Seattle Waterfront History, Chapter 6

Migrant Fill and Bones -2

Now picking up those bones left hanging at the end of Part 5, historian-educator David Buerge suggests that with the 1865 expulsion and restricted access to their traditional cemetery at Seneca Street, the native people “are likely to have attempted to establish another cemetery further north.  Traditionally, native funeral grounds were situated north or west of house sites.”  Since Elliott Bay is west of Baq’baqwab, Buerge’s burial ground may have been somewhere north of Bell Street.  As noted earlier, in public works like the walling off of the Belltown Ravine for the Elliott Avenue extension in 1912-14 the fill that comes from nearby is obviously favored over dirt got from more remote locations.  Consequently the bones found in the 1912-14 fill may have come from a native gravesite associated with the Baq’baqwab camp but not directly at it.  This explanation would make the earlier placing of the bones with the fill an ironic instance of the “return of the native” – this native – to his or her home.  By about the late 1880s, Buerge notes, “burials would have been carried out in reservation cemeteries or in more isolate, outlying spots.”

[Remember: CLICK – often twice – to Enlarge.]

Trail to Lake Union

The Belltown Ravine was apparently spring fed in season and allowed an easier access to the hill above the waterfront.  Or did it? The bluff was not so high at the south entrance to the Ravine.  In the detail attached above a path can be seen, top-center, ascending the bank at that point in the ca.1902 photograph recorded from the off-shore RR trestle.  The whole scene from which this detail was pulled will be included as scene number 211 in a latter and as yet unnumbered part of this history.  Yes it did. A trail that followed the easier grade up the verdant ravine would have had its own appeal even when not especially needed, except by the old or infirm.  Buerge notes that a feature of the north camp was “a trail that left the beach and connected with the southwestern end of Lake Union.”  Such a trail has been marked on the federal topographical map surveyed in the mid-1870s – the map described above in chapter four.   Perhaps even more than the spring of fresh water the path would seem to center the Baq’baqwab site.  Buerge points out that “informants in this century remembered when parties left their canoes on Lake Union’s shore and walked the trail over to the bay.”  In this line (or path) the pioneer William N. Bell, Belltown namesake, concluded his 1878 interview with a H.H. Bancroft researcher from California with a suggestive recollection about the trail to Lake Union.  “Boren and I, I suppose, were the two first white men that were ever at Lake Union.  Shortly after we had agreed to take our claims here (early in 1852) Boren and I came here and happened to land at the end of the trail that went to the lake, and we just went over.  The Indians told us there was a little lake there, and also a big lake.”  The “big lake,” you may have figured, the locals would name Lake Washington.


1880s Belltown Beach Community

After the Battle of Seattle in 1856 the Bell family fled to California and left their land in the stewardship of those who stayed in spite of the fearful uncertainties and regional loathing that followed.  When William Bell returned for good to his claim in the mid-1870s, he was soon acting the landlord as he promoted his “North Seattle” or “Belltown.”  The proprietor back on his hill may have hastened another native diaspora, this one at the north camp, Baq’baqwab.  Buerge again: “One group appears to have resettled at the south eastern shore of Lake Union until burned out in 1875, while another moved north to the lighthouse at West Point. The houses of Baq’baqwab appear to have been moved off the bluff and down onto the beach.”   For that period of the late 1870s and early 1880s there is little photographic evidence of Baq’baqwab beach, aside from panoramas recorded from the King Street Coal Wharf.


One from the early 1880s shows two beach huts to the north of the entrance to the Belltown Ravine. [42-43] Another detail from the late 1880s includes the “cubist” or architectural shapes of beach shacks (mostly their roofs) above the interrupting Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Trestle that in 1887 was built just off shore along the waterfront. [44] As already observed, the trestle generally obscures the beach.  A few photographs of a beach community there survive from the late 1880s and after.  They show mostly tents and draped lean-tos. [45]


Another scene with beach, bluff and assembled natives is included directly below for some scholarly reader to research the “fingerprint” of the bluff.  Since the names of those posing are most likely lost to us by now, it is only the clinging landscape on the cliff that might identify this as a Seattle waterfront scene, and if so then most likely below Belltown.  This record was included in a small collection of photographs depicting only Seattle scenes.


