- Historic Sites
The strange saga of a town that bragged, burned, and bullied itself into existence—and then became one of the most civilized places on earth
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
I’m a newcomer to Puget Sound, but I’ve lived here long enough to know not to brag about Seattle. Blow its horn too loudly, and some joker in New York or, God forbid, San Diego will hear you and move here with his family and tell all his friends about it, and before you know it, everything you love about the place will have vanished in a tidal wave of office buildings, condos, and malls.
It’s the newcomers who enthuse about the place.
“You think New York and Boston have harbors?” they ask. “Take a peek at Elliott Bay. You think Denver’s got mountains? Why, Seattle has got not only the Cascades and the Olympics but the dormant icy immensities of Rainier and Baker. You say Minneapolis has lakes? Get a load of the parklike shores of Lake Washington or the dynamic waterfront along Lake Union.
“Why,” hoots the newcomer, “no other city in America comes close to matching Seattle’s embarrassment of riches. Mountains, lakes, Puget Sound, and the best coffee in America. What more could anyone want?”
All the lone-timers want is to be left alone.
“A nice place to visit, but don’t come live here,” grouse the lesser Seattleites, who throw the bone at cars with California plates and recently voted for a moratorium on the construction of skyscrapers.
Sunny days, when the mountains are “out,” cause longtime Seattleites excruciating anxiety. “I can’t understand it,” they’ll tell visitors, squinting with a betrayed look across the shimmering harbor at the dazzling peaks of the Olympics. “It’s usually pouring this time of year.”
All this bad-mouthing would have appalled Seattle’s founders, whose ambitions for their settlement were so exalted that they originally named it New York By and By and gave away so much real estate to attract investors that two of its most prominent landholders—David Denny and Doc Maynard—died dead broke.
Denny and his brother Arthur were the first to dream Seattle’s municipal dream. Illinois Whigs whose father was a pal of Lincoln, they were headed for Oregon when a plausible man named Brock told them about an area—though he’d never visited it himself, you understand—that by all accounts was a paradise on earth.
Disappointed by the malarial, overplatted precincts of Portland, the nineteen-year-old David Denny ventured up to the mouth of the Duwamish River and landed on a clear and sunny day at Alki Point at the southern end of Elliott Bay. After shaking hands with an imposing and benignant chieftain named Sealth, he declared the mouth of the Duwamish “fine country” fit for “one thousand settlers” and summoned the rest of the family.
Denny was not the last newcomer to be seduced by an isolated spate of sunny weather. But then the rains set in, and by the time Arthur and his seasick relatives arrived on the morning of November 13, 1851, David Denny was feverish and starving in a roofless cabin, his foot crippled by an errant ax blade and all his provisions devoured by skunks.
A nice place to visit, but don’t come live here,” grouse the hard-core, long-time Seattleites.
“When the women got into the little rowboat to go ashore at Alki, they broke down and cried, every one of them,” a fellow passenger reported, “and the rain pelted down and their sunbonnets went flip flap, flip flap, as they rowed for shore.”
Under the scrutiny of the diminutive Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, who outnumbered them two hundred to one, the Denny party built their houses on the windy point, and by February they were sufficiently settled to provide a passing brig with a load of pilings for the burgeoning port of San Francisco.
Soon the great virgin stands of coastal fir, so dense and gloomy that the first explorers described them as more black than green, began to topple along the shoreline, and everyone gravitated deeper into the crook of the bay, whose precipitous harbor depths Arthur had sounded with a clothesline and a bundle of horseshoes.
Elliott Bay appears to form such an ideal harbor, and frames the Olympic Mountains so perfectly, that it’s hard to believe that the creation of a port of such manifest beauty and utility was so implausible an act of faith.
But despite the deep water, the bay was not an obvious port in 1851. Steep clay cliffs brooded along most of its narrow beach, flanked in turn by abrupt and thickly forested hills. As the little settlement huddled on a low teardrop outcropping eventually known as Denny’s Island, visitors took to calling it New York Fat Chance.