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Curbed Seattle History Lessons - The Waterfront

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Seattle is known for tree-huggers, Earth-firsters, moss-between-the-toes nature lovers. So, here's a story about how Seattle got this way by leveling hills, filling valleys, and rerouting water - and even knocking itself down when it gets in its own way.

It's a no-brainer. When guests come to town, take them to the Waterfront. Within one mile there's Pike Place Market, Seattle Art Museum, the Aquarium, the ferry terminal, and Pioneer Square. Oh yes, and there is a shoreline that looks straight backed by land that looks flat. That ain't natural, and making the city more geometric made it more of a city.

The idea of moving massive amounts of earth to recreate the city is nothing new. Bertha is just the most recent step.

Nature got here first. The glaciers scraped, covered, and redefined the land about 16,000 years ago. Before they left, they filled the Puget Sound basin with a freshwater lake whose surface was 120 feet above sea level. The lake drained to the sea, and life moved back in. The first human residents got here 4,000 years ago. They found hills, forests, tide (er, mud) flats, deep water, and a lot of wildlife. We talk about Seattle as a young city, and it is. China and Egypt were already busy back then. The first Europeans thought Elliott Bay's shoreline made for a bad harbor. When the Dennys arrived in 1851 they started over on Alki Point. The bay's curvy shoreline was anchored by a bit of land called Piner's Point.

Ships like docks, and wharves, and piers. As the city grew, so did structures jutting out into the bay. Deep water ports are valuable, and being able to load and unload directly to local transportation makes it easier to export lumber and import goods. As the city grew, and as businesses got busier, they wanted better access to the ships. A long wharf leading to deep water, but backed by a steep hill isn't nearly as efficient as a long wharf leading to flat land. Seattle was in the habit of moving earth around; so, the Alaskan Way Seawall was built to create a straight shoreline, and rocks, logs, and dirt were dumped behind it to create flat land for roads, rail, yards, and buildings. American cars and traffic demanded a highway carry people past the city, and the Viaduct was built.

Now, we have a waterfront that is recognized around the world. The piers handle tourist traffic instead of cargo. The ships dock at man-made Harbor Island. The railroad goes under the city. Warehouses have become shops. The produce in the market arrives and leaves via the streets. And, yet, it seems that is has always been that way.

Looking ahead, we know the seawall must be repaired. The traffic carried by the Viaduct is considered so critical that we're drilling a hole under the city (assuming Bertha gets unstuck.) The land is so sensitive to earthquakes that we'll take the Viaduct down before the ground shakes it down. Those changes will create changes.

The shops will remain because the tourists will continue to visit because the land is a beautiful as ever. The waterfront will be redefined again, and after we get used to the change, it will seem that it will never change again - but we know better.
· Seattle Geographical Lessons: Regarding the Denny Regrade [CS]
· All History Lesson coverage [CS]
Written by Tom Trimbath.

Waterfront Park

1401 Alaskan Way, , WA 98101 Visit Website