By the time that seasonal migrations of native workers to the hop fields of the White River (Green River) Valley began in the 1880s, as Buerge notes, the beachside “remnant of Baq’baqwab became the focus of large seasonal encampments when native agricultural workers congregated there and to the south at Ballast Island.”  (As will be described and illustrated below in yet another unnumbered chapter, this was the island made from ships ballast, which during its few years of supplying a campground for the migrant Indians was also a parody of their former winter camp on what, as noted in chapter four, U.S. Navy Lieu. Charles Wilkes named Piners Point.  In the late 1880s, when Ballast Island was formed and first used by the itinerates, their former winter camp of Jijila’lec with its long houses and ceremonies would have still been easily remembered and vividly recalled for those too young or too new to remember it.)  With the failure of hop agriculture in the White and Snoqualmie River valleys in the early 1890s, the native encampments at and near Baq’baqwab also dispersed.  In their place, especially after the economic panic of 1893 extended into a depression, the new community of squatter’s shacks described earlier was built along the beach below Denny Hill. This community was a polyglot of natives and down-and-out immigrants – mostly the latter.



Above are two views of hop harvest time in the Snoqualmie Valley with Mt. Si on the horizon recorded by pioneer Seattle photographer Theodore Peiser. He arrived in Seattle in the early 1880s and stayed for more than twenty years.  Much of his early work was destroyed in the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889.

Baqbaqwab Suburbs & the Seattle Center Swale

We may note that the Baq’baqwab community, the north camp, developed (or was followed by) what may be considered its own northern suburbs.  The 1899 view recorded by Anders Wilse looks at a summer camp in the small bay north of Broad Street. [46]


But the north camp once extended at least as far as Harrison Street, where nets were set up to catch fowl that flying between the Bay and Lake Union, passed low over the swale that once dipped between Queen Anne and Denny Hills.  (This future site of Seattle Center is also described in tribal memory as a potlatch grounds.)  As late as 1961, on the eve of the 1962 Century 21 Worlds Fair, Seattle Times reporter Charlotte Widrig interviewed William Criddle, a relatively late settler, about life on the beach below Seattle Center.  “William was two in 1889 when his father Frederick J. Criddle, a shipwright, brought his wife and six children here from Cornwall, England and settled on the bay at the foot of Mercer Street (below Kinnear Park) One of the early day sights Criddle recalled was a row of Indian tents stretched for a mile along the beach near his home, where Indians from Bellingham and other northerly regions camped while en route to harvest the hop crops in the White River Valley.  ‘My brother and I liked to visit the camp and sometimes did a little trading.  One of the items we acquired was a dugout canoe.  Elliott Bay was alive with salmon in the fall.  When I was about 9 years old, my brother frequently took me fishing in the dugout.’ ”



1869: The Robinson Panorama

The earliest photographic record of the beach and bluff of the Baq’baqwab site is included in the 1869 panorama (often alluded to above and now considered in some detail) of the community and its central waterfront.  The beach below Bell Street is some distance from Robinson’s prospect and so not the sharpest of subjects in the panorama.  We will return to a consideration of this part after first examining the photograph for other revelations – especially those involving the waterfront.


The photographer George Robinson, a 44 year-old “Victorian” from British Columbia, was a multi-talented (photography, dentistry, and the managing of mines) enthusiast who purchased his photographic equipment in an auction five years before his Seattle visit (it turned out that his gear had previously been stolen by the consignor) and opened a photographic gallery in Victoria.  In the spring of 1869 Robinson announced that he was leaving his gallery to concentrate on dentistry (the man knew how to use his hands) but several photographs of his date from 1869 or later, including his four Seattle views that when knit together become the single most revealing photograph of pioneer Seattle extant. [47]

[The two-floor presentation of Robinson’s pan printed just below, is the best doorway to its details.  Remember to CLICK TWICE.]


William H. Seward’s Visit on the Wilson G. Hunt, July 21, 1869

Robinson dated his Seattle panorama 1869.  We may want to narrow it to July 21st or 22nd.  “Big Night on the Waterfront” is how the local Gazette described the visit of U.S. Secretary of the Interior William H. Seward to Seattle on July 21, 1869.  It was the Seward whose grandest “folly”, some of his contemporaries claimed, was to acquire Alaska from the Russians.  While en route to inspect this chilled and sprawling purchase Seward stopped off at Seattle and made a speech for the citizenry that assembled at Yesler’s Wharf to get a good look at Lincoln’s appointee and savor his compliments.  And Seward did boom for and about them, advising the community that Washington Territory’s was a “glorious future.”  Seward came and went on the sturdy steamer Wilson G. Hunt.  It had been freshly delivered to Victoria from the Columbia River in part as an attempt to break the transportation and freight monopoly on Puget Sound of the Eliza Anderson, and its runners were probably pleased to get the Seward assignment because their Hunt was not doing so well against the Anderson.  Almost certainly that is the Hunt pulling away from Yesler Dock.  Although her name cannot be read, that is the shape of her.  Clearly if Robinson arrived in Seattle from Victoria with Seward he did not leave with him.


In – or about – 1858 Charles Plummer built a second story hall above the store he opened in 1853 at the southwest corner of Commercial Street (First Ave. S.) and Main Street.  It was a needed venue for performances, dances, and early meetings for groups like the Masonic Lodge and the Good Templars.  It was also the chosen prospect for both Sammis’ ca 1865 panorama of Seattle and Robinson’s 1869 recording.  Sammis view was taken from the crest of the roof, which could be reached by a ladder permanently attached to the roof on its south side and directly over the sidewalk.  Robinson went only to the second floor hall, where from a window some distance from the street he recorded the four parts for his panorama.  The flume-delivered fresh water wharf that extends into the bay off of Main Street never made much on an impression, largely because of the growing success of its neighbor to the north, Henry Yesler’s wharf, which through the pioneer years was all that the community needed.  Charles Plummer’s time in Seattle was too often tragic.  Ellender, his wife, died in 1859 giving birth to twin sons, and Charles lived on only until 1866.

As just noted in the caption above, Robinson took his photograph from a second floor window of the Snoqualmie Hall (AKA Plummer’s Hall) at the southwest corner of Commercial (First Avenue S.) and Main streets.  We may imagine – or expect? – that he waited until the moment his hometown steamer left Seattle without him.  (If Robinson timed the opening of his shutter with the Hunt’s departure, then of the four negatives the one on the far left – or west – with the ship underway may well have been struck first.)  Two additional Seattle subjects survive from Robinson’s visit.  One, printed directly below, is of Commercial Street from the street and shows the ladder that Sammis climbed four or five years earlier to record his panorama.   The other a view to the central waterfront from the end of Yesler’s dock.  We will consider both again below in a later chapter.

robinson-commer-now-webYesler’s Wharf

Because of Robinson’s timing we know that this – or nearly this – is what Seward saw on his Seattle whistle stop.   Excepting the wharf on which he delivered his pep talk, the structures in the village and the few cleared acres that were still crowded by the virgin forest, most of what he examined — the waterfront especially – had not been tampered with much since the visits of Wilkes in 1841, the settlers in 1852, the Coast Surveyors in 1854, and in 1856 that self-style heroic defender of Seattle, Lieu. Phelps, U.S. Navy.   However, Seattle would change considerably in 1869, after Seward was gone.  The biggest changes were Yesler’s.  He replaced his old steam sawmill of ’53 with a new and improved one, and this time much of it was built on the wharf.  This second of Yesler’s mills burned down in 1879 but was replaced with a mill that lasted until another fire took it in 1887. (We will include views of these mills in other contexts and chapters below.)

