For a city that takes pride in its natural beauty, Seattle is a bit of a fake.
As white settlers came to Elliott Bay, hills were shaved off, shorelines were constructed, rivers were diverted, trees were clearcut, lakes were drained and tidal flats were filled in. The Seattle of today bears little resemblance to the place that the Denny Party settled in 1852.
I’ve always wondered what Seattle would look like without all the roads and buildings that we see today. Using a bike as a time machine (and a bit of imagination), I’m going on a tour of what I’m calling Forgotten Seattle, imagining the landscape as it once was. Climb aboard with me and ride back in time to the 1850s.
As a reference guide for this tour, I’m relying heavily on an excellent account of how Seattle was built, “Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography” by David B. Williams (©2015, University of Washington Press).
If you want to ride along, you’ll find a complete tour description cue sheet here.
Seattle’s Pioneer Roots
Our tour starts in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. Today it’s a vibrant, handsome brick-covered gathering place, but when the first settlers came to Seattle, it was a salt marsh. As the township built, settlers dropped garbage, dirt and sawdust into the wetland, eventually creating the uneven ground we see today.
Next, we head south and west to Jackson and First. This area was called Maynard Point, a small bluff on the edge of a tidal flat. It is named for Doc Maynard, the first settler who lived here in 1852.
Head a half-block west and turn north into the unmarked alley. As you travel three blocks toward Yesler Way, notice how uneven the ground is. You can thank the workers of Yesler’s Mill, who started filling much of this ground with sawdust as the city was being built. Streets and sidewalks throughout this part of town are uneven and unstable, as fill material was added over the years, including the refuse from a major fire in 1889.
You’ll see a great example of the instability at 619 Western Ave., where a 1910-era building stands with large cracks and a sagging southern wall.
From Shore to Bluff
As we head north along Western, imagine you’re traveling on the shore of Seattle. Western Avenue was exactly that at one time. As wharves were built to handle the city’s growing shipping industry, the city expanded by filling in hundreds of feet of shoreline west into Elliott Bay.
As we pass Spring Street, take a moment to look up the hill to the east. Nine springs provided water to the early settlers in the city, and Spring Street is named for the biggest of these. To appreciate this spot, let’s take a long drink from our water bottles, and continue north along Western.
Our route slowly heads uphill toward what is now Pike Place Market. The road steepens, and as we slog upward, notice that east-west roads terminate at First Avenue in this area. The hill was simply too steep to build anything to the west past First.
Summiting Denny Hill
It’s now time to do some climbing, although today, our climb is much shorter than it would have been in the 1800s. Denny Hill once stood between Pike and Cedar Streets in what is now called Belltown.
Starting in 1897, the hill was shaved off in what is known as the Denny Regrade. Over the next 33 years, giant hoses, dynamite and steam shovels were used to remove the top 120 feet of the hill in the name of growth and development.
You can still see how tall the old hill was, however. As we travel south on Second Avenue, stop at Virginia Street and look at the top of the 1907-era Moore Theater. The top of the Moore is equal to the former height of Denny Hill.
A building just to the south, The Josephinium, is the approximate location of the old Washington Hotel, which once stood on top of Denny Hill. This luxury hotel had its own trolley taking visitors to its hilltop accommodations with commanding views of Elliott Bay to the west and the city to the south. It was torn down in 1906 as the hill was removed.
OK, for now we’re done with historic downtown Seattle. Our journey takes us south and east, toward Lake Washington. But we’re not done with regrades — our tour takes us along Jackson and Dearborn streets, both of which were regraded to allow further growth and development to the east of the town settlement.
The regraded streets are nice for biking today, but back in the 1800s they were quite hilly. Jackson at one time had a 15 percent grade. In the early 1900s, the city’s busy earth-movers shaved down Jackson and Dearborn, using the dirt to fill in much of what is now the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle.
Hopping onto the Mountain to the Sound Greenway, we travel through a tunnel to Lake Washington. From a small park just above the tunnel, take in the view and imagine the lake as it once was. It’s big today, but there used to be much more of it back in the 1800s.
As the city expanded, engineers looked for a way to connect the region’s freshwater lakes with Puget Sound. They eventually connected Lake Washington and Lake Union and built a ship canal to Puget Sound. In doing so, they lowered the level of Lake Washington by nine feet.
Today, as we ride south along the shore on Lake Washington Boulevard, imagine the lake of the 1800s. On this portion of the ride, we’d be under water.
The lumber industry helped build Seattle and almost all of the original forests surrounding the city were logged. Our route takes us along Lake Washington to Seward Park, one of the few places you can see an old-growth forest in the city. Follow the bike path around the park and you’ll get a glimpse of what the original landscape of Seattle looked like.
Some of the trees here are more than 250 years old.
Leaving Seward Park and riding over Beacon Hill, our journey takes us to another pioneer location, Georgetown. The settlement was founded in 1851, a year before Doc Maynard and his friends moved into the Pioneer Square area.
At that time, Georgetown was on the edge of the tidal flat and had rich alluvial soil deposited by the Duwamish River. It was ideal for farming. As we drop off of Beacon Hill, notice how flat the land has suddenly become.
Along the Duwamish
From Georgetown, we’re now heading a little farther back in time along the former tidal flats to the Duwamish River Trail.
The Duwamish River carved out a huge delta in between West Seattle and Beacon Hill. Its rich tidelands were home to several tribes and our journey takes us to the site where we can see evidence of this native civilization.
Today, the Duwamish River is an industrial waterway, engineered to handle huge ships. Little remains of the old river that once wound among the mud flats.
Our journey takes us to a place with a hint of the past: Terminal 107 Park, the site of a former Duwamish Indian village. Step off your bike and take a walk along a gravel path to the shore of the river. If you peek at the earth along the riverbank, you may find evidence of a midden — a place where shells and refuse were discarded by native people.
Now that we’re here, it’s a good time to consider a stop at the nearby Duwamish Longhouse, where more information is available about the tribe.
The home stretch
From here, we’ll be riding back into the present and our starting point in Pioneer Square. Hopping on the West Seattle Bridge Trail, we pedal into SoDo and take in the former tidal flat that. If this was 1850, we’d be under water now, or at least stuck in the mud.
We’re able to ride here now thanks to a project in the early 1900s that dredged the Duwamish Waterway and regraded Jackson and Dearborn streets to create 2,200 acres of buildable ground.
We’ve hit the stadium district and can see signs of Bertha, the huge drill that is further transforming the city as it creates a tunnel to replace the Alaska Way Viaduct. We’re now fully back in the present, taking in the looming skyline of a great, ever-changing city.
It’s wonderful, but far from the natural world it came from.