Leader of the Northwest

The gold rush led to massive immigration, with major arrivals of Japanese, Filipinos, immigrant Europeans, and European-Americans from back east. The arrival of Greeks and Sephardic Jews broadened the city’s ethnic mix.

Many of Seattle’s neighborhoods got their start around this time. At first, the city grew mainly along the water to the north and south of downtown to avoid steep grades. However, the new rich soon developed the land on First Hill that overlooks downtown “because it was close to downtown without being a part of it, and because it occupied a commanding position.”

Downtown Seattle was bustling with activity; as quickly as previous inhabitants moved out to newly created neighborhoods, new immigrants came in to take their place in the city core. There was an enormous apartment boom in the years after 1905.

Construction on the Smith Tower was completed in 1914. It was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River from its completion in 1914 until the Space Needle overtook it in 1962. It remained the tallest office building west of the Mississippi River until the Humble Building (now Exxon Building) was built in 1963.

Following the vision of city engineer R.H. Thompson, who had already played a key role in the development of municipal utilities, a massive effort was made to level the extreme hills that rose south and north of the bustling city. From 1900 to 1914 the Denny Regrade to the north and the Jackson Regrade to the south leveled more than 120 feet (37 m) of Denny Hill and parts of First and Beacon Hills. The Denny Regrade continued in spurts until 1930. Dirt from the Jackson Regrade filled in the swampy tidelands that are now occupied by the SoDo neighborhood as well as Safeco Field and Qwest Field. A seawall containing dirt from the Denny Regrade created the current waterfront. More dirt from the Denny Regrade went to build the industrial Harbor Island at the mouth of the Duwamish River, south of Downtown.

The Denny Regrade wasn’t the only radical reshaping of Seattle’s topography in this period. The 1911–1917 construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal included two major “cuts” (the Montlake Cut and the Fremont Cut, four bascule bridges, and the Government Locks (now Hiram M. Chittenden Locks). The level of Lake Washington dropped; the Black River, which formerly ran out of the south end of the lake, dried up completely, and Seward Island became the Seward Peninsula, now the site of Seward Park.

After the obvious geographical expansion from downtown, “other neighborhoods… [came]… into existence… [as]… the result of streetcar lines moving north and east from downtown and providing opportunities for settling that were obviously attractive to all but the poorest.” Several lines, running to most of central Seattle’s modern neighborhoods, created the communities of Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, Madrona, Madison Park, and Leschi. All of the expansion was happening without zoning, leading to “different land uses and economic classes everywhere [being] mixed.”

Seattle also grew by annexation in this period, annexing areas including the previously separately incorporated Columbia City, Ballard, South Park, and West Seattle in 1907 and Georgetown in 1910.

At the same time as the city was expanding dramatically, the city planners began to put in parks. “Four million dollars worth of bonds were sold between 1905 and 1912 to develop the parks and build the boulevards designed by the Olmsteds to connect them.” Almost all of Seattle’s large parks were constructed during this period: Woodland Park (which includes the Woodland Park Zoo), Volunteer Park, Green Lake, Washington Park (now the site of the University of Washington Arboretum), Ravenna Park, Leschi Park, Seward Park. The Olmsted plan for boulevards was carried out nearly in full. The form of the plan was “a winding parkway of about 20 miles (32 km) which would link most of the existing and planned parks and greenbelts within the city limits.” Then, as now, no main park or particular area of Seattle that stood out above the rest. Much of the ambiance of Seattle derives from the fact that whole of the city (with the notable exception of the industrial area in the center of the city, south of downtown, and extending to South Park and Boeing Field; and to a lesser extent, downtown itself) is filled with small parks, hills, and lakes.

Where there had so recently been wilderness, increasingly there was the reality of a major city. The Seattle Symphony was founded in 1903, and while few, if any, other comparably important arts institutions were established, the story was different in more popular entertainments. Vaudeville impresarios Alexander Pantages, John Considine, and John Cort (the last also involved in legitimate theater) were all based in Seattle in this era.

World War I and the Great Depression

In 1910, Seattle voters approved a referendum to create a development plan for the whole city. However, the result, known as the Bogue plan, was never to be implemented.

Virgil Bogue had worked for Olmsted and was intimately familiar with the land in Seattle. The Bogue plan had at its heart a grand civic center in Belltown and the Denny Regrade connected to the rest of the city by a rapid transit rail system, with a huge expansion of the park system, crowned by the total conversion of 4,000-acre (16 km2) Mercer Island into parkland. Striking in Bogue’s plan is his grasp of the consequences of growth; he foresaw that the city’s residents would eventually number in the millions and that such a grand park or efficient transit system could put in place early in the development at much lower cost.

