Founded on Indian ground by American settlers in 1851, Seattle is one of the most dramatically engineered cities in the United States. Its shorelines have been extended, lagoons filled, hills flattened and rivers re-routed. Built on an active geological fault near a large volcano, Seattle has also been jolted by huge earthquakes, washed by tsunamis, covered by volcanic mud and ash, fluted by glaciers and edged by rising seas. Enter here to glimpse this history through
The Waterlines Project
This Web site is one component of The Waterlines Project, which aims to make it possible for you to see how Seattle’s landscapes have changed over time. In the future, we will provide more ways for you to visualize how our city has evolved. Our plans include in-street exhibits, art installations and wireless broadcasts. For now, take a look at some of the images, maps and plans that show Seattle’s dramatic geological and human history. Enjoy!
Puget Sound: Glaciers
Seattle has been covered by glaciers many times in the past. The most recent glacier flowed from the north to cover the city in about 3000 feet (1000 meters) of ice about 17,500 years ago. It started to melt and retreat from its southern limit around Olympia about 16,850 years ago, leaving a huge freshwater lake to its south as it retreated north. At its peak, the glacial lake level was about 120 feet higher than current sea level. This lake quickly drained when the glacier melted north of the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. The huge weight of the ice pushed down the land under it. When the ice left, the land quickly sprang up (lowering sea levels) and then has been settling down (rising sea levels)—a process called isostatic rebound that is still happening, though it was near current levels by about 5000 years ago. Seattle is built on the thick layers of gravels and clays left behind by this last glacier. See the glacier animation above.
Puget Sound: Volcanic Mudflows
Seattle has frequently felt the effects of volcanoes, including Mount Rainier. The current Duwamish River valley was once a saltwater channel that extended to Tacoma (leaving West Seattle an island). A series of mudflows caused by volcanic activity under Mt. Rainier’s glaciers have slowly filled in this channel, turning it into the flat valley bisected by the rivers that we know today. The most recent mudflow happened about 2200 years ago, which moved the river mouth north to Tukwila. A large earthquake (see next section) was responsible for the shift in the Duwamish River mouth to its current position. Future Rainier mudflows could easily reach Seattle.
Puget Sound: Earthquakes and Tsunamis
The seismic history of Seattle is still being uncovered. We now know that the city was shaken by a massive earthquake about 1100 years along the Seattle fault, which lies under I90 and the stadiums, extending west to the north of Alki Point out to Bainbridge Island. During this earthquake, which is estimated to have been about 9.0 on the Richter Scale, land just north of the fault (from Pioneer Square) dropped about 3-6 feet, while land south of the fault was uplifted about 20 feet. This earthquake caused a large tsunami in Puget Sound and large landslides including some that carried hundreds of huge fir and cedar trees to the bottom of Lake Washington, where they have been preserved to today. It also uplifted the mouth of the Duwamish River, shifting the mouth north to its current position. Seattle and the Puget Sound area had many Native American settlements at this time, many of which were probably destroyed by the tsunami or sea level changes.
Puget Sound: People
Several finds of ancient stone tools in the Puget Sound area suggest that there were people living here for at least the past 12,000 years. The dramatic changes in Puget Sound’s landscapes, though, probably destroyed or submerged many of the oldest archaeological sites in the area. To date, the oldest intact settlement site excavated in the Puget Sound area is at West Point, near Seattle’s Discovery Park (visit the West Point online exhibit) , which dates to about 4,000 years ago, shortly after local sea levels stabilized. Several other sites have been excavated in and around Seattle. The Duwamish River Valley was heavily populated by Native peoples in the past. Although many sites have probably been destroyed by industrial construction, several sites along the river and its tributaries have helped us to understand how people lived here in the deep past. Living oral traditions provide another line of information about the past, and these stories and place names suggest that Native people in this area actively managed and controlled these landscapes.
