Seattle Waterfront History, Chapter 3

[In the original hard-copy printing of this book (or report) the webpage’s already inserted chapters 1 & 2 constituted an introduction to what now follows – or begins to follow.  In the book it had the grander title, “Part One – The Pre-1889 Fire Waterfront.”]

First Photographs

The community’s oldest extant photo – a daguerreotype of the Yesler Home struck ten years earlier in 1859 – does “imply” the waterfront.  In it we can find the flume that carried spring water from First Hill to Yesler’s wharf running down and above the center of James Street. [9] It was also a fateful year for Seattle’s future as a port city. The sidewheeler Eliza Anderson was sent north from the Columbia River to Puget Sound and thereby, to quote an old but now long gone friend Jim Faber from his book Steamers Wake, “in 1859 did the Age of Steam solidify on Puget Sound.” (In a second Pioneer Square photograph taken a year later in 1860 from roughly the same position, the flume is gone and water to the mill and a few homes near it is carried through bored logs buried beneath the street.) [10]

Five years later E. M. Sammis, the town’s first but brief resident photographer, returned from a stint in Olympia to resume making portraits of locals and sometimes when they lacked cash trading his art for vegetables. Thankfully Sammis also photographed Chief Seattle – for this privilege he may have paid the chief – and the young town’s first panorama. [11] [12] The 1865 view from Snoqualmie Hall at the southwest corner of Commercial (First Ave. S.) and Main Street is not very revealing of the waterfront, showing only a small section of it on the far left.  However (as we will show later), four years later, this same prospect would be used by the visiting Victoria-based photographer G. Robinson and, as already noted above, his wider and sharper panorama is very revealing.

*Center of the Sound”

In between the Sammis and Robinson visits, another photographer called on Seattle and recorded a third surviving view across Pioneer Place towards the Yesler home.  The centerpiece of this photograph is the ceremonial arch built by locals to welcome about 200 out-of-town guests to the town’s 1868 Independence Day celebration. [13] The largest entourage came with the territorial governor from Olympia, and later the capitol’s newspaper, the Washington Standard, described the temporary gateway as a “tasteful arch of evergreens.”  The Seattle Weekly Intelligencer also described the scene.  “Seattle presented a very gay appearance . . . Flags were suspended across the streets, arches erected, and a number of our buildings adorned with evergreen, flowers etc.  Shortly after 11, the report of a canon was heard out across the bay, and soon after the Eliza Anderson hove in sight . . . From many other places along the Sound, in fact from Bellingham Bay to Olympia visitors continued to arrive by small steamers and sailing craft.  James McNaught, Orator of the Day, addressed the assemblage in a manner that reflected the highest credits on the speaker.”  The visitors from Olympia brought their new pumper with them, covering the fire-fighting apparatus in flowers.  Stepping ashore from Yesler’s wharf the Olympians and their pumper were led through the arch by Seattle’s brass band, and that evening the celebration mustered its first fortuitous fluke when a fire was set in the local jail by a drunk locked up earlier “as a precaution.”  After the Olympian pumper helped extinguish the flames the Sheriff released the lonely detainee, who was anxious to join the festivities and promised to behave.  The flowered pumper appeared, of course, in the Independence Day parade, but the highlight of that review was another “floral car” that the Intelligencer described as “a chariot decorated with evergreens, containing 38 pretty little girls all dressed in white and representing the states of the Union.”  Each girl held a flag and later when the day’s program continued with songs and speeches at Yesler’s Pavilion, the flags were miraculously stirred by a stiff breeze which came suddenly through the hall’s open windows at the moment the children reached the old patriotic anthem’s line “oh, long may it wave.”  “The effect” the Standard noted “was electrical.”  And following the fire in the poky it was this Independence Day’s second divine juggle.


We may see in the photograph of the “tasteful arch” a sign of Seattle as the important port town it already was.  At that time aside from Olympia it is hard to imagine any other community north of Portland managing to decorate a float with 38 pretty girls.  Its other distinction was the territorial university, but in 1868 the school still amounted to very little.  Some coal and lumber was sold off the Seattle waterfront but Yesler’s mill was small by comparison to those in mill towns like Port Gamble and Port Blakely.  Yesler’s wharf was probably more important to the local economy than his mill.  Most importantly Seattle was the home of the inland waterway’s “mosquito fleet” of small steamers – most of them still side or sternwheelers – that paddled from port to port nudging up to docks almost always shorter than Yesler’s.   As locals liked to repeat, Seattle was “at the center of the Sound.”  As noted above, the Eliza Anderson, the sidewheeler that delivered the Olympians in July, was the most distinguished of these vessels.  She repeatedly managed to beat back competitors during the “rate wars” that reduced steamer fares to prices that made it more expensive to stay home.  It was said of her that “No steamer went so slow or made money faster.”  In the two mid-1880s views of her included here the Eliza Anderson has reached her third decade on Puget Sound.  In one she is approaching Yesler Wharf and in the other tied to it.  [14] [15]