However, the Bogue plan was defeated by an alliance of fiscal conservatives who opposed such a grandiose plan on general principles and populists who argued that the plan would mainly benefit the rich: for example, the proposed massive Mercer Island park could, at that time, only be reached by boat. The Bogue plan sat on the shelf, never to be used. Ultimately, a few of the sites proposed for public parks were developed as such; more became private golf courses and such. The rail system was never built, and Mercer Island is now an upper middle class suburb, connected to the city by an Interstate Highway floating bridge.

At the same time as the government stopped investing for the future, private enterprise also began to stiffen. The war hid this, because it “boomed and expanded Seattle’s economy phenomenally, but in false ways.” The growth in the size of the economy was unprecedented, increasing nearly tenfold. However, it was almost all in wartime shipbuilding and lumber, and there was very little growth in new industries.

When the war ended, so did Seattle’s prosperity. Economic output crashed as the government stopped buying boats, and there were no new industries to pick up the slack. Seattle stopped being a place of explosive growth and opportunity. Western Washington was a center of radical labor agitation. Most dramatically, a general strike occurred in 1919, the first in the United States. The Industrial Workers of the World played a prominent role in the strike. After surviving the general strike, Seattle mayor Ole Hanson became a prominent figure in the First Red Scare, and made an unsuccessful attempt to ride that backlash to the White House in an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for the presidential election of 1920.

Things picked up in the late 1920s, but then came the Great Depression. Times were rough all over the country, but Seattle was hit particularly hard because the manufacturing industries had been crowded out by the war.

Seattle saw some of the country’s harshest labor strife of the Depression. During the Maritime Strike of 1934, striking longshoremen faced off with police and strikebreakers in a series of daily skirmishes that became known as “The Battle of Smith Cove”. As a result of the violence of the strike, Seattle lost much of its maritime traffic to the Port of Los Angeles.

Although no longer the economic powerhouse it had been at the turn of the century, it was in the 1920s that Seattle first began seriously to be an arts center. The Frye and Henry families put on public display the collections that would become the core of the Frye Art Museum and Henry Art Gallery, respectively. Nellie Cornish had established the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) in 1914. Australian painter Ambrose Patterson arrived in 1919; over the next few decades Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Guy Irving Anderson, and Paul Horiuchi would establish themselves as nationally and internationally known artists. Bandleader Vic Meyers and others kept the speakeasies jumping through the Prohibition era, and by mid-century the thriving jazz scene in the city’s Skid Road district would launch the careers of such luminaries as Ray Charles and Quincy Jones.

World War II and afer

From World War II until 1970, Seattle underwent what amounted to a long, sustained economic boom, although not without occasional reverses. Boeing was hiring, the economy was booming, and while there had been no successful regional planning, the city had not yet grown quite large enough.

The Boeing airplane company grew out of the fortune of William “Bill” Boeing’s boat company and his fascination with airplanes and flying. In 1917, before American entry into World War I, Boeing employed only 28 people, but when the war orders started coming in, Boeing grew to “an enterprising firm with the one customer airplane builders had in those days, the federal government. Employing about four thousand people, with sales just under ten million dollars a year, it was a good if unspectacular business for Seattle.” The company struggled through the period between the wars, and “began to build dressers, counters and furniture for a corset company and a confectioner’s shop, as well as flat-bottomed boats called sea sleds.” However, when World War II started, the government suddenly desired tens of thousands of planes a year, and Boeing was positioned to provide them. Working under fixed-fee contracts, Boeing churned out airplanes and became by far the largest employer in Seattle.

However, Boeing spawned few local spin-off industries; only 5% of the subcontracted work was in the Puget Sound. Boeing was, by intention, a place where engineers designed the planes and line workers assembled parts that were imported from all over the world. Ostensibly, this would reduce the dependency of Seattle’s economy on the fortunes of the airline business. The problem was that Seattle was still dependent on the airline business, without enjoying any of the spin-off industries that might have diversified the economy. When the war ended, “the military canceled its bomber orders; Boeing factories shut down and 70,000 people lost their jobs,” and initially it appeared that Seattle had little to show for the wartime Boeing boom. While the war was on, almost all production went either towards Boeing factories or Boeing planes. After the war, the crash ensured that no one would have much money for new local development.

