Seattle Travel Guide


The founding of Seattle is usually dated from the arrival of the Denny Party in 1851. The next April, Arthur A. Denny abandoned the original site at Alki in favor of the better protected site on Elliott Bay that is now part of downtown Seattle. Around the same time, David Swinson "Doc" Maynard began settling the land immediately south of Denny's.

Seattle in its early years relied on the timber industry, shipping logs (and, later, milled timber) to San Francisco. When Henry Yesler brought the first steam sawmill to the region, he chose a location on the waterfront where Maynard and Denny's plats met. Thereafter Seattle would dominate the lumber industry.

Charlie Terry sold out Alki (which, after his departure barely held on as a settlement), moved to Seattle and began acquiring land. He either owned or partially owned Seattle's first timber ships. He eventually gave a land grant to the University of the Territory of Washington (later University of Washington), and was instrumental in the politics to establish an urban infrastructure. The logging town developed rapidly into a small city. Despite being officially founded by the Methodists of the Denny Party, Seattle quickly developed a reputation as a wide-open town, a haven for prostitution, liquor, and gambling. Some attribute this, at least in part, to Maynard.

Real estate records show that nearly all of the city's first 60 businesses were on, or immediately adjacent to, Maynard's plat. All of this occurred against a background of sometimes rocky relations with the local Native American population, including a pitched battle January 25, 1856. Seattle was incorporated as a city on December 2, 1869. At this time, the population was approximately 1,000.

On July 14, 1873 the Northern Pacific Railway announced that they had chosen the then-hamlet of Tacoma over Seattle as the Western terminus of their trans-continental railroad. The railroad barons appear to have been gambling on the advantage they could gain from being able to buy up the land around their terminus cheaply instead of bringing the railroad into a more established Pacific port town.

Seattle made several attempts to build a railroad of its own or to get one to come. The Great Northern Railway finally came to Seattle in 1884, but it would be 1906 before Seattle finally acquired a major rail passenger terminal.

Seattle in this era was an "open" and often relatively lawless town. Although it boasted newspapers and telephones, lynch law often prevailed (there were at least four lynchings in 1882), schools barely operated, and indoor plumbing was a rare novelty. In the low mud flats where much of the city was built, sewage was almost as likely to come in on the tide as to flow away. Potholes in the street were so bad as to cause at least one fatal drowning. Union organizing arrived first in the form of a skilled craft union. In 1882, Seattle printers formed the Seattle Typographical Union Local 202. Dockworkers followed in 1886, cigarmakers in 1887, tailors in 1889, and both brewers and musicians in 1890. Even the newsboys unionized in 1892, followed by more organizing, mostly of craft unions.

The history of labor in this period is inseparable from the issue of anti-Chinese vigilantism. In 1883 Chinese laborers played a key role in the first effort at digging the Montlake Cut to connect Lake Union's Portage Bay to Lake Washington's Union Bay. In 1885-1886, whites and Indians, complaining of overly cheap labor competition, drove the Chinese settlers from Seattle, Tacoma, and other Northwest cities.

In an era during which the Washington Territory was one of the first parts of the U.S. to (briefly) allow women's suffrage, women played a significant part in "civlizing" Seattle. In the 1880s, Seattle got its first streetcar and cable car, ferry service, a YMCA gymnasium, and the exclusive Rainier Club, and passed an ordinance requiring attached sewer lines for all new residences. It also began to develop a road system. The relative fortunes of Seattle and Tacoma clearly show the nature of Seattle's growth. Though both Seattle and Tacoma grew at a rapid rate from 1880 to 1890, based on the strength of their timber industries, Seattle's growth as an exporter of services and manufactured goods continued for another two decades, while Tacoma's growth dropped almost to zero. The reason for this lies in Tacoma's nature as a company town and Seattle's successful avoidance of that condition.

The early Seattle era came to a stunning halt with the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889. The fire burned 29 city blocks (almost entirely wooden buildings; about 10 brick buildings also burned). It destroyed nearly the entire business district, all of the railroad terminals, and all but four of the wharves. The city rebuilt from the ashes with astounding rapidity. A new zoning code resulted in a downtown of brick and stone buildings, rather than wood. In the single year after the fire, the city grew from 25,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, largely because of the enormous number of construction jobs suddenly created. Still, south of Yesler Way, the open city atmosphere remained.

Seattle was especially hard hit by the 1896 economic crash. Unlike many other cities, it soon found salvation in the form of becoming the jumping-off point for the Klondike gold rush. The miners mined the gold. Seattle mined the miners.

The gold rush led to massive immigration. Many of Seattle's neighborhoods got their start around this time. Downtown Seattle was bustling with activity; as quickly as previous inhabitants moved out to newly created neighborhoods, new immigrants came in to take their place in the city core. Once the obvious extensions of downtown had been made along the flatlands to the north and south, streetcars began providing transportation to new outlying neighborhoods. A massive effort was made to level the extreme hills that rose south and north of the bustling city. A seawall containing dirt from the Denny Regrade created the current waterfront. More dirt from the Denny Regrade went to build the industrial Harbor Island at the mouth of the Duwamish River, south of Downtown.

