Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

Seattle History

From Tall Timber to High Tech

What might have happened if Seattle had retained the original name bestowed by its first pioneers, “New York – Alki?” Would we now be nicknamed “The Little Apple” instead of the “Emerald City?”

The little party of pioneers from Illinois who landed on Alki Point on a cold and rainy November 13, 1851 had thought to bestow lofty ambitions on their tiny community of log cabins when they named it after New York. They soon changed the name to Seattle, after the local Indian Chief Sealth, and moved it to its present location on the deep waters of Elliott Bay.

British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver had explored Puget Sound more than a half century earlier when he sailed to its farthest reaches aboard the sloop H.M.S. Discovery. Giving just about everything in sight an English name (Mt. Rainier, for example), Vancouver honored many of his friends and paid many a political debt.

During the last half of the 19th century, the soggy little city on Puget Sound gradually grew beyond its tide flats waterfront and its mud streets to become a major port of call for ships plying the Pacific Coast. The surrounding hills and islands furnished thousands of shiploads of lumber for a growing San Francisco and the California gold mines. The term “skid road,” meaning an unsavory part of town, originated in Seattle from the route (Yesler Way) down which logs were skidded from the hills to the waterfront.

South of the road, brothels and saloons thrived; the respectable part of town began north of the road. The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed to Tacoma in 1887, connecting Puget Sound to the East. The competing Great Northern Railroad arrived in Seattle five years later.

In 1889 a disastrous fire burned most of the city to the ground. Seizing the opportunity for urban renewal, city engineers raised downtown streets several feet above the high tide level, leaving intact store fronts below street level. Today’s Underground Tour explores these old ruins.

The arrival of the steamer Portland in 1897 with a “ton of gold” from the Klondike signaled Seattle’s metamorphosis from grubby little waterfront town to primary commercial, shipping and marketing center of the Pacific Northwest it is today. The city served as outfitter, ship builder and transshipment port for the thousands of prospectors and millions of tons of goods heading north to the gold rush.

Seattle hosted the first of several world’s fairs held in the Pacific Northwest when the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition opened in 1909. Much of the present campus of the University of Washington is a legacy of that event.

During the next three decades, strikes, labor unrest and a strong union movement kept Seattle in the national news.

With the advent of World War II, Seattle boomed, as did most cities in the U.S. Puget Sound became a major naval base; tens of thousands of troops received their training at nearby Fort Lewis and shipped overseas from Seattle’s waterfront. The Boeing Company, a small airplane manufacturer founded in 1910, grew to become the primary manufacturer of heavy bombers flown by the U.S. Army Air Force, the B-17 and B-29. The Museum of Flight, part of which is housed in the original Boeing factory building, traces this story.

Boeing figured prominently in the post-war era, introducing America’s first passenger jet (the 707) to commercial aviation in 1959. By 1957 The Boeing Company and its suppliers accounted for nearly half of all the jobs in King County. In the 1960s the company gained its leadership as the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial jet aircraft, a lead is still holds.

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair signaled a renaissance in the Pacific Northwest that saw it emerge as a major tourist destination and one of the country’s most livable cities. The economy changed as well. Forestry, fisheries and agriculture gradually declined in importance while computer software manufacturers, bio-medical industries, and aerospace came to dominate the economy. With its proximity to the Pacific Rim, extensive port facilities, high-tech and communications industries and educational institutions, Seattle is already assuming the role of a primary participant in the trade and commerce with Asia that will lead the economy into the 21st century.

 

(Updated 2/13)


Contacts:

David Blandford – (206) 461-5806, dblandford@visitseattle.org

Kauilani Robinson – (206) 461-5839, krobinson@visitseattle.org

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