This period of stagnation soon ended with the rise of the jet airplane and Boeing’s reincarnation as the world’s leading producer of commercial passenger planes. With the Boeing 707-120, Seattle became Boeing’s company town; “in 1947 Boeing employed about one out of every five of King County’s manufacturing workers, in 1957 about every other one.” As Boeing boomed, so did Seattle. From 1940 to 1950, the population increased 99,289 or 27% from 368,302 to 467,591. From 1950 to 1960, the population increased 89,496 or 20% to 557,087. All of those people had to live somewhere, and the Fifties saw a huge housing boom. Population density all over Seattle exploded as people filled the boundaries of settlement in the city and began to move north. Most of the development was in single-family houses, since land was plentiful.

At the same time, the freeways were being built to compensate for all this new growth. The community of Mercer Island, the “Eastside” (east of Lake Washington) communities of Bryn Mawr, Newport, Bellevue, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point, Medina, Juanita, and the northern suburbs of Kenmore, Lake Forest Park, and Lake Hills all came into being during the Boeing boom. Interstate 5 (I-5) cut the city in half on a north-south axis, while I-90 crossed east-west, connecting with Mercer Island via the floating Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge. SR 520 skirted the north end of Montlake just south of the Montlake Cut, and paralleled I-90 with its own floating bridge. I-5 neatly cut off Downtown Seattle from Capitol Hill, First Hill, and even from part of the historic downtown, including the tony Sorrento Hotel, which was left stranded on the “wrong” side of the freeway. I-90 was perhaps less disruptive (unless, of course, you were living in its path), since it is partly routed through a tunnel and skirts a more-or-less unbuildable edge of Beacon Hill, avoiding slicing the city into north and south halves. Freeway Park was eventually built over I-5 in 1976, restoring something of a link between Downtown and First Hill, but was not heavily enough used to provide much mitigation. The R.H. Thompson Expressway, planned to connect SR 520 with I-90 and SR 167, was never built, after the initial urban freeway construction sparked a Seattle echo of San Francisco’s earlier Freeway Revolt.

With all this postwar growth came growing pollution of the lakes and rivers that provided the much of beauty that had been Seattle’s appeal to its recent immigrants. Also, the sprawl constantly demanded more roads, since the ones already built had terrible traffic. (Naturally, new roads simply led to new development and were soon as snarled as those they were intended to relieve.) A group of Seattle natives, anxious to preserve the city in which they grew up, came together to institute the Metropolitan Problems Committee, or METRO, intended to manage and plan the metropolitan area. The driving force behind this movement was Jim Ellis, who headed the committee and repeatedly brought the planning issue before the voters and city governments. The logic was that a regional transit system would require a regional political body; the same held for regional sewage and pollution control or regional growth planning. The original, comprehensive METRO regional plan was defeated in a vote by suburbanites who seemed to view the problem not as one of pollution, transit, sprawl, or lack of planning: in what some Seattleites referred to as the “Pave the Lake” strategy, they just wanted more bridges across Lake Washington.

METRO came back, scaled down to a sewage treatment and transport organization, and prevailed with an overwhelming majority in Seattle and a decent showing in the suburbs. METRO, despite repeated attempts by Jim Ellis, never did manage to get authority for planning, and to this day there is no single body responsible for planning the Seattle metropolitan area and its transportation systems. (METRO was eventually merged into the King County government.) Seattle and King County have, at times, seemed better at coming up with money for stadiums and other large public works than for broader projects.

During this period, Seattle’s downtown was in decline (as were many other downtowns across the nation, for much the same reason): people shopped in the suburbs, not in the city. The market for goods in the city’s center was drying up. Seattle’s solution was to host the Century 21 Exposition, the 1962 World’s Fair. The area directly north of downtown was slumping very badly—some of it to the point of being known as the “Warren Avenue slum”—and the city owned a lot of property almost adjacent to that “slum”. The fair, given a futuristic science theme, was designed to leave behind a civic center, now known as Seattle Center, containing arts buildings, a food court, museums, and the like and serving also as a fairground. The United States Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) was one of the central attractions. Boeing performed one of its few altruistic public actions: they “created and installed in the United States Science Pavilion a space age Spacearium, a permanent addition to the center and one of the most attractive features of the fair.”