All of the expansion was happening without zoning, leading to "different land uses and economic classes everywhere [being] mixed." [Roger Sale, Seattle: Past To Present, p.62] At the same time as the city was expanding dramatically, the city planners began to put in parks and boulevards under a plan designed by the Olmsted Firm, providing numerous parks and about twenty miles of boulevard which link most of the parks and greenbelts within the city limits. Much of the ambience of Seattle today derives from this project.

In 1910, Seattle voters approved a referendum to create a development plan for the whole city. However, the result, known as the Bogue plan, was never to be implemented. The unused plan had at its heart a grand civic center in Belltown and the Denny Regrade connected to the rest of the city by a rapid transit rail system, with a huge expansion of the park system, crowned by a total conversion of 4000 acre (16 km²) Mercer Island into parkland. However, the plan was defeated by an alliance of fiscal conservatives who opposed such a grandiose plan on general principles and populists who argued that the plan would mainly benefit the rich.

Growth during this period was almost all in wartime shipbuilding and lumber, and there was very little growth in new industries. When the war ended, economic output crashed as the government stopped buying boats, and there were no new industries to pick up the slack. Seattle stopped being a place of explosive growth and opportunity.

During this period Western Washington was a center of radical labor agitation. Most dramatically, a general strike occurred in 1919, fomented in large measure by members of the Industrial Workers of the World. Seattle first began to be an arts center in the 1920s. Australian painter Ambrose Patterson arrived in 1919; over the next few decades Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Guy Irving Anderson, and Paul Horiuchi would establish themselves as nationally and internationally known artists. By mid-century the thriving jazz scene in the city's Skid Road district would produce such luminaries as Ray Charles and Quincy Jones.

From World War II until 1970, Seattle underwent what amounted to a long, sustained economic boom, although not without occasional reverses. Boeing was hiring, the economy was booming, and while there had been no successful regional planning, the city had not yet grown quite large enough to feel the strain.

The Boeing airplane company grew out of the fortune of William "Bill" Boeing's boat company and his fascination with airplanes and flying. During World War I, Boeing grew to employ "about four thousand people, with sales just under ten million dollars a year, it was a good if unspectacular business for Seattle." [Roger Sale, Seattle: Past To Present, p.180] The company struggled through the period between the wars, and "began to build dressers, counters and furniture for a corset company and a confectioner's shop, as well as flat-bottomed boats called sea sleds" (The Boeing Company, Boeing: History -- Beginnings - Growing Pains). However, when World War II started, the government suddenly desired tens of thousands of planes a year, and Boeing was positioned to provide them. Working under fixed-fee contracts, Boeing churned out airplanes and became by far the largest employer in Seattle.

When the war ended, "the military canceled its bomber orders; Boeing factories shut down and 70,000 people lost their jobs," (The Boeing Company, Boeing: History -- Beginnings - Growing Pains) and initially it appeared that Seattle had little to show for the wartime Boeing boom. However, this period of stagnation soon ended with the rise of the jet airplane and Boeing's reincarnation as the world's leading producer of commercial passenger planes. At the same time, the freeways were being built to compensate for all this new growth. Most of the "Eastside" (east of Lake Washington) and northern suburbs came into being during the Boeing boom, as did Interstate Highways (I-5 and I-90). I-5 neatly cut off Downtown Seattle from Capitol Hill and First Hill. Part of the historic downtown, including the tony Sorrento Hotel, which was left stranded on the "wrong" side of the freeway. Freeway Park was eventually built over I-5 in 1976, restoring something of a link between Downtown and First Hill.

With all this postwar growth came growing pollution of the lakes and rivers that provided the much of beauty that had been Seattle's appeal to its recent immigrants. Also, the sprawl constantly demanded more roads, since the ones already built had terrible traffic. (Naturally, new roads simply led to new development and were soon as snarled as those they were intended to relieve.) Jim Ellis and other Seattle natives, anxious to preserve the city in which they grew up, came together to institute the Metropolitan Problems Committee, or METRO, intended to manage and plan the metropolitan area. The original, comprehensive METRO regional plan was defeated in a vote by the suburbanites; METRO came back, scaled down to a sewage treatment and transport organization; METRO was eventually merged into the King County government.

During this period, Seattle attempted to counter the decline of its downtown and the area immediately to the north by hosting the Century 21 Exposition, the 1962 World's Fair. The fair, given a futuristic science theme, was designed to leave behind a civic center, now known as Seattle Center, including arts buildings, the Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle, and serving also as a fairground. In conjunction with the fair, a demonstration monorail line was constructed at no cost to the city and was paid for out of ticket sales, and then turned over to the city for $600,000. (See Seattle Center Monorail.) It is now almost exclusively a tourist attraction, as the distance covered is too small to be of much practical use unless you are living in a hotel downtown and visiting the Seattle Center. The World's Fair arguably reenergized the downtown of Seattle, and was generally a smashing success, even finishing with a profit. After the war, the University of Washington also took a step forward, finally fulfilling the promise of its name under University President Charles Odegaard.

