- 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
What the dour Dennys needed to fulfill their metropolitan vision was a booster, and only a year after they arrived, they got one. When Chief Sealth’s canoe ground up on the beach one afternoon and the tall, dapper figure of Dr. David Swinson Maynard stepped ashore, Seattle acquired the antic and expansive aspect of its personality. A general practitioner with parsimonious chin whiskers and spectacles, Maynard appeared so thoroughly upstanding that the Dennys coaxed him into settling with a gift of 640 acres of land, including 300 feet of prime waterfront.
Maynard may have been the nicest man in the history of the American West. He ministered to everybody, forgave all debtors, was a trusted friend of the Indians, and became the most ardent of Seattle’s founding fathers, a born booster and gregarious host to every luckless prospector, exhausted pioneer, and soggy visionary who washed up on Seattle’s muddy shore.
It was Maynard who named the settlement after his old friend Sealth (altering it a little for the Anglo-Saxon palate). And it was Maynard who engineered Seattle’s most vital coup, bribing Henry L. Yesler to locate his steam sawmill in Seattle with a gift of prime harborfront property. The mill was the first of its kind in the sound, and as it spewed its boards and studs into the holds of San Francisco cargo ships, it put Seattle on the map. (Much of early San Francisco was built from Yesler’s lumber, whereas Seattle rests in part on dumped ballast from Telegraph Hill.)
Like the Dennys, Maynard hoped that by handing land over to various investors his remaining parcels would accrue exponentially in value. By this means Arthur Denny joylessly thrived, but David Denny lost his fortune in a streetcar line and ended as an old man living in a backwoods shack no better than his leaking digs at Alki Point.
Maynard, too, was a calamitous businessman. Distractible, alcoholic, fatally empathetic, he lost money wherever he invested it—in a blacksmith shop, salmon-packing concern, general store, hospital, law practice—right up until his death in 1873. His second wife was faithful to his memory, and her own epitaph sums up her marriage to her kindly, hapless husband: “She Did What She Could.”
On a diet of lumber, coal, canned fish, and vice, Seattle grew during the 188Os from a shaky little backwater of thirtyfive hundred people into a full-fledged city of forty-two thousand, with the third-busiest dock in the Western United States. By 1889, when Washington became the forty-second state, the downtown boasted imposing brick-front buildings, an opera house, a Chinatown, machine shops, forges, a brewery, stores, mansions, hotels, and boardinghouses.
But it was no paradise. Despite Arthur Denny’s careful platting, the city had grown haphazardly. The water system consisted merely of trestled aqueducts of leaky augured logs connected by hollow wooden spigots. Drainage was so poor that on one street a child drowned trying to float a raft across a pothole eighteen feet wide and eight feet deep.
The sewage system was a sequence of wooden boxes that ran aboveground along Cherry Street, straggled across the tidal flats, and then emptied unceremoniously into the sound. (Though fortuitous currents deposited most of Seattle’s effluent in Tacoma, it was said that you could smell Seattle long before you laid eyes on it.) Toilets were hooked up to what amounted to a closed system, and a strong incoming tide could create what the locals called reverse flushes, eruptions so powerful that the unsuspecting were sometimes lifted off their lavatory seats, a hazard some homeowners tried to rise above by installing their toilets on ten-foot platforms serviced by ladders.
But such inconveniences were only temporary, for old Seattle was just a rough sketch on flammable paper, and one dry and windy afternoon in June 1889, everything, even the box sewers, was turned to smoke and ashes.
The part of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was played by a Swede named Back who tried to douse an ignited glue pot with a bucket of water and succeeded only in splashing flaming adhesive all across the shavings that littered the floor of his basement cabinet shop. Seattle’s wooden sidewalks acted like horizontal chimneys, sucking the flames into a roiling current alone Front Street.
What passed for Seattle’s water system could deliver only a feeble stream that evaporated into steam as a burning brand floated across to the opera house and set it ablaze. The fire department tried to run hoses down to the harbor, but the tide was out, and in the rising heat the hoses began to melt.