“Where Rails Meet Sails” – Seattle’s Early Railroad History

When Doc Maynard opened the Seattle Exchange in the spring of 1852 there was no steamer on Puget Sound, other than the Hudson Bay Company’s sidewheeler the Beaver. [16] (While its status depends upon what is counted as a store, Maynard’s was probably the first in the community.) An advertisement for the Exchange printed that fall in the Olympia Columbian reads, “Now receiving direct from London and New York, via San Francisco, a general assortment of dry goods, groceries, hardware crockery, etc.  Suitable for the wants of migrants just arrived.  Remember, first come, first served.  D.S. Maynard, Seattle, Oct. 25, 1852.”  Maynard might have also added “via dugout” to his advertisement for in 1852 he like everyone else was still dependent on native-motivated shipping to fetch his goods from whatever sailing vessel carried a wholesale stock for him to pick from.  The first regular steamboat service began a year later with the little San Francisco-built steamer Fairy.  But it soon failed as did others that followed until, as already noted, the Eliza Anderson came and survived on a policy of gouging travelers when it owned the Sound and charging pennies when it needed to beat back competitors.

All the fledgling communities on Puget Sound were preoccupied with getting hooked up with railroads and competed to get them.  The coupling of land and sea was expressed in the couplet “Where rails / meet sails.”  (The revolution from tall ships to steamships changed this to “Where rails meet steam” but without the rhyme the new catchphrase was not embraced.  Anyway trains already had steam.)   A community’s rail connections to its own hinterlands – like to the coalfields east of Lake Washington – were considered as mere prelude to transcontinental ties.  This meant – and it was obvious only after the fact – that eastern shore communities like Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham had considerable advantage over Port Townsend and Port Angeles in the competition for being any railroad’s designated terminus.  This story of where rail meets sail (and steam) is so important to understanding the changes on Seattle’s waterfront – both the tideflats and Railroad Avenue – that I will attempt next a summary of railroad history.  It may sometimes be glazed with that melodramatic tone once so popular in every community with boomers.  In this one it was especially so, promoting the “Seattle Spirit” against the rejections and concealments respectively spewing from and cowering in Tacoma, that “cowardly company town.”

The story of Where Rails Really Should Meet Sails is a domestic comedy because it ends happily with a Great Northern locomotive coupling with the Queen City, the community with the hourglass figure, in a marriage on the tideflats south of King Street after a long courtship on Railroad Avenue, later renamed Alaskan Way.

It began in 1853 when Washington Territory’s first Governor, Isaac Stevens, was given the federal assignment of conducting a railroad survey as he journeyed west to Olympia.  When the new governor reached his subjects he announced that the railroad was only a few years away.  Naturally, Seattle was mildly confident that its central position on Puget Sound beside its own low Snoqualmie Pass favored it for the prized terminus.  But there was as yet no Tacoma.  Unfortunately for Isaac Stevens and his envisioned transcontinental, both were shot down by the Civil War – the former as a brigadier general leading a charge at the Battle of Chantilly in Virginia.

After the war when surveyors reached Snoqualmie Pass in the summer of 1869 the community was confident that their employers, the Northern Pacific Railroad, would lay tracks through the pass and around the south shore of Lake Washington.  For its dowry Seattle citizens promised the railroad hundreds of town lots, one thousand acres, cash, bonds, a depot location and use of the tidelands. We may imagine the felt sense of betrayal when on July 14, 1873, Bastille Day, the city’s founder Arthur Denny stood with his back to Yesler’s Mill and read aloud to a nervous gathering of most of Seattle’s citizens the terse telegram he had just received from the Northern Pacific commissioners.  “A. A. Denny, Seattle; We have located the terminus on Commencement Bay, R. D. Rica, J.C. Ainsworth, Commissioners.”   Rica and Ainsworth named their choice Commencement Bay and not Tacoma the small community beside it because they intended to speculate on their own company town, and so created a New Tacoma nearer the mouth of the Puyallup River.  (Eleven years later the N.P. would repeat this kidnapping in Yakima with the creation of North Yakima as it was building its “Cascade Division” through Stampede Pass.)

