The Waterlines Project

Photo: Burke Museum
Photo: Burke Museum

Seattle's Past Landscapes

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, carved by glaciers and changing sea levels. See how The Waterlines Project is bringing these ancient ghost landscapes back to life.

Visit Waterlines website

screenshot of a map showing seattle's past waterways and landscapes

The Waterlines Map

a stack of three mapsThe Waterlines Project Map (PDF) is a rendering of the Seattle area in the mid-19th century, just prior to non-Native settlement, created using photorealistic aerial views collaged with hand painting. The map content integrates research from the sciences, natural and cultural histories, with an admixture of informed imagining.

The place names on this map, written in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish people, are drawn from elders who worked with ethnographers in the early twentieth century, from the work of linguists and scholars such as the late Vi Hilbert, and from an atlas created by Coll Thrush and Nile Thompson for the book Native Seattle.

Place names are stories: proof of presence, archives of meaning, evidence of ancestry, and a reference for treaties and other legal connections to territory. They provide context to the ongoing presence and strong connections to the city for Native people as co-managers of our shared resources. Refer to “An Atlas of Indigenous Seattle” for further information on the Native place names found on this map.

The historical landscape conditions are based on mapping done by the Puget Sound River History Project for guiding regional issues of resource management, restoration, and environmental planning. These studies can inform urban design decisions related to green infrastructure, flood management, and other contemporary planning issues surrounding sustainability and resilience. For further information on the Puget Sound River History Project’s research and methodology please see “Reconstructing the Historical Riverine Landscape of the Puget Lowland.

Download Map (PDF)

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Production by Amir Sheikh in collaboration with Brian Collins, Don Fels, Peter Lape, Joyce LeCompte, Coll Thrush, Cynthia Updegrave, and David Williams. We thank the many knowledgeable people who have provided additional contributions and critical reviews, including Brian Atwater, Brian Boram, Steve Denton, Jolene Hass, Warren King George, Lorraine McConaghy, Jess Milhausen, Megon Noble, Laura Phillips, Aaron Raymond, and Ken Yocom. Map designed by Michael Lewis and Jordan Monez of About Nature. Waterlines is a project of the Burke Museum.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture.