Miller Street Landfill, Montlake (Seattle)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 1/21/2013
  • Essay 10171

The Miller Street Landfill, called the Miller Street Dump during its working life, served for more than 20 years as one of multiple dumps scattered around Seattle, often in low-lying areas. Three large dumping grounds were arrayed between the south end of today's Washington Park Arboretum and the northern shore of Union Bay: the Washington Park Dump near the Arboretum's south end, the University Dump at the north end of Union Bay, and the Miller Street Dump on the southern shore of Union Bay. The Miller Street Dump opened sometime between 1911 and 1916, closed in 1936, and for a time was part of the Arboretum and owned by the City. When the original Evergreen Point Bridge was built in the 1960s, the property was taken over by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the park-like setting, although still open to the public, is now surrounded by ramps leading to and from the bridge and is home to the famous "ramps to nowhere." As part of the SR 520 Bridge Replacement Project, the department intends (as of 2012) to remove all of the ramps currently on the property, which may in time once again  become part of the Arboretum.

A Brief History of Garbage

Garbage, rubbish, trash, waste, refuse -- whatever you call it, getting rid of it has been a challenge for human beings ever since they started staying in one place. When all humanity was nomadic, the detritus of daily life was simply left behind. But once people settled into permanent locations starting about 10,000 years ago, disposing of stuff that was no longer needed or wanted became a problem, and the bigger the settlement, the bigger the problem.  

Historically,  "garbage" referred  to organic materials such as discarded food, whereas "rubbish" and "trash" described inorganic materials. Today most of the words that describe what we throw away are used interchangeably, although "rubbish" is more commonly heard in Great Britain. Most of what early, settled societies disposed of was organic garbage and would eventually decompose. Small groups of  people living together in one location, including Native American tribes, used middens, designated places where the remains of meals and other mostly organic refuse was dumped. Ancient Athenians  established the first known municipal waste dump in the western world in about 500 B.C.E., requiring its citizens to take their garbage to a site a mile from the city's walls. Middens and other ancient dumpsites have provided a wealth of information about the people who used them -- what they ate, what they made, what they used, and other details of daily life.  

As urbanization increased and manufacturing technologies developed, more and more things became disposable. Not only did the volume of discarded material greatly increase, but now much more of it was inorganic and did not decompose. Nothing in the history of humanity aggravated the problem more than the relatively recent rise of consumer-driven economies. The range of products available to people in industrialized societies increased rapidly and exponentially, and increasing numbers of  products came in a package or container of some sort. The volume of garbage grew apace, and getting rid of things became a pressing problem for cities and towns around the world. A variety of ways of coping were adopted, many of which would prove ill-advised.

Awash In Trash

Although there appears to be no detailed contemporary accounts, it is clear that in Seattle's earliest days garbage was randomly dumped wherever possible -- in vacant lots and alleys, under piers and train trestles, on the outskirts  of town -- almost any place where no one else was likely to object. This was a practice that could only go on for so long, and semi-organized trash collection was certainly in place by the last decade of the nineteenth century. This usually involved property owners contracting with private haulers, who would remove garbage and take it someplace else.

In Seattle, pig farms used a large portion of the food-based garbage to provide swill for livestock, somewhat reducing the burden on other disposal methods. One source states that common dumps were in place in Seattle "as early as the 1880s" (Strasser, 127); however, it is unclear whether they were City-owned. An 1892 report by the City's engineering department noted that garbage from the downtown area was easily disposed of by loading it on a barge, towing the barge several miles out, and dumping it for tidal action to carry the  garbage to sea. Or perhaps not out to sea, since it sometimes washed back onto shore. The same report made clear that those who lived outside the city's downtown and waterfront area were still on their own when it came to garbage disposal and that a better system was needed.