The “Seattle Spirit”

The “World Port City That Had to Be” responded to the railroad’s spurning with the “Seattle Spirit,” a moniker they felt described their community urge to beat Tacoma.  On May Day 1874 the citizens gathered for a picnic near the mouth of their river, the Duwamish.  At least during lunch the scene was pastoral but after the refreshments the picnic turned into a work party and with their shovels and rakes the earnest and muscular citizens began preparing a bed for their own railroad.  They called it the Seattle and Walla Walla indicating, at least, trans-state ambitions.  More sensibly, however, the SWW only reached the coalfields of Renton and Newcastle, the last in 1877.  In this the community’s new railroad made a direct connection with the mines that since 1871 had been sending coal to the Seattle waterfront by way of a lumpish route across Lake Washington, over the Montlake isthmus (then called Union City), then down Lake Union on scows to a narrow gauged railroad that carried the “black gold” through its last dog leg up the future route of Westlake Avenue before turning at Pike Street to reach the impressively large coal wharf and bunkers built at the waterfront foot of Pike. [17]


Next comes the tangled part of the eventually happy story, which we will consequently simplify by abbreviation.

“Coals from Newcastle” & Henry Villard

In the spring of 1877 the SWW made its inaugural roundtrip run to Renton and early the following year began delivering coals from Newcastle to the new giant on the waterfront – the King Street Coal Wharf. (As we will see below the Pike Street Coal Pier was then salvaged to within a few feet of the tide line and the remnants left for the worms.)  Within two years more the entire SWW operation – wharf, railroads and mines — wound up in the hands of the transportation magnate Henry Villard, who was at the time also in control of the Northern Pacific, the land-grant monopoly of New Tacoma that the locals had first battled by building their own railroad.

In November 1880 Arthur Denny, James Colman and other SWW trustees took a steamer to Olympia to “convey” their railroad, mines and coalfields to Villard’s Oregon Improvement Company.  The pioneer and cash-poor community did the sale on the grounds of a promise – and Villard was very persuasive.  Once a noted Civil War journalist who got his best scoops directly on the battlefields, Villard used his eloquence to great effect in convincing everyone that they needed the assistance of his “benevolent monopoly.”  For Seattle this meant that Villard would deliver a standard gauge rail line from Tacoma and ultimately transcontinental rail connection.  Villard promised Tacoma that although it would not be technically at the end of the line, the company town would still be the official terminus.  In Portland, Villard’s Puget Sound moves were looked upon with suspicion and the name Oregon Improvement was ridiculed for a company whose primary business seemed to be the enrichment of Washington.  Among the world’s big brokers who cared (the ones from whom Villard drew most of his investors) the ports of Puget Sound were expected to become the greatest generators of Pacific Northwest wealth, not the ports on the Columbia River.

Railroad Avenue: First Intimation in 1882

In late 1881 Villard promised Seattle their extension from Tacoma within a year.  The following March, in appreciation, the city council with Ordinance 259 gave Villard the right to improve a mile-long and thirty-foot-wide right of way from the King Street wharf north along the central waterfront.  The council prudently added that the strip would be held in trust for the use of any second or third railroad that might want to use it, and that Seattle had to be hooked to the transcontinental within two years of the agreement or the waterfront right of way would be voided.  When it was at last constructed, this modest and twisting mile or so of track was, in effect, the narrow beginning of Railroad Avenue.  Villard let it be known that he expected to build a grain terminal on some of the property north of Pike Street that the OIC had received in their 1881 acquisition of the SWW.  (Much of the citizen railroad’s original wealth came county-wide as land donated by citizens who expected to benefit from the building of a railroad to Walla Walla of whatever gauge.). On April 20, 1883, Henry Villard visited Seattle and spoke before a packed Odd Fellows Hall.  The completion of the Northern Pacific’s transcontinental was then a half a year away and Villard closed his remarks noting, “I think I will contrive to ride into Seattle in the first week of September in my private car, directly from New York.”  A reporter from the Tacoma Ledger who either attended the Seattle meeting or read the next day’s Intelligencer put these promises in his own company town perspective. “Seattle, it appears, is to have a broad-gauge railroad branch, and great excitement in consequence of the expectation is reported from that town including unusual activity of spirits and prosperity to the gin mills … It is not a little astounding that the denizens of Yeslerville should, instead of promptly seizing their grip-sacks and hitting with speed to the site of the future great city, continue in fancied security and idleness to nurse the fond hope for the supremacy of Yeslerville.”   By “future great city” the writer meant, of course, Tacoma.  By Yeslerville, of course, Seattle was meant.

1883: Arrival of the N.P. Transcontinental & Villard’s Entourage

When it came time for Villard to lead his celebrating entourage into Seattle following the completion of the transcontinental, they boarded the steamer Queen of the Pacific at Tacoma, for the rails had not yet been laid up the White (Green) River Valley.  On the day of his arrival, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, not a little anxious about the distinguished and discerning entourage that accompanied Villard, schooled its readers in a host’s decorum that was the opposite of the boomer’s bluster that was then the normal stuff of the provincial press.  “Don’t brag. Don’t attempt to hide such disadvantages as may and do exist in any growing city.  Don’t overstate products, resources, or climatic advantages, nor indulge in undue boasting.  Above all, do not attempt to exalt our city by disparaging comparison with others.”  The Villard party arrived on the afternoon of the 14th of September. [18] [19] From the university podium erected for the grand ceremonies of the day, the commanding but also charming Villard alluded to his failure to arrive via rail by poking fun at his civil engineer.  It was Hans Thielsen who attempted to push the Puget Sound Shore Railroad (the name given for this 20-plus mile leg up the valley but not at the shore) north to Seattle but the spring floods that were an annual event along the White River (Green River) made the going slow.  Turning to Thielsen Villard intoned, “I have brought the culprit with me, and you may try him by a jury of twelve good, honest and wise men, and punish him as you like.”

