Publication Date

December 1, 1997

Editor's Note: Participants at the Association’s annual meeting in Seattle will receive the pamphlet Seattle A to Y: A Historical Lexicon by along with the other annual meeting materials at registration. The following is a short excerpt.

The city of Seattle lies on a narrow strip of land between the salt water of Puget Sound and freshwater Lake Washington. Beyond those waters lie two high mountain ranges, the Olympics to the west and the Cascades to the east. Seattle is a city built on hills (Seattle is earliest foreign promoters from Portland, Oregon-described it as built, like Rome, on seven hills) and around water (salt water, fresh water, and rain water), in a mild marine climate that encourages prolific vegetation. The colors are the blue of water, the green of trees, the white of clouds and mountain snow, and a soft gray that often fills the skies.

Euro-American settlers came to the Seattle area in 1851, establishing a town-site they first called New York, and then, adding a word from the Chinook jargon trade language meaning "by-and-by," New York-Alki. They soon moved a short distance across Elliott Bay to a site in what is now the historic Pioneer Square district, where a protected deep-water harbor was available. This village was soon named Seattle, honoring a Duwamish Indian leader known as Chief Seattle (or Sealth, or see-YAHTLH) who had befriended the settlers.

Seattle managed to force a connection with the Northern Pacific railroad shortly after its completion in 1883, and the town's population soared in the late 1880s. Lumber and coal were the primary industries, but the growth of fishing, the wholesale trade, shipbuilding, and grain shipping also contributed to the town's economic expansion and population growth. One estimate is that, in the first half of 1889, Seattle was gaining 1,000 new residents a month; in March alone, there were 500 buildings under construction. The explosive growth was slowed but not stopped by the devastating Great Fire on June 6, 1889, which leveled the buildings on more than 300 blocks in the heart of the city's business district. No one died in the fire, but the property damage ran into millions of dollars.

Enthusiasm for Seattle was dampened little by the fire. In fact, it provided the opportunity for extensive municipal improvements, including widened and regraded streets, a professional fire department, reconstructed wharves, and a municipal water works. New construction in the burned district was required to be of brick or steel, and it was by choice on a grander and more imposing scale.

Over the years, Seattle has had a reputation for a boom-and-bust economy, and the 1920s brought depressed conditions in shipbuilding and the lumber trade. The Depression of the 1930s hit Seattle particularly hard, and a "Hooverville" of shacks and lean-tos housing nearly 1,000 unemployed men grew up at an abandoned shipbuilding yard south of Pioneer Square.

World War II sparked an economic rebound as shipyards flourished again. The Boeing Company, a modestly successful airplane manufacturer founded in 1916, increased its workforce more than 1,200 percent and its sales from $10 million to $600 million annually during the war years. The war's end, however, brought an economic slump to the area which persisted until the mid-1950s.

When Boeing successfully introduced the 707 commercial jet airliner, it heralded another burst of municipal optimism. In 1962 Seattle sponsored a full-fledged world's fair, the futuristic Century 21 Exposition. The fair left the city a permanent legacy in the Seattle Center and its complex of performance, sports, and entertainment halls, as well as the Pacific Science Center, the Monorail, and the Space Needle.

Since Century 21, the city population has remained fairly stable around the half million mark, while suburban areas have grown explosively. The Boeing Company suffered a slump in the early 19705 that severely depressed the local economy. Since then, the region's economy has been steadied and diversified. Companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Boeing have been a part of that development, along with such high-technology firms as Microsoft and Aldus. The political strength of Washington Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson in the postwar decades greatly contributed to growth at research institutions such as the University of Washington, and in defense-related activities. Seattle has also enjoyed an expanded air and sea trade with Asia, Alaska, and the north Pacific.

Seattle has always exhibited a spirit of optimism, enterprise, and self-promotion. At one time this was institutionalized as the "Seattle Spirit" (essentially boosterism and an inflated civic ego), a movement that enabled the city literally to move mountains by washing down high hills (a process that created areas known as "regrades") to improve building sites, connect Lake Washington and Puget Sound with locks and a canal, and build the world's largest artificial island at the mouth of the Duwamish River. More recently this spirit can be credited with such accomplishments as the Forward Thrust program of the 19705, which built the Kingdome arena and numerous parks throughout the city, including Freeway Park, spanning the 1-5 freeway with waterfalls and hanging gardens.

Seattle is proud of its arts and cultural institutions, many live theaters, and the new downtown art museum. It is proud of its parks, professional and collegiate sports, Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market, and, above all, the beauty of its surroundings. Seattle is also a city of paradoxes, not always respectful of its own brief heritage, not as radical as its legend would have it, a city of homes that has many who are homeless, a city that wants great growth but demands that somehow the setting remain untouched.

Seattle's eventful history is short, but because that is so, the visitor will find there are many touchstones with the recent past. The visiting historian looking for those touchstones may seek them in photographs and records, minute books and ephemera files, and numerous published books and articles. The historian can also look about, and see the record in the city itself, in the 42-story L.C. Smith building, the Hiram Martin Chittenden Locks, Pioneer Square, the Pike Place Market, the Monorail, and the Space Needle. In few other American cities, however, is the historian so likely to be distracted from the historical record by the setting, by the colors of blue and green and white and gray, by the sight of water, trees, mountains, and clouds. And perhaps by a light drizzle.

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