Seattle's population tripled between 1900 and 1910, growing from approximately 80,000 to nearly 240,000, and garbage grew apace. In the early years of the new century, private contractors collected trash from many neighborhoods, but they often dumped it wherever they could, with a favorite spot being under the train trestles on the tidelands along Seattle's waterfront. Even before the population boom, sanctioned dumping on tide flats in south Seattle had created a pile of garbage 120 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 60 feet deep. On May 14, 1905, The Seattle Sunday Times ran an exposé of that site under the startling headlines:

Scores of Men, Women and Children Daily
Exist Upon Decayed Food Carried Away by
Gang of Scavengers

Human Beings Make Their Homes in Miserable
Huts on the Tidelands in Places Unfit for              
Habitation of Animals

Although the main fear expressed in the overwrought article was that the dump was attracting an unsavory type to Seattle, it was becoming clear to City government by 1905 that garbage disposal was a problem that would have to be better addressed. Later that same year Seattle's chief engineer, R. H. Thomson (1856-1949), went to Europe to see how cities there dealt with their rubbish. Upon his return he  recommended that Seattle adopt incineration as its preferred method. The first "destructor plant," as the incinerators were called, would not come on-line until 1908, but the urgency of the problem had been driven home a year earlier, when, in October 1907, a man named Leong Seng died of bubonic plague. Authorities traced the infection to rats on the central waterfront, where Leong lived. Among their findings:

"Between Railroad and Western Avenues there is a vast amount of rotting timbers, planks, boxes, and all kinds of garbage, the waste of commission houses, restaurants, and markets" ("Report on the Work of the Special Sanitation Department").

In 1910, handling garbage was put under the direction of the health department, and the City authorized $400,000 in bond borrowing to improve its collection and disposal. Thomson's destructor plants, which by 1911 numbered four, did not prove as efficient or as economical as promised, due to fuel and post-incineration transportation costs. They were used for little more than a year, then shut down. Three were partially reactivated in 1913, but the city still had ample open space, and the focus shifted to using additional urban dump sites to dispose of the growing volumes of garbage. According to a 1911 City survey, there were by that time nine official dumps scattered around Seattle, and garbage collection was in the hands of private contractors, paid with public funds and under the overall authority of the City's Streets Department. As one commentator describes it:

"Garbage dumps were everywhere. The Carnegie Library site in Columbia City was a garbage dump, fires burning day and night. So was Genessee Park. The play field at Green Lake is a garbage dump, long abandoned. Market Street at 28th Avenue NW in Ballard was a landfill site and so were both ends of Lake Union. Just North of East Madison at about 30th, around the entrance to Washington Park and the Arboretum, was one of the early days’ largest landfills. Today’s Japanese Garden sits on it. Many other dumps crowded in, often near the water where garbage was simply pushed into the lake or sound" (Royer, "Living With Garbage").

This system would remain in place until 1915, when the health department took direct control of garbage-collection duties, using City employees and equipment, including two new scows to haul some of the refuse for disposal in Puget Sound. But this did nothing to stem the ever-increasing flow of garbage or the need for additional dump sites, and a 1920 survey counted 15 in operation within city limits.

Dumps, Sanitary and Otherwise 

In Seattle there were three types of dumps. At simple dumping dumps, garbage was taken, perhaps spread around and compacted a bit by bulldozers, but otherwise left alone. At burning dumps, fire was used to consume as much of the flammable refuse as possible. And at what became known as sanitary dumps, the garbage deposited each day was spread out and compacted, then covered by several inches of earth. 

The first sanitary landfill in Seattle was on Queen Anne Hill, on Crockett Street between Nob Hill and 3rd Avenue N. It is unclear when it opened, but it was still in operation in 1920. Depending on how it is defined, the Queen Anne sanitary landfill may have been the first in the country. The Fresno Sanitary Landfill (opened 1937) in California officially claims that honor, and sniffs that earlier ones in other cities "were little more than land-based dumps and did not represent systematic or large-scale disposal using the methods that would become more popular after World War II"  ("Fresno Sanitary Landfill," NRHP Registration, 11). The Fresno dump's only certain claim to fame is that it is not only on the National Register of Historic Places, but is a toxic Superfund site as well.