In conjunction with the fair, a demonstration monorail line was constructed, running from the center of downtown to the fair, a distance of 0.9 miles; it was constructed at no cost to the city and was paid for out of ticket sales, and then turned over to the city for $600,000. It is currently the only monorail in the United States to turn a profit. It is now almost exclusively a tourist attraction, as the distance covered is too small to be of much practical use unless you are living in a hotel downtown and visiting the Seattle Center. The World’s Fair also granted Seattle the landmark Space Needle, also a continuing tourist attraction. Seattle also acquired an Opera House, a Coliseum, and a refurbished Arena (all of which have since been replaced or significantly remodeled), and a great location for future carnivals and fairs. Today, Seattle Center is host to the Bite of Seattle, Bumbershoot, a music and art festival that draws crowds in the hundreds of thousands every Labor Day Weekend, Northwest Folklife Festival on Memorial Day Weekend, a comparably large folk music and folk culture festival, which somehow manages to stay in the black despite being free to all comers, and PrideFest, a finali of the much larger event Seattle Gay Pride Parade like many other cities every year in late June in honor of the 1969 Stonewall Riots proudly flying the pride flag atop the Space Needle for the first time in 2010. The Pacific Science Center continues to draw crowds, along with a small amusement park that operates all summer. The World’s Fair arguably reenergized the downtown of Seattle, and was generally a smashing success, even finishing with a profit.

After the war, the University of Washington also took a step forward, finally fulfilling the promise of its name. Charles Odegaard, as president of the University, used his office to press for the creation of community colleges and other four-year colleges in Washington, so that the University of Washington could concentrate on research. By the time Odegaard retired, the UW was second only to MIT in the size of its federal grants, and the number of students attending had swelled. Because the University of Washington campus is open, its impact on the University District as well as the rest of the city was quite significant; "In remaining a largely commuter school, the university has diminished its ability to withdraw as a community in itself and has maintained thereby its ability to the larger and more amorphous community.

Boeing Bust

Due to changing external demand and the cancellation of the SST program, “the Boeing workforce was cut from 80,400 to 37,200 between early 1970 and October 1971”. After 1973, Seattle was in good company for its recession, since the rest of the country was also experiencing the energy crisis. However, Seattle was hit harder than most cities due to its over-reliance on Boeing as an employer, and had the worst post-Depression unemployment for any major US city, nearly 12%. As with most periods of downturn, there was not much private investment or construction. However, despite the crushing unemployment and the infamous billboards saying “Would the last person who leaves Seattle please turn out the lights,” the outflux of people was “never more than 15% of those laid off,” and was promptly countered by new arrivals taking advantage of the now-underpriced housing stock.

Quite likely, Seattle evaded the fate of Detroit through being a port city with a large number of highly educated, skilled workers. Seattle industry did slightly better than the national average during the rest of the 1970s; nonetheless the boom decades of the 1950s and 1960s had been brought to a decisive end.

The State Hotel and Delmar Building, one of the many century-old buildings in Pioneer Square.
The Pike Place Market, arguably Seattle’s most significant tourist attraction, gained its modern form in the aftermath of the Boeing crash. The market had been founded in 1907 with a great deal of early success, but, like most public markets in America, had suffered a decline as corporations took over food distribution. The deportation of the Japanese from Seattle during World War II hit the market particularly hard, since 80% of its “wet stall” vendors had been ethnically Japanese. The city council wanted to make a “Pike Place Plaza” by demolishing the mostly derelict market and replacing it with “a new hotel, a 32-story apartment building, four 28-story office buildings, a hockey arena, and a 4,000-car parking garage.” A “Keep the Market” initiative, led by architect Victor Steinbrueck, was passed in 1971, pushing for adaptive reuse. A promotional committee was created, historical district status attained, and vendors were convinced to move in and sell wares. The project was wildly successful, and today the Pike Place Market pulls nine million visitors each year.

A similar story occurred with Pioneer Square. An old neighborhood, largely built after the Great Seattle Fire, it had fallen into derelict status after the war. However, with a reenergized downtown, businesses started to look for buildings that could be acquired cheaply. When offices moved into renovated buildings, suddenly there was a market for facilities to service them, leading to a “flood of other restaurants, galleries, boutiques.” Seattle was definitely recovering from the blow dealt by the Boeing recession, refilling areas that had threatened to become slums.

