Discover and Explore Seattle's Past Landscapes

Project Description

What is the Waterlines Project?
We examine the history of Seattle through a focus on its shorelines: the natural and human forces that have shaped them, the ways they have been used and thought about by the people who have lived here, and how this historic understanding might influence urban-development decisions being made today. This is, we believe, an appropriate and compelling framework for viewing the city's history–one that will engage public audiences and raise themes that are important in American history.

Where does the information come from?
The information about Seattle's past landscapes exists in the documentary record (maps, illustrations, photographs and written descriptions) of early Seattle Native and settler communities, oral histories, and archaeological and geological data from bores and excavations. Most of this data is in the public domain or with copyrights held by the Burke Museum or one of our partner institutions. A considerable amount of the latter exists only in "grey literature" of technical reports, with little current public access. One of the primary goals of this project is to "daylight" this literature and make it available to a wide audience. To date, we have already collected extensive records, many compiled into a geographic information system (GIS) database and overlaid on contemporary maps, aerial photos and satellite images.

What regions does the Waterlines Project focus on?
For the initial stages of Waterlines, we focus on Seattle's central waterfront district (including historic Pioneer Square). This area was the site of a major Duwamish village before American settlement, and its landscape was radically transformed by those settlers after 1850. It is now densely populated, pedestrian oriented, heavily used by both Seattle residents and tourists, and is the site of several major construction projects in the near future, making it an ideal place to launch our Project. Later we plan to extend Waterlines interpretive resources to other areas of the city, including the Puget Sound shoreline north and south of the central waterfront, the lake and canal system, and the Duwamish/Black/Green river system.

What else is the Waterlines Project doing?
In addition to this Web site, we will add other ways to help the general public visualize Seattle's past landscapes. In planning stages now are physical exhibits to be placed at sites in downtown Seattle and electronic broadcasts to handheld devices. Both will allow people moving through Seattle cityscapes to also see what they looked like in the past, from 100 to 10,000 years ago. We plan to install a series of actual lines through the city to mark its past shorelines, and to serve as a trail marker for pedestrians.

Ultimately, we believe that if people can begin to think about and discuss even some of what has happened in Seattle in the relatively short time since its 'founding', they can begin to consider and plan for what might be best for it in the future. The project is intended as a planning tool in the largest sense–as a means of producing the kinds of ideas which help a city reflect on what it can become.