Duwamish River: Native American Places
Note on pronunciation: Lushootseed, the primary language spoken in the Puget Sound region before English became widely used in the late 19th century, is here written in the Nile system, one of several ways of writing this language. Visit the West Point online exhibit to hear some examples of spoken Lushootseed.
This place—name is said by Harrington to be the ‘chief place’ and another name for ‘Seattle’. Most likely this was the name for a camp of a man known as either Kelly or Seattle Curley (Soowalt), who was the headman of the Duwamish village in what is now downtown Seattle. He was a brother of Seeathl. His camp was located between Columbia and Cherry streets and First and Second avenues by one source but closer to Seneca or Spring by others. This camp also appears in the Phelps map of the Battle of Seattle, reproduced elsewhere in this book.
The name refers to a small portage. Up to eight longhouses once existed here; only the ruins of one remained when Seattle was founded in 1852. Waterman penned his informant’s description of the site as follows: “In the vicinity of the present King Street Station in the city of Seattle, there was formerly a little promontory with a lagoon behind it. On the promontory were a few trees. Behind this clump of trees a trail led from the beach over to the lagoon, which gave rise to the name. There was an Indian village on each side of this promontory. Flounders were plentiful in the lagoon. This [the tidal marsh] is exactly where the Kind Street Station now stands.” According to other informants who worked with amateur ethnographer Arthur Ballard, this village was located at the foot of Yesler Way. If that were the case, the name would refer to the trail that crossed over the hill of Lake Washington in what is now the Leschi neighborhood.
Pioneer daughter Sophie Fyre Bass described a second trail that came down to the Sound here: from the Renton area, it “straggled on the Rainier Valley and approximately along Rainier Avenue, the zig-zagged across Jackson, Main, and King Streets to salt chuck (water).”
Until at least the Second World War, Whulshootseed speakers used this name when referring to the modern city of Seattle.
This small spit at the foot of Beacon Hill was likely an ideal place for camping, and its name suggests there may have been a small cultivated prairie here as well. Billy and Ellen Phillips, a Duwamish Indian couple, managed to eke out a living at the foot of nearby Stacy Street until 1910.
Waterman recorded this small promontory on an island as the location of a small stockade and lookout, used to defend settlements farther upriver. During a land claims case in the 1920s, however, Duwamish and Muckleshoot elder Major Hamilton testified that three longhouses had also once been located here. Long buried under fill, the site is near the old Rainier Brewery along Interstate 5.
This word, like its diminutive form, has two meanings. It can refer to the tiny holes made in canoes during carving to help measure hull thickness. Informants told Waterman with respect to this site that the name refers to channels, or ‘canoe-passes’, in the grassy marsh through which canoes can be pushed to effect a shortcut.
This was the widest of the several mouths of the Duwamish River, which once carried the commingled flows of the White, Green, Black, Cedar, and Sammamish rivers. Today, only the waters of the Green enter Elliott Bay.
Waterman and Harrington recorded differing versions of the name for this site along the shore of XQuQ. Both of them agreed, however, that the name referred to the limited access to the site. The similarity in their pronunciation suggests that one of the, after being misheard or misremembered, could have easily shifted to the other. Together, however, they paint a vivid picture of this place now somewhere in the middle of Seattle’s industrial harbor.
This is where Seetoowathl and his wife starved to death in their float house. Kellogg Island, a wildlife preserve on the lower Duwamish, is a remnant of an original, larger island.
This grassy, level, and very wet place was rich with giant horsetails (Equisetum telmateia), whose little black roots were peeled and eaten raw. As one of the first green plants to appear in the spring, these were an important source of food and nutrients after a long winter of preserved foods.
This quiet place in the river, on the south side of Kellogg Island, exits today as the last remaining bend of the Duwamish River’s original course.