Silicon Forest

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft Corporation, attended the Lakeside School, a private middle and high school in Haller Lake, at the northern Seattle city limits. This turned out to have rather dramatic consequences for the entire Seattle area. Microsoft’s first product, Microsoft BASIC, came out in 1976. The company was incorporated in New Mexico the same year. By 1978 sales exceeded one million dollars a year. In 1979, Microsoft moved its offices back to Redmond from Albuquerque, New Mexico — they had gone to New Mexico to be near a client who no longer dominated their business, Gates and Allen wanted to go back where they were from, and it was easier to entice quality programmers to the Seattle area than the deserts of New Mexico. By 1985, sales were over $140 million, by 1990, $1.18 billion, and by 1995, Microsoft was the world’s most profitable corporation, Allen and Gates were billionaires, and literally thousands of their past and present employees were millionaires. Microsoft had grown from a two-man operation to a company with 11,000 employees in 1992 and 48,030 (about half of them in the Seattle area) in 2001.

Microsoft spawned a host of other companies in the Seattle area: millionaire employees often left to found their own companies, and Allen, after his own departure from Microsoft, became a major investor in new companies. Seattle-area companies that owe their origins at least indirectly to Microsoft include RealNetworks, AttachmateWRQ, InfoSpace, and a host of others. Quite unlike Boeing, Microsoft has served as a catalyst for the creation of a whole realm of industry. Microsoft has also taken a much more active hand than Boeing in public works in the area, donating software to many schools (including the University of Washington).

During this era, Seattle has also experienced quite good growth in the biotechnology and coffee sectors, and Seattle-based Nordstrom became a national brand.

Paul Allen, whose fortune was made through Microsoft though he has long since ceased to be an active participant in the company, has been a major force in Seattle politics, for better or worse. He attempted a voter initiative to build the Seattle Commons, a huge park in South Lake Union and the Cascade District, and even offered to put up his own money to endow a security force for the park, but it was defeated at the polls. (Allen is now the leader of the movement to redevelop this same area as a biotech center.) He did get a football stadium for the Seattle Seahawks through a successful statewide ballot initiative, and founded the Experience Music Project (originally intended as a Jimi Hendrix museum) on the grounds of Seattle Center.

One other piece of urban design in this era is the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, completed in 1988 and expanded in 2003, which bridges the freeway and adjoins Freeway Park, connecting First Hill to downtown. Arguably, the convention center has helped fuel further downtown growth and has (at least to some extent) reconnected both sides of the freeway. Paralleling the Microsoft and Internet boom, Downtown Seattle underwent a revival; at the height of the boom, downtown office space was described as “Number four or five on the national hit parade [of real estate prices], and climbing.” After an increase in vacancy to double-digit levels in the Internet Bust, occupancy began to return. The return of the downtown retail district appears to be a more lasting phenomenon, although at the expense of having a retail district dominated by national chain stores, many of them gathered in mall complexes.


Seattle has long had a rich musical heritage, as many of rock’s top names since the ‘60s have hailed from the area. In the mid-20th-century the thriving jazz scene in the city’s Skid Road and Central Districts launched the careers of such luminaries as Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. Both Jones and, later, Jimi Hendrix attended Garfield High School, and in the ‘60s, such garage rock/proto punk bands as the Sonics and the Wailers emerged, and in the ’70s, Heart. The ’80s saw such Seattle heavy metal acts as Queensrÿche and Metal Church gain popularity, while Seattle native Duff McKagan went on to massive success with Guns N’ Roses after relocating to Los Angeles. But it was perhaps the early ’90s grunge movement for which Seattle is best known from a musical perspective. During this time such acts as Mother Love Bone, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Alice in Chains, and Mudhoney (band) scored massive worldwide hits, and turned the musical tide from glam metal to a style that borrowed equally from garage rockers (the Sonics), punk (the Stooges), and ’70s heavy metal (Black Sabbath).

Seattle Today

The Seattle of today is physically and demographically not so different from the Seattle of the 1960s. It is still filled with single family households, still mostly white with as many Asians as blacks, still liberal, still with about half a million people, still almost entirely without a centralized method of planning. The suburbs have grown, but they are also in essentially the same state as before, if a little more independent. Seattle’s economy is more vibrant now, and richer, and there is certainly in increase in cultural activity, but the largest employer is still Boeing. The Commons was defeated, just as Jim Ellis was in the Sixties. There’s still terrible traffic on the freeways. The city is still physically beautiful.

The downturns after the dot-com bust and again in the period of 2008–2010 were milder than the “Boeing Bust” at the end of the 1960s. With the advent (and, as of 2010, ongoing extension) of Link Light Rail there is finally a sign of progress toward a mass transit system. Separately, three separate referendums backed a monorail proposal opposed by most of the politicians. A fourth referendum failed due to cost concerns, and the monorail was canceled before construction began.



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