Although Yesler’s was the first steam sawmill on Puget Sound in 1853, by 1855 there were twenty of them operating on the “Mediterranean of the Pacific”, and some were many times bigger than Yesler’s.  Also as noted above, especially after he extended its length in 1859 to 200 feet, Yesler’s wharf became the hub of much Puget Sound commerce.  A year later he opened a gristmill to produce flour and by 1867 was getting 24 barrels of it a day.  Yesler’s wharf helped Seattle get its jump on the “old wealth” that would sustain the city during the economic crashes that were arranged down the years with depressing rhythm in 1873, 1883, and 1893 – especially 1893.   Then, as noted earlier, the singular and so more vulnerable wealth of the company town Tacoma was not so resilient.  (That the next big recession came in 1907 – not 1903 – added some syncopation to this blues calendar.)  According to Seattle’s principal pioneer historian Clarence Bagley, for many of the earliest years of settlement “Yesler’s wharf was all that was needed.  Plummer’s at Main fell into disuse and decay.”  As is revealed in the surviving photograph of Plummer’s Snoqualmie Hall (above) the flume, like the one showing in the 1859 photograph of the Yesler Home noted above in chapter three, carried water to supply ships at a wharf that resembles more a dock than a pier. [48]


Sammis Panorama ca. 1865

Besides its extraordinary sharpness – one can count the trees on Denny Hill – as noted Robinson’s is the first photographic record of Yesler’s wharf.  His panorama also includes the first picture of any vessel on Elliott Bay (again, the Hunt), and most of the central waterfront as far north as Broad Street.  The closest features on the waterfront are the Indian dugouts at the foot of Washington, far left, beside the then still future site of Ballast Island.  The businesses, far right, on Commercial Street appear in the other and earlier panorama of pioneer Seattle by E. M. Sammis (note above) that is conventionally dated 1865 but may be from 1864. [12] Sammis also exposed his smaller view from Snoqualmie Hall, although he climbed the ladder on its south roof to the crest of the building. (During Robinsons 1869 visit he also made a street level record of Commercial Street that was photographed looking north with his back to Jackson Street. [49] It shows the ladder that Sammis climbed up the south side of the roof of Plummer’s Hall.) When Commercial Street is compared between the two panoramic views – Sammis most likely from 1865 and Robinson from 1869 — it is clear that little has changed in the generally dull first years following the Civil War.  But, as noted, the last months of 1869 made it Seattle’s first boom year.

1869: First Boom Year for Seattle

A review of the “local joy” of 1869 includes Seattle’s second but first successful incorporation and the considerable rise in real estate values attendant with the Northern Pacific’s survey of Snoqualmie Pass.  At the time this work strongly hinted that at last Washington Territory’s first governor Isaac Stevens’ 1855 recommendation would be heeded — that Seattle be selected for the western terminus of any transcontinental railroad that took the northern route on the basis of its relatively low Snoqualmie Pass to the east and its harbor.  (Of course that railroad would also get much of the territory along the way with huge land grants on the promise to reach the shores of Puget Sound.)  Stevens called Elliott Bay Puget Sound’s “unequalled harbor.”  (However, Tacoma might make a good defense of Commencement Bay as “more unequalled.”)  The most immediately influential change region-wide in 1869 was the completion of the Union & Central Pacific railroads to California.  The rush of immigrants – including many traumatized Civil War vets carrying land privileges with them – inevitably pushed in all directions, including north, along the coast.  Also, we know, the California railroad would became a great consumer of Seattle coal beginning in 1872 as we will describe in another chapter below.

Denny Home at First & Union & Beach Below

Robinson’s view also includes one landmark in the middle distance – Arthur and Mary Denny’s Carpenter Gothic home. It sat at the southeast corner of First and Union and is a handy reference to the waterfront. [50]  Below the Denny home, the 1869 panorama shows a rare structure on the beach at the approximate waterfront foot of Union Street.  As yet, I have not identified its owner or use.