Around a millennium ago, the Seattle Fault violently and suddenly slipped several meters, dramatically altering the nature of this place. Despite such catastrophes, excavations done here in the 1970s and 1980s show that indigenous people used this site for several centuries both before and after the earthquake. As early as 2000 years ago, when the site was an open, wet terrace above the river, people camped here during the spring to harvest fish and roots. By the time of the earthquake the site was being used far more intensively: faunal remains from that period were overwhelmingly of those of salmon but also included dogfish, cod, grebes, deer, seals, mussels, clams, octopuses, elderberry, and wild onions. After the earthquake, the site was higher and drier and became a permanent settlement surrounded by forest.
Muckleshoot informants in the 1920s recalled hearing of three houses located here on the west bank of the river, each 60 feet wide by 120 feet long, although the site appears to have been abandoned during the epidemics of the 1770s. The name refers to a type of woven hat worn by Yakama women, suggesting trade networks across the Cascades, while a clay-pot fragment found here may have come from the Columbia River. When the Port of Seattle uncovered the settlement in the 1970s, the resulting excavation provided the unrecognized Duwamish Tribe with a highly visible venue for their claims. This site is now Herring’s House Park. The Duwamish hope to someday build a longhouse and cultural center facing the park across West Marginal Way.
Black cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa) were, and still are, relatively common in the Duwamish estuary. While cottonwood leaves and bark had some medicinal uses, this name has the suffix -atS, which actually refers to the whole, growing tree as opposed to its component parts.
A small creek, likely fed by springs “weeping” from the face of the hillside, flowed across a small flat there. Tribal elders testified in the 1920s that three longhouses once stood here; the many middens found in the area are remainders of that lost settlement.
This was an important town; it included at least four longhouses and an enormous potlatch house, and middens have been found throughout this area. Important figures residing here included a headman named Tsootsalptud and a shaman called Bookelatqw. Two sisters-in-law of Big John, an important informant and early fishing-rights advocate among the Skwupabsh (Green River People, who lived upriver from Auburn), came from this village as well. The burning of Herring’s House in 1893 is one of the few times when the destruction of indigenous Puget Sound settlements by Americans appeared in the official historical record. Its name has since been applied to a city park along the Duwamish River.
This is a local form of the word for smelt, Hypomesus pretiosus; elsewhere around Puget Sound it was called ChaW or ChaWoo. The indigenous name for Longfellow Creek suggests a traditional fishery. Carbon dating of the remains of an old shellfish gathering and fishing campsite here shows it was in use as far back as the fourteenth century. Today, local residents are struggling to restore the creek and its salmon runs; despite their efforts in the upper watershed, the old estuary is still straddled by industrial development, most notably a busy foundry. Smelt, meanwhile, have largely disappeared from Elliot Bay: the shallow-sloped gravel beaches with freshwater seepage, upon which they depend for spawning, have almost all been destroyed by development.
As in many places around Seattle, the bluffs here are very unstable. In fact, this part of the West Seattle landscape continues to live up to its indigenous name, with elaborate restraints only partially able to keep the land from moving during small earthquakes or periods of heavy rain.
Duwamish River: Filling Tidelands
Created in 1897, the same year as the famed discovery of gold in the Klondike – an event which, combined with the arrival of the railroad, would catapult Seattle out its village period and into its first phase of explosive metropolitan growth – these images and maps show the estuary beginning to be hemmed in by railspurs across the tideflats and roads along the shores of the bay. Outlying settlements such as Youngstown are also appearing for the first time; before long, their connections to Seattle and other new neighborhoods would ensnare the estuary in an ever-tighter web of transformation. Explore for yourself the changes to the Duwamish estuary by selecting different map options on the left.
Duwamish River: Re-routing Rivers
The year 1909 saw the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s first world’s fair and its “coming-out party” as a major center of Pacific and regional commerce and culture. Central to this new sense of itself was the city’s reshaping of the Duwamish River and the Lake Washington watershed through the filling of tidelands, the straightening of rivers, the re-routing of Lake Washington water from the Black and Duwamish Rivers to the Lake Washington Ship Canal. All would have devastating effects on local ecologies, particularly the highly productive salmon runs up the Duwamish, Black and Green river systems and on the handful of Duwamish people that continued to live in Indigenous ways amid the urbanizing landscape. At the time, city planners and engineers thought they were improving nature, making it more rational, useful, and productive. The map to the left shows the Duwamish/Black/White river system before it was altered.
Duwamish River: Restoration?
In the twenty-first century, it would seem that the Duwamish estuary has reached its “final” stage of ecological and cultural transformation – with the exception of one small bend curving around the remnant of a larger island, none of the features that existed in 1841 remain. There are changes afoot on the ground, however, which suggest another transformation is in the works. Efforts to create habitat for endangered salmon and to mitigate the toxic remains of industry have included the rebuilding of creeks, the creation of new embayments, and the construction of wetlands. Meanwhile, the Duwamish Tribe has purchased land near a traditional village site and continues to articulate their connections to the river. History is not even close to being “over.”
Pioneer Square: Changes
By the end of the twentieth century, Pioneer Square was perhaps the most densely-layered historical landscape in the city, both because of the things that had existed there (Duwamish village, Yesler’s sawmill, the business district and Lava Beds, and even the prototypical Skid Road) and because of the kinds of stories told there about the city’s history. An ethnically- and socially-diverse slum gentrified into a tourism and entertainment district, one which saw the reintroduction of native plants and the installation of art highlighting the diverse Native American histories of the city. The “Little Crossing-Over Place,” as the area was known to the Duwamish, is a place where many kinds of histories cross and re-cross. The Waterlines Project has chosen this place as a focus. Click on the links here to see the fascinating changes that have happened to this essential part of Seattle.
Pioneer Square: Lagoon and Sand Spit
These maps show what Pioneer Square was like 150 years ago—water! This was once a lagoon known to be a good place to fish for flounder, bounded by rising hills on the north and east, a high island on the west and a sand spit on the south. The lagoon was quickly filled in by American settlers after 1853, first with waste sawdust from Yesler’s Mill, and then by rubble from the re-building efforts after the Great Fire of 1889, gravel from hill flattening projects and garbage from the quickly growing settlement in and around it. As you walk around this area, you can still sense the topography that lies under this part of the city. Cores for geological testing for construction projects still dig up sawdust just 10 feet under Occidental Park.
Pioneer Square: Island
This piece of high ground lay between the lagoon to the east and what is now called Elliot Bay to the west. It was probably an island only at high tide, while at low tide one could walk on exposed beach to the mainland to the north. This low land was chosen by Yesler for his mill site. Some reports mention a trail that went over this land from bay to lagoon, which gave it the name of "little crossing over place." Tribal elders remembered that as many as eight longhouses once existed here, but only the ruins of one abandoned longhouse were visible in 1852. This land is still higher than the surrounding landscape, best experienced by walking north from S. King Street on the alley between 1st and Occidental.
Pioneer Square: Stream
Tumbling down from the east was a small stream which emptied into the tidal lagoon somewhere near the intersection of 3rd Ave. S and S. Main St. This was an important source of fresh water for the Duwamish village here as well as the first American settlers. It is now lost under city streets and channeled by storm drains. By 1875, only the rough outlines of the lagoon and island remain; all the rest has been filled and built upon, forming the business district of Seattle as well as the much-maligned “Lava Beds,” where saloons, brothels, and other businesses catered to the town’s other needs. The Lava Beds were also home to the first Chinatown, included many mixed Indigenous-settler families.
Pioneer Square: Yesler’s Mill
Henry Yesler chose this site, at the intersection of current Yesler and 1st Ave, for his mill and wharf. This established Seattle’s first intersection and subsequent urban grid, with 1st Ave running south along the island connecting to other settlers, and Yesler running east into the hills. Yesler’s Mill started the first landfilling of both the Puget Sound shoreline and the lagoon with sawdust from his mill, a process that was accelerated later in the century by land speculators who bought and sold salt water “lots” that required massive filling to be habitable.