Just how "sanitary" these early operations  were is open to question, but they were a vast improvement over the "dump-it-and-leave-it" approach. In Seattle, sanitary landfills were frequently located on private or City-owned land that lay below street level, such as ravines. Owners could rent their land to the City for a dump, and over a period of years it would be slowly filled up to grade, increasing the value of the property substantially. Dumps located on City-owned land were often in low-lying areas in existing parks, and once the dump's useful life ended, the property was landscaped and became part of the park. In other cases, new parks were created. This approach appears to have originated in Seattle when, in 1916, the Rainier Dump was turned into Rainier Playfield. One year earlier, in 1915, the City's Superintendent of Garbage, C. L. Murray, bragged that Seattle was uniquely "fortunate, as there is an almost unlimited number of places within our city limits, which can be beautified by sanitary fill" ("History of Public Health's Garbage Collection Program").

The Montlake Dump Cluster

Three dumps that were later repurposed by the City were clustered between what are today the southern reaches of  the Washington Park Arboretum and  University Village. One, the Washington Park Dump, at one time the city's largest, was incorporated into the Arboretum and part of it is now, as noted above, the site of the Japanese Garden. Another was located in the area now occupied by the Union Bay Natural Area and, from 1926 to 1966, by University of Washington parking lots and playing fields and a driving range. It was variously, and confusingly, called the Montlake Dump, Ravenna Dump, University Dump, and Union Bay Dump.

The third, the Miller Street Dump, adjacent to the north end of the Arboretum and in close proximity to the SR 520 bridge, is the only one that was actually in the Montlake neighborhood. After its years as a dump ended, the land it occupied was owned by the City parks department, but since the construction of the bridge in the early 1960s has been the property of the Washington State Department of Transportation. It is neatly bracketed by elevated ramps that enter and leave the bridge and its southern end is darkened by the unused "ramps to nowhere," the remains of the beginnings of highway projects that voters and the city halted.

The Murky Origins of the Miller Street Dump

The Miller Street Dump (its original name) was located immediately northeast of the intersection of E Miller Street and what is today Lake Washington Boulevard E in the Montlake neighborhood, adjacent to and west of the northern reaches of Washington Park Arboretum. At least one source (Berger) states, without identifying the source of his information, that it was in use as early as 1909, but this appears to be incorrect. The 1911 City survey listed no dump at that location, although the Washington Park Dump at the opposite end of the Arboretum was in use.

A later survey, from 1920, counted 15 dump sites in the city, and does show one located at "26th Avenue North [now 26th Avenue E] and East Miller Street," which was identified as "park property" (Phelps, 208). Other sites were located on City-owned land or private property. A 1984 study of abandoned Seattle landfills indicates that the Washington Park Dump at the south end of the Arboretum was opened at the East Ward site in 1909, with the Miller Street Dump opening some time later:

"Historical records indicate that the sanitary fill was first placed in a steep ravine north from Madison Street. It then continued in the marsh area near Union Bay. When dredging operations began for the new ship canal more fill was placed in the marshes" ("Abandoned Landfill Study," pp. 41-42)

The muddled history of the Miller Street site can be detected in the foregoing quote, which makes it appear that it was merely a continuation of the larger, Washington Park Dump. This was clearly not the case; the two were separated by most of what is today the Arboretum.

Work on the Montlake Cut portion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal project began in 1911 and was completed in 1916. Dredge materials from that project were used to fill nearby marshland. When the coffer dam holding back the waters of Lake Washington was breached in July 1916, the lake's level dropped approximately nine feet over the next three months, exposing swaths of new marshland around the perimeter of Union Bay. At least one source states that the Miller Street site did not exist until the lake level was lowered  ("Conceptual Wetland Mitigation Report"). Other sources state that it was in place before that time, but grew substantially when the cut was opened ("Section 106 Technical Report: Vol. 2 Built Environment, p. 2-11).

