intelligencer claimed – for fisherman out on the bay trolling for Salmon.  The bay then, of course, was still relatively pristine for both Jensen’s bather and the salmon, in spite of Seattle’s own untreated contributions. That would change soon, and accelerate with the population and development boom that came with the 1880s and did not slow down until World War One.  See the clip just below from The Daily Intelligencer for Monday Sept. 23, 1878.]

Daily Intelligencer, Sept. 23, 1878. Thanks to Ron Edge

Samples: Domestic & Exotic

Staying with waterfront odors and their contributors for the moment we will trumpet in the interests of local heritage that the Seattle waterfront is an elaborate midden or buried trove.  If we were to act like the wood boring worms called Teredos and gather a spread of core samples we would find all manner of historic and pre-historic stuff and could no doubt identify many of the contributions and sometimes the contributors.  The greatest strata came from the burned city – about 32 blocks of it – much of which was pushed onto the beach, especially at street ends, following the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889.  By then Jensen’s resort was already cluttered with the junk dropped onto it from Schwabacher’s wharf after that historic grocery and hardware firm built their first dock at the foot of Union Street in the 1880s.  After the ’89 fire the dumping of all sorts of stuff – both by permit and by night – continued.  Much of it was dropped through the many open gaps along Railroad Avenue – a spreading timber quay built over the tides – or simply dumped off the docks.  Dropped dirt was especially appreciated because a piling smothered in fill lasted longer than an exposed pile unprotected from the ravages of the Teredos.  (To strengthen this point we attach the last verse of Ivar’s ditty that he sang to customers – or anyone on the sidewalk – at the entrance to his aquarium.   It is titled “The Teredo.”) [5]

If some unborn genius, a king of the seas,
Teaches Teredos to bore holes in cheese,
Then all the dock owners will always be smiling –
No more need to worry ‘bout holes in their piling.

The practice of opportunity-dumping along the waterfront continued well into the 20th Century and was especially in renaissance following the construction of the seawall north of Madison Street in the mid-1930s.  Those were also the years when Ivar began his “opportunity-singing” on and about the waterfront.

1876: Sewerage & the Sick

The seawall south of Madison was first and dates from the early teens.   This, of course, is the oldest part of town, the noisome neighborhood around Yesler Wharf and south of it.  Any core drilling there below the Viaduct or in the old tideflats just south of King Street on First Avenue South or south of Jackson on Second Avenue South — would bring up a most cosmopolitan mix of urban waste and at the foot of Washington Street foreign soil as well.   As we will note in greater detail below, this exotic part would be recovered from Ballast Island (between Main and Washington Streets below the viaduct) and the domestic part could come from almost anywhere.  In the 1870s, Seattle began to grow at a pace faster than its capacity to clean itself.  It was fortunately a city on a hill built beside a great circulating waterway.  Consequently most of the city’s early waste wound up on the beach or in the bay, although it could take a sickening route getting there.  The city’s diphtheria epidemic of 1876 took entire families and the children who caught it rarely got better.  A few foul examples from issues of the Daily Intelligencer in the month of June 1876 make the point.

“We have heard the assertion made in view of the great number of deaths, especially of children, that have occurred in our city the past year, that Seattle, in proportion to its size was the most unhealthy town on the coast. This we believe is an exaggeration.  Still, it is true that there has been a much greater mortality of late than can be explained consistently with the well-known salubrity of our climate.  On the above hypothesis, at least, a part explanation of this circumstance will be apparent to a casual observer who strolled along almost any of our thoroughfares, in the stagnant oozes that flank the sidewalks.  The sewerage from kitchens and stables collects in the obstructed gutters and there forms cesspools that reek in the sun and exhale poison into the air …Considering the sandy and porous nature of the soil under our town site, and the declining grades, the drainage of the city is not a problem of insuperable difficulty.  The matter should receive attention if possible before the hottest weather comes on to aggravate the evil.  As a measure of public importance, the cleaning out of the street-gutters is not secondary at present even to a new water system or improved street grades.”
“The fish dealers on Commercial Street [First Ave. S.] have been making the beach in the rear of Mr. Davis store a depository of decayed fish to the intense discomfort of those who do business in that part of our main thoroughfare, and of all passers by. The nuisance should be abated at once.”
“We would call attention to those whom it concerns to the fact that the large sewers that empty below Commercial street in the rear of Davis and Schwabacher’s stores instead of being continued down to low water, deposit their garbage on the beach which causes much complaint on the part of denizens in that quarter.”

The “large sewers” noted might have been private local improvements.  The city’s first wooden box sewer was buried in 1882 beneath Mill Street (Yesler Way) and ran west from Third Avenue to the bay.  Three years later Mayor Henry Yesler signed an ordinance requiring that inhabited property be hooked to existing sewers, but there were still very few of these.  And regardless everything still wound up either in cesspools or in the greater pool of Elliott Bay.  [6], [7], [8]


The east shore of the Elliott Bay was settled first in 1852.  The citizen’s hostilities with some of the Indians in the mid 1850s, followed by the Civil War in the early 1860s, encouraged neither settlement nor growth.  Seattle didn’t really “boom” until 1869 when the Northern Pacific Railroad was surveying Snoqualmie Pass and property prices spiked.  The completion that year of the first transcontinental railroad to California also stimulated a boomer’s euphoria along the entire West Coast.  The Central Pacific Railroad’s appetite for coal would also quicken the exploitation of the rich coal reserves on the east shore of Lake Washington.  And as we will show below, 1869 was also the first year from which any detailed photographic evidence of the Seattle waterfront survives.

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