Seattle History Overview

The history of Seattle city government parallels Seattle's greater history. Sometimes, as with the regrading of downtown, the City created history itself. In other cases, the City reacted to an era's events and challenges, whether by encouraging or celebrating growth in good times, or responding to the consequences of harder times such as wars, depressions, natural disasters, and social upheaval. Although City photographers rarely set out to capture these greater themes in their routine documentation of City work, the resulting pictures often provide glimpses into Seattle's broader history.

Growth & Development

Seattle was incorporated in 1869, eighteen years after the first white settlers arrived. From these beginnings, Seattle's population grew to over 80,000 by 1900, tripled in the following decade, and expanded to about 550,000 people by 1960, a number that has remained relatively stable to the present. Seattle also expanded geographically, from its original territory around Downtown and the Central Area, through a wave of annexations in the early 1900's that included the suburban towns of Ballard, West Seattle, Columbia, South Park, and Georgetown, and finally with several annexations in the 1940's and 1950's that brought in Arbor Heights and areas north of 85th and 65th Streets up to the current city limits at 145th Street. See a Brief History of Seattle for a more detailed account of the city's history.

 Pioneer Square Waterfront

Seattle from the waterfront, 1896 (Item 29984)

Railroad and West Seattle Bridge 

Construction of Seattle Depot for the Oregon & Washington Railroad (now Union Station), 1911 (Item 52100)

Smith Tower Under Construction 

Smith Tower under construction, 1913 (Item 11930)

 Central Area

Central Area and Mount Baker from Beacon Hill, 1955 (Item 52376)

 Seattle Sunset

Aerial of Seattle at sunset, 2000 (Item 108525)

Reshaping the City

More than any other major American city, Seattle's geography has been transformed by several ambitious feats of civil engineering. These projects include the flattening of downtown from the International District and Pioneer Square to Lake Union (raising Pioneer Square and lowering elevations north, in some cases, by more than 100 feet); removing the northern portion of Beacon Hill to open up the Rainier Valley to downtown; filling Elliott Bay south of downtown from the East Waterway to Beacon Hill (creating today's Industrial District); lowering Lake Washington and changing the lake's Puget Sound outlet from the Black and Duwamish Rivers to a new Ship Canal from Union Bay to Shilshole; straightening and deepening the Duwamish Waterway (making it navigable for oceangoing ships), and the undertaking of many smaller regrades and landfills that altered neighborhoods and shorelines.

 Ross Hotel

Ross Shire Hotel at 6th Avenue & Marion Street, 1914 (Item 240)
This is one of several privately owned "pinnacles" in regraded areas where private landowners did not arrange to have their property lowered at the same time the City paid to have the adjoining street regraded.

Cherry Street Regrade

5th Avenue regrade, view north from Cherry Street,  1911 (Item 52174)
This picture was taken from the location of present-day Seattle City Hall and the Seattle Justice Center. First United Methodist Church is visible in the background.

 East Terminal

East Waterway Terminal, 1915 (Item 739)
Looking north from the Hanford Street Terminal.

 Locks Under Construction

Lake Washington Canal Locks under construction, 1913 (Item 6325)
Although Lake Washington Ship Canal construction was overseen and funded, in large part, by the U.S. Government and King County, Seattle was responsible for building bridges across the waterway.

Celebrations and Dedications

Seattle has always found occasions to celebrate: announcing to the world its progress as a city in the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition and 1962 World's Fair, commemorating holidays and patriotic events, dedicating public works and monuments, and otherwise expressing community pride.

 Golden Potlatch

First Golden Potlatch Parade, view north along 2nd Avenue at Marion Street, 1911 (Item 30953)

 Fourth of July Parade

Fourth of July Parade in front of County-City Building on Fourth Avenue, 1936 (Item 10633)  

 Seattle Birthplace Monument

Dedication of Birthplace of Seattle Monument at Alki, 1926 (Item 46980)

 Bridge Dedication

First Avenue South Bridge dedication with Mayor Clinton and Governor Langlie, 1956 (Item 53776)
Governor Langlie, left, was twice elected Seattle's mayor before he resigned to become Washington's governor in 1941. 

City Hall Dedication

Council President Peter Steinbrueck, Mayor Greg Nickels and Councilmember Jan Drago at ribbon cutting for new City Hall, 2003 (Item 145342)  

Events and Challenges

Like any other city, Seattle has faced hardships and challenges imposed on it by outside forces, whether natural or manmade.

 Perkins Lane Landslide

Perkins Lane house after landslide, 1954 (Item 44997)

Columbus Day Storm

Car damaged in Columbus Day storm, 1962 (Item 63149) 

 Lake Union Dam Washout
 Lake Union Dam Washout, 1914 (Item 100)
A small 1850s dam at the western outlet of Lake Union disintegrated and washed out in 1914, lowering the lake by eleven feet. The washout exposed several sewer and drainage pipes around the lake. This view, looking east, includes the north end of the Stone Way Bridge in the background.

 Ravenna Blvd Sinkhole
Ravenna Boulevard sinkhole, 1957 (Item 56016)
The Ravenna trunk sewer break cost more than $2 million for the City to repair, the most expensive sewer break ever experienced by a municipality up to that time. The sinkhole grew to 175 feet wide, 200 feet long, and 50 feet deep.

Cadillac Hotel Earthquake Damage

Earthquake damage to Cadillac Hotel, 2001 (Item 113523)
The Cadillac Hotel has been repaired and restored, and now serves as the permanent home for the National Park Service's Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.