Jean's View: Crazy place to build a city

By Jean Godden

I won't ever look at Seattle the same way again -- not after reading "Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle's Topography," a book that's just now available in paperback.

What I had not realized before stumbling onto this remarkable volume was how much Seattle's features have been changed. No other major city in the world has had such extensive man-made remakes in a comparatively short history. The city we see today looks vastly different from the one that Midwestern settlers found when they landed at Alki Point 165 years ago.

The author, geologist David B. Williams, chronicles Seattle's amazing transformation. He begins with a quick thumbnail account of the region's geology, taking us back 17 thousand years when glacier-driven forces carved the troughs we call Hood Canal, Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

What nature left behind was the terrain that greeted those early settlers. They huddled first at Alki, but made the decision to relocate along Elliott Bay, our deep saltwater harbor. The adjacent landscape presented the settlers with challenges. The site came bordered with steep slopes, high bluffs, vast tidelands and marshes. It offered hardly any flat level land on which to build.

No question that it was a strange place -- a crazy place -- to build a city. However, it was only a brief time before residents began remaking their chosen land. They started by improving access to Elliott Bay, their primary connection to other settlements along Puget Sound and to San Francisco and Portland beyond. They trimmed the bluffs, graded and regraded the steep streets and began wharfing out, extending the historic shoreline, block by block into the bay.

The settlers and those who soon followed filled in the tidelands. They created new ground by dumping materials (garbage, sawdust, charcoal, ash and random detritus) into areas historically covered with water. They hammered in pilings and bridged tidelands with trestles. At the mouth of the Duwamish, they created 350-acre Harbor Island, once the world's largest artificial island.

When a hill got in the way of transportation, they simply lopped it off. Two of the seven hills on which Seattle was originally built -- Denny and Profanity hills -- were sluiced away. Denny Hill, considered too steep for horse-drawn wagons, was regraded not once but five times, lowered from 232 feet to 122 feet. Profanity (so named by lawyers who climbed the steep hill to reach the county courthouse) was reshaped, using hydraulic "giants," high pressure hoses, supplemented when necessary by dynamite.

One of the city's largest megaprojects occurred early in the 20th Century when Thomas Mercer's vision of a canal connecting Lake Washington and Puget Sound became reality. Constructing the ship canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (second only to the Panama Canal in this hemisphere) led to the replumbing of Lake Union, Lake Washington and Salmon Bay. That massive endeavor required lowering Lake Washington by nine feet and caused the Black River, once the lake's outlet, to dry up and totally disappear.

These man-made changes in topography were fueled by Seattle spirit, the belief that Seattle was destined to become a world-class city. Cities that have drastically altered their land, among them Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago, also were driven by concern about the future, the desire to rise above the natural setting.

But Seattle, far more than most, has demonstrated this relentless approach to alter the cityscape. "Too High" author Williams underscores the enormous size of retrofitting in an appendix showing the volume of dirt moved in Seattle's reshaping. When one totals multiple regrades, carving out the ship canal, filling of the Duwamish waterway and tidelands and the railroad through Interbay, the aggregate comes to 75 million cubic yards of dirt moved.

Williams quotes an early-day Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter who wrote, "This would mean a total of 605,000 carloads, which in 40-foot cars would reach from here to Broadway, New York, and more than half way back and at 20 miles an hour would take the great trainload ten days to pass any given point on the route."

Williams has produced a record of activity that kept me turning pages, examining maps and photos and forever seeing this city anew. I am stunned when I realize how dramatically we have reshaped the land and continue to do so.


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