The glass-faced skyscraper shared by the Seattle Art Museum is the fourth structure to hold the southeast corner of First Avenue and Union Steet.  The 1926 Rhodes Department store building was razed for it.  Rhodes had replaced the Arcade Annex, which took over the corner only after the Denny’s landmark residence was destroyed in 1907.   Theodore Peiser probably recorded this view of the Denny home soon after he arrived in Seattle about 1883.  Six years later Peiser lost nearly everything – including, most likely, the negative for this print – to Seattle’s “Great Fire” of 1889.  When it was built in 1866 this then showy home crafted for the “father and mother of Seattle” was a fancy farmhouse quite detached from its neighbors and remote from Seattle’s business district.


Seattle architectural historian Dennis Andersen uncovered the following quote in the Puget Sound Semi-Weekly.  It appears in the July 9 1866 edition, and so three years before Robinson took his panorama.  “Yesterday we were shown through the new residence of Hon. A.A. Denny, our delegate in Congress.  It is an irregular, Gothic cottage, the plan of which was executed by Mr. S. B. Abbott, who has superintended the work throughout.”   Anderson notes that Abbot, the architect, “likely used any one of a number of pattern book resources for his design . . . He may be the same Abbott who was accused of absconding with railroad construction payroll receipts a few years later.  All must have been forgiven or at least forgotten, because he visited the city in 1901 and was interviewed in the PI as a ‘wealthy banker and oil man’.”  The Peiser view is used courtesy of Sue Champness.


Looking further up the waterfront in Robinson’s 1869 panorama, the beach does not seem to be sited with the structures of any settlement or shore.  Still, small tents and lean-tos on that distant beach may be too small to record with definition.  What appears to be driftwood may in some instances be shelters.  Although relatively detailed for its size and age, as noted the panorama is still constructed from small negatives.


North End Mystery

The Robinson pan includes a north end mystery: two light-colored architectural forms on the bank above the beach. [51] If I have figured it correctly they are near Battery Street and so also very near the site of the Bell family’s first cabin.  (The Bell cabin was destroyed by Indians in the 1856 “Battle of Seattle.”) During the fighting it was visible from the Decatur and the sailors regretfully watched its destruction.  When they were ready to shell the house the captain of the ship gave an order to stop all firing.  As Bell later recalled, “The men were awfully displeased about the order, because they would have bursted (sic) some of them if they had put a shell in.”)  While the forms are too simple and distant to identify they look more artificial than natural. Whatever they are, they are unique – the only light and horizontal forms north of the beach structures just noted near the foot of Union Street.  (If the reader has trouble detecting them in the full pan, the forms begin in the foreground with the little steamer that is moored to the south side of Yesler Wharf. From its wheelhouse, lift the eye directly up to the distant beach.  There the forms are set in darker vegetation just above the exposed bank that rises from the beach.  A little ways to the right of the mysterious forms the darkened landscape dips to the beach.  Again, if I have done my figuring correctly, this is the entrance to the Belltown Ravine discussed above – and sometime soon again below.

The mid-1870s topographical map (noted above) also shows what appear to be two structures on the lip of the bluff near the future foot of Battery Street – although about one city block separates the rectangular marks in the map, which is more than the photograph suggests.  Again David Buerge offers an interpretation for the photograph and perhaps for the map as well.  “I would suggest that the double structure in the Robinson panorama may be the two standing long walls of a longhouse, minus its roof planks and side walls, part of whose length may be hidden by vegetation.  The evidence is that the picture was taken during the summer, which was when the people were off at various camps.  It was not uncommon for them to remove planks from their house to use in constructing a deck joining two canoes to help haul gear and for temporary lodging at these camps.”  So by Buerge’s figuring it is then at least a possibility that these gray-white forms that contrast so strikingly with their dark setting, are the reflective sides of aging and silvered cedar slabs and/or posts associated with the construction of long houses.   (Another less distinguished form in this neighborhood at least hints at the angles of construction.  It appears north of the stepping forms and is also a lighter color than the surrounding bank, although not lighter than the beach.)


This hand-tinted lantern slide shows the use of mats as a ready material for draping a residence.

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