Skip to main content

Seattle For The Wary Traveler

June 2024
3min read

Travelers to Seattle would be well advised to begin their visit where the Dennys started out, on the shore at Alki Point. There is a long, lovely sandy beach, occasional surf when the freighters pass, and across Elliott Bay the skyline looms, as stubborn and implausible as Doc Maynard’s own dotty dream.

A small commemorative obelisk bears the names of the Denny party—the men’s and children’s, anyway; each of the desolate women who drooped ashore in their drenched bonnets is memorialized merely as “wife.” In 1926 the American Automobile Association added a chunk of Plymouth Rock to the monument for good measure at the close of the first transcontinental automobile caravan.

Nearby, in the ravine at Schmitz Park, which contains the city’s last surviving stand of virgin forest, you can also get at least a miniature notion of the natural world Seattle displaced. Only a few of the great trees still stand, leaning precariously against the tops of their lesser descendants. But you can walk almost fifty yards along one toppled trunk that measures some seven feet in diameter above its tangled, upended roots.

Another vestige of wilderness that hints at the topographical challenge Denny’s city posed is Discovery Park, northwest of downtown, with its 534 acres of steep meadows tilting down toward the water. But in fact, just about anywhere you look in Seattle there is the suggestion of the loss entailed by every municipal gain. Within view of the city are landscapes reminiscent of the primeval world the Dennys discovered and doomed.

Directly across the sound are the semirural islands of Vashon and Bainbridge (and Blake, where local tribes entertain visitors with salmon feeds and raven dances). They appear deceptively unspoiled from Seattle’s vantage, and north of Bainbridge at distant Point Jefferson are clay cliffs like those that once obstructed the city’s greedy growth. The bay itself is visited by dolphins, seals, and sea lions; a lone gray whale or a pod of orcas will sometimes dodge the container ships and ferries; and some evenings a bold bald eagle will venture close enough to catch the reflected sunlight off the city’s spires on its snowwhite head and tail.

There is nothing left of the original Seattle that sprawled so haphazardly along the harbor; the fire and the regrades saw to that. But many of the post-fire blocks whose grand first floors were turned subterranean by the raising of the city streets still surround the totem pole at Pioneer Square. The Underground Tour takes you in and out of various cellars and sidewalk tunnels, occasionally startling the vagrants sleeping above, and though little remains of the box houses and casinos that once occupied these furtive interstices there is no better introduction to the city’s oddball grandiosity than an afternoon’s guided stroll through the dank rubble of its inadvertent basements.

A local legend has it that Pioneer Srmare’s previous signature totem pole was stolen from an Alaskan tribe by some junketing city fathers. Many years later a “vag” burned it down, and the now tamer city fathers decided to commission a new one from the same Alaskan tribe, to which they sent a check for five thousand dollars.

But the Indians had changed too. “That covers the old one,” they wired back. “A new one will cost you another five thousand.”

Nearby, at the junction of First and Yesler, stands the prow of a parking garage that marks the point at which Seattleites finally decided to consolidate rather than annihilate their city’s legacy. In the 1960s the garage displaced one of Seattle’s oldest surviving hotels, and though the architect argued that its hooped railings nicely echoed the arched windows of its venerable Romanesque neighbors, Seattleites would have none of it and declared what remained of the neighborhood inviolable.

Soon afterward a bid to gentrify Seattle’s roughhewn Pike Place Market was defeated, and the hustle and bustle of a full-fledged city fish and vegetable market was preserved. The market can still provide you with a hint of the rangy muscularity of old Seattle, for this noisy, sprawling hodgepodge has somehow eluded the preciousness that usually obtains in such reclaimed urban spaces. (If it’s preciousness you’re after —a Williams-Sonoma pepper grinder, say, or a Laura Ashley sack of soaps—you can always visit the mall at Westlake Center.)

The International District, whose history is memorialized in Seventh Avenue’s Wing Luke Asian Museum, has splayed out beyond its original boundaries. Strolling among its vegetable stands and apothecaries, you find it hard to imagine this benignly industrious community engendering antipathy, let alone bloody riots, a hundred years ago.

In Seattle the glitz and the grunge are nicely intermingled. You can rent boats of various descriptions at Lake Washington, explore its industrial docks, and gawk at the gallery of Seattle’s once famously downbeat houseboats, some of which have now become the glossy lifestyle showcases of double-income cub executives.

But for my money the continuing collision between Seattle’s cultural ambitions and the roughand-tumble of its frontier past is best exemplified by Robert Venturi’s most recent whimsy, the new Seattle Art Museum, where matronly docents greet visiting art lovers directly across the street from an adult amusement center with HAVE AN EROTIC DAY permanently emblazoned across its marquee.

Seattle’s claims to civility are nonetheless substantial. The food is good, and the region is estimated to have the highest proportion of book buyers in the country, a tribute to either Seattle’s erudition or the weather. And so long as you make it clear that you intend, eventually, to go back where you came from, people are terribly nice. The downtown buses are free, cars pause for pedestrians at crosswalks, and every clerk wants to be your own personal shopper. For a visitor from just about anywhere else in America, it all takes some getting used to.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.