Seattle History


Seattle, the great capital of the Pacific Northwest, has had a tumultuous past, often by placing itself on the road to ruin by relying on a single industry and then rebounding gracefully with a typical Seattle resilience.

TIMBER! The Logging Industry and the Origins of Seattle

In the fall of 1851, two intrepid brothers, Arthur and David Denny, (and a handful of others who had migrated west during the Gold Rush), landed at Alki Point on the western edge of Elliot Bay. After spending a miserable winter they migrated to the eastern shores where they established the small settlement that would become Seattle—a name derived from the joint Chief of the two native tribes that inhabited the region.

The first major industry to grace the emerald shores of Elliot Bay was logging. From the time of the first colonial activities in 1851, the timber trade proved to be the primary source of growth in this small northwestern town. The combination of the safe bay and the proximity of lush and dense millennia-old coniferous forests made Seattle the perfect location and in 1852 Henry Yesler began construction on the first steam-powered mill in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle quickly boomed, driven by the timber demands of an emerging shipbuilding industry in the area and massive San Francisco building projects kept money flowing into the town. Traditionally it was believed that the strip of land that Yesler was given by the settlers (and which is now occupied by Yesler Way) was the first "Skid Row" in America, named for the logs that were dragged down the hill to Yesler's mill. The abundance of alcohol, gambling and prostitution located around this center of the logging industry gave "Skid Row" its modern connotation. True or not, the tale as been part of Seattle myth for nearly a century.

FIRE! The Great 1889 Seattle Fire

The abundance of timber, however, would prove disastrous for the fledgling town. On June 6th, 1889 a Seattle fire broke out. Since nearly every building was constructed of affordable, but flammable timber, the fire quickly spread, engulfing nearly the entire downtown including most of the wharves and crippling the port.

While the fire was catastrophic, Seattle weathered the disaster and emerged stronger than before. The city was rebuilt in brick and stone and the massive rebuilding effort stimulated the economy providing thousands of new jobs and ensuring that the economic downturn which had affected much of the country in the last decade of the 19th century would not be felt as strongly in the Emerald City.

The Klondike Gold Rush

In August of 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike region of Canada and the following year the steamship Portland docked in Seattle's reconstructed harbor with a famed "ton of gold" in its cargo hold. Seattle's temperate climate and location made it the obvious transportation and supply center for those heading to the frozen north in search of fortune.

While the cold climate and harsh conditions of the Klondike and Alaska ensured migrations were not nearly as extensive as they were to Oregon and California during its 1849 counterpart, the Klondike Gold Rush brought thousands of people to Seattle and flooded Seattle with reconstruction money.

The 20th Century: Boeing and World War II

Boeing, the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, and the biggest exporter in the United States, had its humble beginnings on the emerald shores of Elliot Bay. William Boeing, the company's founder, had his start in the timber industry that had previously dominated this new capital of the great Northwest. Boeing's knowledge of wood allowed him to begin designing planes and he founded his own airline manufacturing company in 1916.

By 1938, the fledgling company had become a world leader in aircraft design and manufacturing. During World War II Boeing was responsible for the design of the B-17 and the B-29, the Allies' most important bombers. Seattle's biggest employer, Boeing churned out nearly 350 planes each month at the height of the war. All this activity brought tremendous amounts of capital and labor to Seattle.

The end of World War II, however, was disastrous for the adolescent city as nearly 70,000 people lost their jobs overnight when the government cancelled all its pending contracts. While the end of the war proved temporarily catastrophic, the technology developed during the global conflict, namely the jet engine, ensured Boeing's and consequently Seattle's healthy survival, as would the escalation of military spending during the Cold War.

The 1962 World's Fair

To combat the decline of downtown Seattle in the wake of the postwar economic downturn and the nationwide flight to the suburbs, the city hosted the Century 21 Exposition and the World's Fair in 1962. The futuristic theme of the fair provided Seattle with many of its signature structures including the iconic Space Needle, the Monorail and the rest of the Seattle Center. While the project proved to be a success, revitalizing Seattle's civic center, it had the unforeseen effect of creating a Seattle transportation nightmare as people began to return to the city—a problem that exists to this day.

The Global Energy Crisis, the Decline of Boeing, and Seattle's Diversification

In the 1970s with the onset of the Oil Crisis and the economic downturn that followed, Boeing took a significant hit and had to lay off a large portion of its workforce. Seattle, due to its heavy reliance on Boeing as one of its primary employers thus suffered a tremendous economic setback and had the worst post-depression employment of any US city to date. Unlike its Midwestern counterparts, Seattle quickly rebounded due primarily to its highly educated workforce and active port. Boeing eventually recovered from the effects of the energy crises, but Seattle had begun to diversify as fledgling technology companies took up residence in Seattle's undervalued real estate.

The Silicon Valley of the North—Microsoft, the Internet and Seattle's Quest for Digital Dominance

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the co-founders of Microsoft, were both raised in the Seattle metropolitan area. While not originally founded in Washington state, Microsoft quickly relocated to its founders' home following its initial successes in the computer industry. By 1995, Microsoft had become the world's most profitable company bringing in billions of dollars in revenue and creating new millionaires in the Seattle area almost overnight. The result was the creation of over 40,00 new jobs and thousands of new investors who often created their own companies.

Within a few years, Seattle had gone from being Boeing's burg to a thriving center of information technology and research, rivaling California's Silicon Valley and diversifying Seattle's economy, ensuring that the economic setbacks of the 1970s would not be repeated.

Coffee Capital—Starbucks, Tully's and Seattle's Coffee Conquest

While the technology sector percolated beneath the Washington redwoods, another Seattle industry emerged producing companies that would also become the worldwide leaders in their sector. Perhaps it was the cool and damp climate, or the relatively large concentration of young technology workers, but regardless of the cause, Seattle in the closing decades of the 20th century became the caffeine capital of the world producing three of the country's largest coffee chains and spawning the anti-corporate globalization movement's greatest nightmare—Starbucks.

Founded in 1971, the company made a fortune selling warm specialty coffee drinks to its weary, cold and parched patrons in an inviting café atmosphere. The result was a worldwide phenomenon as the small café branched out from its humble home in Pike Place Market, opening its doors to similar customers around the world and spawning dozens of imitators. The grand Starbucks Center is now Seattle's largest building by volume, an indication of its economic and social prominence within the city.

Seattle in the 21st Century

Seattle, throughout its history, has proven to be one of America's most resilient cities—constantly weathering disasters, economic and natural, from its Pacific perch. In less than two centuries it has come to stand tall as one of the great cities of the American West. In recent years it has become the home of several biotechnology companies and research institutes in addition to remaining one of the capitals of aerospace and computing and is without a doubt a city looking toward the future (although a future quite different from the one imagined in 1962). It is certain that great things are to be expected in the 21st century from the emerald of the Pacific Northwest.

-Chris Casey