Almost everything about the history of the Miller Street Dump has at least two versions. The land upon which it sat is now a peninsula that lies just to the west of the northernmost portion of the Washington Park Arboretum. At the time the dump was created, however, the area was "vast and featureless, and overgrown with willows, blackberries, tall grass and cattails" ("Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review," p. 75). The same source states that dredging in 1938 and 1939 created more than a mile of lagoons and isolated the peninsula from the surrounding marshes. But the  lagoons dredged for the Washington Park Arboretum do not appear to have reached the area around the Miller Street Dump. Aerial photographs taken in 1962 do not show an isolated peninsula.

Another version, one that seems more accurate, states that the dump area did not become a peninsula until the early 1960s, during construction of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge (later the Governor Albert D. Rosellini Bridge). According to this source, the marshland around the dump site was too shallow for construction barges and too mucky for wheeled equipment. The solution was to dredge deeper channels for barges and use the dredged material to create new, elevated land, including Marsh Island, for other equipment. Thus, this source states, it was not until at least 1961 that "the area was dredged into the 'lagoons' we see today" ("520@50: When Machines Appeared in the Arboretum Wetlands"). This view seems consistent with contemporary photographs.

A Dump by Any Other Name

Though the practice of regularly covering garbage in landfills with dirt had been in use for a number of years, the designation "sanitary landfill" did not come into widespread use until the 1930s; before that dumps were simply called dumps, and what later accounts call the Miller Street Landfill was known as the Miller Street Dump to those who used it. At different times it appears to have been both a burning dump and a sanitary landfill, although there is some indication that the "burning" may have been unintentional. A newspaper article from 1935 reported a claim against the City by the Ryther Child Home for damage to a truck caused by a "subsurface fire" at the dump site ("Ryther Home Asks $75 for Truck Fire"). Other sources insist that all City-run dumps were burning dumps, so the truth, once again, is hard to determine.

Studies prepared as part of the SR 520 bridge-replacement project indicate that at its peak, the Miller Street Dump serviced approximately 25 percent of the city. One such study noted:

"in 1917, 10,000 cubic yards of material were deposited within its ever-expanding boundaries. By 1934, the Miller Street Landfill measured approximately 1,000 feet north-south and 1,125 east-west" (Section 106 Technical Report: Vol. 1 Archaeology," p. 2-16).

As with most if not all City dumps, the Miller Street site was used both by garbage-collection trucks and the public. Garbage trucks collected trash from the area bounded today by Lake Washington, State Route 520, Interstate 5, and Interstate 90 and delivered it to the dump. There appear to have been no restrictions on what could be dumped there, although for much of its life the greater amount of organic food waste was taken to area pig farms for use as swill, a practice that didn't end until well into the 1930s. Like other Seattle sanitary landfills, there were facilities for sorting garbage. Landfill employees and, at times, the general public, could sort through the dumped materials for salvageable items such as paper, rags, or metals before the garbage was covered with dirt.

The dump's life history is as obscure as its date of origin; it was simply one of several in the city, rarely mentioned in contemporary sources. But another study prepared for the SR 520 bridge-replacement project gives some idea of the sorts of things that were dumped at the Miller Street site. One of several excavations there fills in a little of its history (the designation  "SP15 to SP21" indicates some of the areas investigated):

"SP 15 to SP21 encountered thick landfill deposits as expected based on the historical information available for the area ... . Dark grayish brown sandy loam topsoil is present in most of the area, ranging in depth from 10 to 40 cm [approx four to 16 inches] below surface. This topsoil often contained small quantities of historic debris. Below this topsoil, the landfill deposit is characterized as mottled, gray and black, silt and sand, with abundant historic debris. The deposit was sometimes ashy or burned, and was fairly dense. The deposit was massive in some probes, but layering from different dumping events was evident in others. The historic debris consisted of a range of domestic refuse, including bottle glass, ceramics, brick and tile, mammal bones (usually sawn), chicken bones, Mason jar lids, and various scraps of metal" ("Tribal History of the SR 520 Corridor ..."). 