Due to changing external demand and the cancellation of the SST program, "the Boeing workforce was cut from 80,400 to 37,200 between early 1970 and October 1971". The Boeing Company, Boeing: History -- New Markets. During the resulting economic bust, a famous Seattle billboard sarcastically requested, "Would the last person who leaves Seattle please turn out the lights?" Nonetheless, only 15% of those laid off eventually left the city.

After 1973, Seattle was in good company for its recession, since the rest of the country was also experiencing the |energy crisis. Quite likely. Seattle evaded the fate of Detroit through being a port city with a large number of highly educated skilled workers, though the boom decades of the 1950s and 1960s had been brought to a decisive end. Starting in the late 1950s, Seattle was one of the centers of the emergence of the American counter-culture and culture of protest. Before grunge there were beats, fringies (a local Seattle term), hippies, and batcavers. Also, Despite Seattle being one of the "whitest" major cities in the United States, it has had an African-American mayor (Norm Rice), at least four African-American city council members, and at least half a dozen Asian city council members. It has also been the political base for figures such as African-American King County Executive Ron Sims and former King County Executive Gary Locke, who went on to be the first Chinese-American governor of a US state.

The Pike Place Market, arguably Seattle's most important tourist attraction, gained its modern form in the aftermath of the Boeing crash. The deportation of the Japanese from Seattle during World War II had hit the market particularly hard, since 80% of its "wet stall" vendors had been ethnically Japanese. A "Keep the Market" initiative led by architect Victor Steinbreuck, passed in 1971, pushing for adaptive reuse. The project was wildly successful, and today the Pike Place Market pulls nine million visitors each year. A similar story occurred with Pioneer Square. An old neighborhood, largely built after the Fire of 1889, it had fallen into derelict status after the war. However, with a reenergized downtown, businesses started to look for buildings that could be acquired cheaply. When offices moved into renovated buildings, suddenly there was a market for facilities to service them, leading to a "flood of other restaurants, galleries, boutiques." [Roger Sale, Seattle: Past To Present, p.239] Seattle was definitely recovering from the blow dealt by the Boeing recession, refilling areas that had threatened to become slums.

In 1979, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft, Inc., moved their then-small company from Albuquerque, New Mexico to the suburbs of their native Seattle. By 1985, sales were over $140 million, by 1990, $1.18 billion, and by 1995, Microsoft was the world's most profitable corporation, Allen and Gates were billionaires, and literally thousands of their past and present employees were millionaires.

Microsoft spawned a host of other companies in the Seattle area: millionaire employees often left to found their own companies, and Allen, after his own departure from Microsoft, became a major investor in new companies. Seattle-area companies that owe their origins at least indirectly to Microsoft include RealNetworks, Attachmate Corp., Infospace, and a host of others. Quite unlike Boeing, Microsoft has served as a catalyst for the creation of a whole realm of industry. Microsoft has also taken a much more active hand than Boeing in public works in the area, donating software to many schools (including the University of Washington).

Seattle has also been experiencing quite good growth in the biotechnology and coffee sectors, and Seattle-based Nordstrom is now a national brand. Paul Allen, whose fortune was made through Microsoft though he has long since ceased to be an active participant in the company, has been a major force in Seattle politics, for better or worse. He attempted a voter initiative to build the Seattle Commons, a huge park in South Lake Union and the Cascade District, and even offered to put up his own money to endow a security force for the park, but it failed to pass. (Allen is now the leader of the movement to redevelop this same area as a biotech center.) He did get a football stadium for the Seattle Seahawks through a successful statewide ballot initiative, and founded the Experience Music Project (originally intended as a Jimi Hendrix museum) on the grounds of Seattle Center.

The first great street confrontation between the anti-globalization movement and the World Trade Organization took place in Seattle on November 30, 1999. While many of those in the streets, and most of those in the suites, the were from out of town or even out of country, much of the groundwork of Seattle hosting both the event and the protests against it can be attributed to local forces. Seattle today is physically and demographically not so different from the Seattle of the 1960s. It is still filled with single family households, still mostly white with as many Asians as blacks, still liberal, still with about half a million people, still almost entirely without a centralized method of planning. The suburbs have grown, but they are also in essentially the same state as before, if a little more independent. Seattle's economy is more vibrant now, and richer, and there is certainly in increase in cultural activity, but the largest employer is still Boeing. The Commons was defeated, just as Jim Ellis was in the sixties. There's still terrible traffic on the freeways. The city is still physically beautiful.


Check out some of these Interesting Destinations:
Hawaii - Amsterdam - Berlin - Miami - Cancún - Las Vegas - London - Copenhagen - San Francisco - Sydney - Venecia
Brussels - Barcelona - Niagara Falls - Paris - Athens - Oslo - Tokyo - Dublin - Vancouver - Orlando - Prague

Travel to anywhere in the world and check out all the information you need regarding your destination here in Best Cities Travel. - Main

travel city cities guide destinations itineraries map nightlife