“Ram’s Horn” & the “Orphan Road” introduced

After his grand entrance at the end of Yesler’s Wharf, Villard did not make it to Seattle in his own car any time soon.  The national economic crash of late 1883 – stimulated in part by Villard’s own watered speculations – disassembled both his charm and grip and he lost his railroads – momentarily.  Although the standard-gauged Puget Sound Shore Line was completed in 1884 to King Street across its own wide trestle on “Gas Cove” (named for the Gas Company that was earlier built at 5th and Jackson) the railroad was allowed to go to rust and its sides to seed when the old guard of the Northern Pacific – the investors in Tacoma – picked up the pieces that were scattered from Villard’s pockets.  While most of the little line along the waterfront was also completed, the revived old brass of the Northern Pacific did not service it.  Soon those two Villard promises to Seattle earned their own satiric names.  The short line along the waterfront was called the “Rams Horn” because of the way it curved between the properties it rarely served.  Some of the locals with waterfront property who made room for the little railroad wanted it on the bay side of their structures and others wanted the rails to pass between them and the shore – hence the horn.   The longer line through the valley was called the “Orphan Road” because of its abandonment.  The farmers along the way protested against the iron foundling sleeping in their pastures and threatened to tear up the orphaned track for scrap.  Earlier many of them had gladly surrendered easements to the railroad and some had also benefited from the system of drainage ditches that the Puget Sound Shore Line carved across the valley floor to protect its tracks from the valley’s seasonal floods.  There was another razz attached to this Orphan Road – an appropriate pun.  The railroad originated about two miles south of what is now Auburn at a junction with a line from Tacoma that was sited beside the Stuck River, a short tributary of the Puyallup.  The name Stuck Junction for the terminus of this railroad to Seattle was enjoyed by citizens of Tacoma and Seattle alike but, of course, the connotations of the pun did not resonate the same for both.

Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Introduced

With the Villard promises built but then broken, the citizens of Seattle again mobilized.  This time they were led by Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman, names that will come forward frequently in all but the last parts of this narrative, but names that are now best known as a recreational trail.  Like their elders in 1873 the new and slightly younger boosters proposed a railroad with a name that like the earlier road to Walla Walla expressed its transcontinental ambitions.  In 1887 the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern began building north over a trestle along the central waterfront to the waterside of the Rams Horn, effectively separating the older road from the docks.

The SLSER originated from a comely station at the foot of Columbia Street.  By fall the new line reached Bothell by way of Interbay and the north shore of Lake Union (Now, as just noted, the right-of-way for the recreational Burke-Gilman trail).  Tracks were laid as far as Snoqualmie Falls but did not continue on as planned over Snoqualmie Pass to Spokane for the same reason that the Seattle and Walla Walla did not make it over the mountains: lack of cash and ultimately lack of compelling need.  Instead the SLSER turned north for an easier transcontinental connection with the Canadian Pacific at Sumas.   It is a splendid irony that before the SLSER reached the border in 1891 it had fallen (or moved) into the control of the community’s old bugaboo, but by then an almost contrite votary, the Northern Pacific Railroad.  That is, it did not matter.  By then the Tacoma railroad was giving equal service to Seattle – it had to.  The boom of Seattle’s economy and population following its “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889 established an economic dominance on Puget Sound.  The flexibility of its older and more diverse wealth meant that it was also better able to survive the hardships that came with the great economic panic of 1893, an event that was especially hard on a one-horse company town like Tacoma.  And – to at last reach the climax of this railroad romance – it was in 1893 that the Great Northern Railroad reached the Queen City, its Puget Sound terminus.  Here, at least, we treat the Yukon and Alaska Gold Rush beginning in 1897 as denouement, and drop the curtain in 1911 with the Union Pacific and Chicago St. Paul and Milwaukee roads landing passengers at their own Union Depot directly on the site of the old gas manufacturing company facing Jackson Street.

[In Chapter Four this narrative continues with “Port of Entry” and “Piners Point.”]

3 thoughts on “Seattle Waterfront History, Chapter 3”

  1. One correction. It was the Great Northern RAILWAY (emphasis added), not Great Northern Railroad. It makes a big difference to use railroad enthusiasts to use the proper name, in this case being Railway.

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