Uncovering Seattle's history

February 1, 2016
David B. Williams

As a natural history author, Seattle resident, and Burke educator, I am always looking for ways to share information about the relationship between people and place. Fortunately, we live in a landscape filled with amazing stories, whether it’s 3.5-billion-year old building stone, glacial-carved hills, or sinking sidewalks. One of my favorite recent stories emerged out of the ground about a year ago. 

Burke paleontologist Bruce Crowley excavating the mammoth tusk found at a South Lake Union construction site.

Photo: Burke Museum

On February 11, 2015, workers south of Lake Union hit a strange object at a construction site. They called the Burke Museum and several hours later, four paleontologists were at work unearthing the 8.5-foot-long tusk from a Columbian mammoth. Now known as LuLu, the giant herbivore lived here around 20,000 years. At the time, the Seattle area looked somewhat like it does today with streams and lakes and areas of forest and more open terrain. LuLu was not alone.

At least 23 other mammoth remains have been found in Seattle. Most were discovered during building projects. For example, William R. Whitton, a railroad engineer for the Great Northern, made the first report of an ice age fossil. In 1891, he found a molar near present day Golden Gardens. He donated it to the National Museum. Other teeth and bones have been excavated during the construction of schools, roads, and office buildings.

The Burke has several of those teeth including one from a historic project. The molar was found during the regrade of Denny Hill and donated to the museum by Mrs. Cleo Cloudy and Mr. and Mrs. Lester Weise. Curiously we have no information on precisely when or where it was found or when it was donated to the museum but a newspaper article from 1907 reported that workers had dug up a half dozen bones from some “huge prehistoric mammal.” Other articles reported that workers found several buried trees, one of which was nearly 100 feet underground.

None of these items made its way into the Burke’s collections. I suspect that this was the fate of many “discoveries” made during the City’s early years, when some of its largest engineering projects took place. Such massive endeavors, which included regrading Denny Hill, filling in the tideflats of the Duwamish River, and building the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Locks, must have provided opportunities for discovery as millions of cubic yards of sediment were moved around Seattle. Without the regulations and knowledge we now have of the importance of preserving fossils and artifacts, it is not hard to imagine that when someone found an item, they pocketed it. Or maybe didn’t even know what they had simply continued working.  

Denny Hill regrade in progress in 1910.

Denny Hill in process of being flattened, circa 1910. 

Photo: Denny Hill Regrade, Asahel Curtis, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW4812. 

Although we may not have everything that came out of the ground from these projects, we still have a rich trove of documentation. Archives and libraries around the city hold items such as photographs, newspapers, maps, journals, letters, and meeting minutes, which allow historians to weave together the threads of Seattle history. The documents help to show the human face of change, how individual lives were affected, and why decisions were made.

As someone focused on human and natural history in the urban landscape, I value all of the objects that tell stories of the past inhabitants. Each item provides a detail. They tell how animals lived and interacted, and of course, the same is true of items related to people. They allow us not only to better understand the past but see how it connects to the present and perhaps offers us insight into how we can address the future.

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David B. Williams is the author of the book Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography and will teach a four-lecture class at the Burke beginning February 17, 2016. Based on his book, the class will dive a bit deeper under the surface to provide collections-based examples and ongoing research into the shaping of Seattle.

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