The depth of the landfill as measured in the wider study area ranged from 73 cm (approximately 29 inches) to as deep as 312 cm (approximately 10 feet). In addition to the items listed above, intact glass bottles, most dating from the approximate era that the Miller Street Dump was known to be in operation (ca. 1916 to 1936) were also recovered. In some areas, digging activities released hydrocarbons, indicative of organic materials having been dumped. Although methane gas is not considered a problem, the Miller Street Landfill could have at least minor implications for certain construction phases of the SR 520 bridge-replacement project due to the possible presence of "hazardous materials" (Final Environmental Impact Statement).

If You're Given a Lemon, Make Lemonade         

Seattle's dumps, or in more modern parlance, landfills, like those everywhere, rarely captured public attention until they become a problem. Their openings were seldom formal, and went largely unremarked. Their operations through the years were rarely noteworthy, and then only when something out of the ordinary, and usually unpleasant, occurred. They were a vital necessity to a growing city, but not anything that residents would want to boast about. They were, for many years, breeding grounds for vermin and a source of unpleasant odors for nearby residents, but these problems were substantially alleviated in time through better operating practices. But one thing is certain -- no dump closure was ever mourned as marking a cultural loss.

Seattle, early but not uniquely, found at least one important secondary use for many of its dumps. The city was marked by uneven terrain, with steep hills and steeper ravines scattered across its face. The most problematic hills were flattened during the great regrade projects between 1898 and 1930. Some of the city's ravines and other below-grade places were turned into more commercially usable land by filling them with garbage, then sealing them off (with mixed success) with layers of soil. But the limits were eventually reached in residential areas, and in 1935, Seattle's chief sanitary inspector, Allan T. Butler, noted:

"As time goes on, it is becoming more difficult to establish and maintain garbage fills, because of the many objections made by property owners in the vicinity of such fills"  ("History of Public Health's Garbage Collection Program").

Over the years, one dump after another was closed and covered. Most would become parks, residential areas, parking lots, playing fields, or nature preserves.

Montlake residents began petitioning for closure of the Miller Street Landfill in 1931, and it was finally shut down in January 1936, its traffic diverted to the nearby dump at the north end of Union Bay. The site subsequently enjoyed at least a few years of splendor starting in about 1953, when it became part of the Washington Park Arboretum's Winkenwerder Memorial Area. Hugo A. Winkenwerder (1878-1947) was the second dean of the University of Washington's School of Forestry, serving from 1912 to 1945, and as acting director of the Arboretum from 1912 to 1939.

The portion of the memorial area that was on the Miller Street Landfill held part of the Arboretum's Rosaceae (rose family) collection. This ended with the construction of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge in the early 1960s. Today, although still open to the public, the old dump site has returned to a more natural state, and is now referred to as  the "WSDOT Peninsula." Its natural beauty is marred by the presence of massive concrete ramps, both used and unused, but there is hope that it may once again become a part of the Arboretum, into which it still blends seamlessly.

A Rebirth?

As part of the SR 520 Bridge Replacement project now underway (2012), the transportation department intends to remove the "ramps to nowhere" and the 520 ramps, used and unused, that currently hem in the peninsula on three sides. As set out in the project's Final Environmental Impact Statement, the state will grade and plant parts of the site and restore and expand the wetland areas on its northern portion. There are also plans to rehabilitate existing wetlands and establish a forested buffer around them.

The Environmental Impact Statement holds out hope that the peninsula, restored and rid of its unsightly ramps, may once again formally become part of the Arboretum:

"WSDOT is evaluating the possibility of transferring property from the WSDOT to the Arboretum owners as part of its mitigation for wetland and Section 4(f) effects. Should all or part of the property need to be surplused, Arboretum owners would be offered an opportunity to purchase it as a contiguous landowner" (I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project Environmental Impact Statement).

