- 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
Merchants eager to “mine the miners” raised the value of level downtown frontage to two thousand dollars a foot. But only a block away, on the flanks of Denny Hill, the value of an inclined portion fetched barely a tenth as much. Eventually the property owners joined forces with a formidable Scot named Reginald Thomson to agitate for the removal of the entire 240-foot hill. Thomson, who was the city engineer, had already horrified the standpatters by digging an enormous sewer line to Lake Union and a pipeline across the foothills of the Cascades from the Cedar River.
A battle ensued over the audacity of a proposition that would displace sixty-two city blocks and cost Seattle its finest hotel, the Washington, which claimed to command the most splendid views in the country. But Seattleites had already acquired a taste for such feats, filling in the tidal flats west of Denny Island with sawdust and debris, chopping at the clay cliffs along the water, removing almost five million cubic yards from two other malignant hills. It was enough to make Rainier itself fear for its existence.
And so, around 1910, employing the new hydraulic mining methods developed in Alaska, the city sluiced Denny Hill into the harbor. Gigantic electric pumps pushed twenty million gallons a day through a twenty-four-inch stave pipe up from Lake Union to the summit, where five giant nozzles played along the slopes at a pressure of 125 pounds, enough force to carry one-ton boulders along a system of ditches and flumes lined with steel plate, out through a tunnel and down a trestle to the bay.
Some buildings, including the Washington Hotel, were simply undermined, toppled, and incinerated. Others—homes, stores, entire apartment houses—were set on cribs and lowered into position when the regrade was complete or were hauled off intact to new locations as much as a mile away. One holdout refused to budge, so the city dug around him, isolating his house on a spire of earth 150 feet high, until he tired of hauling his groceries by ladder and abandoned his house to the hoses.
The regrade proceeded in two stages, the second in 1929, which displaced six million cubic yards of earth and rock. But the cost was so high during the first stage that many property owners lost their shirts. Indeed, the area has never risen to expectations; even the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 failed to bring it to life. Despite a lot of municipal visions, skyscrapers decline to take root in the bedrock of Denny Hill, and people still mourn the view from the Washington Hotel.
Thus Seattleites bragged, burned, and bullied their city into existence. It is hard to reconcile the singular civility of today’s metropolis, where car horns are seldom heard and jaywalking is nearly felonious, with the rough and tumble of its history.
The men—and at first they were almost all men—who trudged through the muddy streets of old Seattle metamorphosed within a single generation from sky’s-the-limit visionaries like Maynard to working stiffs whose most exalted ambition was to get a job at the docks or the mills. The workers regarded the city’s old guard as conniving skinflints, while leftover pioneers like Arthur Denny, who lived until 1899, believed that “the conflict between labor and capital” was “largely a conflict between labor and laziness.”
A lot of work was seasonal, which meant that at various times of the year a high proportion of the city’s working population was idle. Rubbing shoulders with the stranded railroad workers, grounded sailors and fishermen, laid-off lumbermen, migrant fruit pickers, devastated Indians, and disabused prospectors who gravitated toward Elliott Bay, Seattle’s workers were ripe for politics.
Today’s Seattle is known by the neutral Chamber of Commerce sobriquet of the Emerald City, but the town was once regarded as a kind of Soviet Socialist Republic, a hotbed of radicalism. Strikes were frequent; Wobblies led marches under crimson flags; whole neighborhoods gathered cheerfully for class-warfare picnics; socialists, anarchists, pacifists, and gaunt Scandinavian Utopians could draw appreciative Skid Road crowds with pipe dreams of minimum wages and eight-hour workdays.
In 1919 all of this culminated in America’s one and only general strike. Triggered by a postwar shipyard walk-off of some thirty-five thousand men, the “Seattle Revolution” proved as effective as it was aimless, “a move,” wrote Anna Louise Strong, “that will lead—No One Knows Where!” It was a giddy moment for the unions, and it shut down the city for nearly a week. But where it led was to the victories of antilabor candidates in the next election, raids on union halls, and the eventual dominance of the collaborating Teamsters, under a local enforcer named Dave Beck.
Within a few weeks of the calamity they began to build a fire-resistant reincarnation of their city.
Labor played an unfortunate role in perhaps the darkest chapter in Seattle’s history, the anti-Chinese riots of 1886 that so alarmed the nation that President Cleveland declared martial law.