Though it’s built on seven hills like Rome, Seattle is a city that’s famous for its modernity. What it lacks in Romantic ruins, it makes up for in cutting-edge technology and a penchant for gadgetry and innovation. Global giants Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing and Amazon all originated here, along with trends like nano-brewing, grunge, third-wave coffee bars and socially conscious rap. But, behind every Seattle success story lies the spirit of the city’s pioneering founders. To appreciate its modernity, you first have to understand its past, an action-packed tale of boom, bust, fire, folly and periodic reinvention.
Native American roots
Present-day Seattle sits on land once inhabited by the Duwamish tribe whose venerable leader, Chief Sealth, lent his name to the city. Little of the Duwamish’s ephemeral settlements remain, but you can get a candid if slightly touristy taste of how they lived at the purpose-built Tillicum Village on Blake Island (where Sealth was born in 1786). Argosy Cruises organize all-inclusive packages to the reconstructed ‘village’ from Seattle’s waterfront. The trip includes a boat ride, salmon bake, story-telling and dance performances from Coast Salish people.
If you’d rather investigate Native American culture alone, head to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, whose ‘Pacific Voices’ collection masterfully catalogues the history of the Northwest tribes. Also worth perusing are Seattle’s two Native American cultural centers: the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in West Seattle, and the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Discovery Park. Both organize sporadic powwows and other events.
Modern Seattle was founded in November 1851 at Alki Point by a group of tough pioneers fresh off the Oregon Trail. The so-called Denny Party endured a miserable winter on a windswept beach before transferring across Elliott Bay to what is now downtown. Little remains of the party’s original settlement, although a monument in Alki Beach Park in West Seattle marks the rough spot of their disembarkation. In among the modern beach condos, you’ll also find a tiny log house museum encased in an old carriage house built from Douglas firs in the early 1900s. With a lucid imagination you can try to picture the early settlers and their stubborn desire to persevere at all costs.
By the 1880s, Seattle was a transient settlement of wooden storefronts, log houses and lumber mills and it flaunted the kind of wild and bawdy nightlife that infected many frontier towns of the era. It wasn’t to endure. In 1889, a virulent fire reduced 80% of the nascent settlement to ashes. The Seattle that re-emerged was built in sturdy brick at a level 30ft higher than the original lumber town to avoid flooding. What remains of the pre-fire settlement is buried underground in a cavernous network of cellars and walkways. Seattle’s ‘Underground’ was rediscovered in the 1960s by a conservationist named Bill Speidel, whose subterranean tours through the spooky remnants were laced with humor and rich in incredulous anecdotes. Though Speidel passed away in the 1980s, the theatrical Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is still riotously popular for its clever mix of history and storytelling.
Much of Seattle’s early success rested on the broad shoulders of its strong Nordic community made up of immigrants from Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and centered on the fishing community of Ballard. Despite being incorporated into Seattle in 1907, Ballard has retained its Nordic spirit in Bergen Place Park (guarded by the five Nordic flags) and the Nordic Heritage Museum which details the history and culture of the European pioneers with particular emphasis on fishing, art and textiles. If you’re around in August, bring a horned helmet for the feisty Viking Days festival.
In keeping with the spirit of its original pioneers, Seattle’s post-fire rebuilding was improbably rapid beginning mere days after the flames had subsided. To prevent further catastrophe, the new buildings were constructed in handsome red-brick in a distinctive fin-de-siècle style known as Richardsonian Romanesque, a style that began across the continent in Boston. Classic examples of the genre, marked by decorative columns and arched windows, embellish the Pioneer Building and the Grand Central Arcade.
The original downtown fell into disrepair in the 1920s as businesses migrated north, but the homogenous grid of buildings known as Pioneer Square was saved from the demolition ball in the 1960s thanks to campaigns by conservationists such as Speidel. These days the historically evocative neighborhood is known for its monthly art walk (the oldest in the nation), emerging farm-to-table restaurants and ebullient sports bars (the city’s football stadium, CenturyLink Field, is a prominent neighbor).
Ironically, the event that propelled Seattle from a peripheral frontier town into the undisputed capital of the Pacific Northwest was sparked thousands of miles away in the frozen wastes of the Yukon in Canada. When gold was discovered in Klondike Creek in 1896, Seattle quickly established itself as the supply center and embarkation point for tens of thousands of optimistic prospectors heading north through the Inside Passage to Alaska. Outfitters sprang up all over Pioneer Square as the port heaved daily with ships full of starry-eyed dreamers (and scoundrels). Engrained in the national consciousness like no other gold rush before or since, the spirit of Klondike has been preserved in a unique US National Historic Park split between dual outposts in Seattle and Skagway, Alaska. The park’s Seattle museum in Pioneer Square is a cerebral feast that follows the stories of five stampeders from rags to (occasional) riches in fascinating detail.
Ninety-five percent of Klondike’s hardy pioneers returned home with nothing but adventurous stories; but the few who struck it rich banded together to form a veterans’ association in the city that launched their meteoric careers. The Arctic Club’s downtown HQ stands out as one of Seattle’s finest architectural heirlooms. Constructed in classic beaux arts style in 1916, the building is characterized by its attractive terracotta tiles and eccentric walrus heads that protrude from the façade like medieval gargoyles. The club was dissolved in 1971, but the building – now listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was later reincarnated as a posh hotel. The illustrious interior remains faithful to the colorful social institution it once hosted with wood-paneling, leather chairs, and black and white photos of former club members.