This would bring the Miller Street Landfill's story full circle from its days as a part of a large, low-lying area bordering the southern margin of Union Bay, supplemented  by extensive new marshland when the level of Lake Washington was lowered by the Montlake Cut in 1916. After service as a city dump for at least 20 years and reverting to nature for another 25, it was snatched back to urban reality in the early 1960s by construction of the Evergreen Point Bridge and its ramps. It seems only fitting that now, more than 50 years after that, the site of the old Miller Street Dump could once again become an integral part of one of the city's most beautiful and beloved green spaces, the Washington Park Arboretum.


Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle  (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department,  1978), 204-215; "Garbage Disposal Plan With Ten Incinerators Proposed," Municipal Journal and Engineer, Vol. 25, No. 8 (July 1, 1908), p. 258; F. S. Bourns to J. E. Crighton, December 9, 1908, in "Report on the Work of the Special Sanitation Department," p. 3, Folder 5, Box 1, 1802-G6, Annual Reports, Health Department, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; "From Dumps to Destinations: Converting Landfills to Parks," Trust for Public Land website accessed August 23, 2012 (;  Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2000), 127; Bob Royer, "Living With Garbage," The Cascade Courier website accessed August 24, 2012 (;  Bob Royer,  "Garbage In," The Cascade Courier website accessed August 24, 2012 (; Knute Berger, "What History Lurks Beneath Seattle Highways?," Crosscut website accessed August 24, 2012 (; "Fresno Sanitary Landfill," National Register of Historic Places website accessed August 24, 2012 (;  Abandoned Landfill Study in the City of Seattle (Seattle: Seattle-King County Department of Health, 1984), available at (; "Modern Land Fills: A Far Cry from the Past," National Solid Waste Management Association website accessed August 24, 2012 (; Patrick Togher, Beth Peterson, Maki Dalzell, "SR 520, I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project 61 Conceptual Wetland Mitigation Report,"  February 2011, Washington State Department of Transportation, available at (;  Washington State Department of Transportation, SR 520, I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project Environmental Impact Statement, Attachment 9, Section C,  "Arboretum Mitigation Plan, WSDOT Peninsula Restoration," p. 29, available at (; "Section 106 Technical Report: Vol. 2,  Built Environment, SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project," available at (; "History of Public Health's Garbage Collection Program," King County website accessed August 25, 2012 (; "Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review," (BOLA Architecture + Planning and Karen Kiest / Landscape Architects,  September 2003), available at (; "Tribal History of the SR 520 Corridor and Archaeological Field Investigations Within the SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Project,"in SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program, I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project Section 106 Technical Report: Archaeology, Vol. 1, Appendix C, prepared by BOAS, Inc. for Parametrix, Inc. and Washington State Department of Transportation, available at Washington State Department of Transportation SR 520 Project office, 999 Third Avenue, Seattle, Washington;  "Cultural Resources,"  June 2011, , p. 4.13

-2, SR 520, I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project Environmental Impact Statement, Washington Department of Transportation, available at (; "Washington Park Arboretum South Entry/Madrona Terrace Schematic Design" February 2, 2005, The Portico Group, available at (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Construction crews place the last concrete slab of Seattle's Alaskan Way seawall on April 23, 1938" (by Jennifer Ott),  and "Garbage dump on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill converted to sanitary fill, possibly the first in nation, by May 1920" (by Priscilla Long),  and "Seattle's first refuse destructor plant begins operation in April 1908" (by Priscilla Long), (accessed August 23, 2012); "City Evicts Old Sidewalk Vendor," The Seattle Daily Times, April 3, 1905, p. 1; "Ryther Home Asks $75 for Truck Fire," Ibid., September 11, 1932, p. 2; "Live From Garbage Dump," The Seattle Sunday Times, May 14, 1905, p. 1; "Thomson Halts Plan for Garbage System," Ibid., May 15, 1910, p. 31; Stacy Schneyder, Melissa Cascella, and Trish Fernandez, "NRHP Evaluation Report for the Miller Street Landfill (45KI760), Seattle, Washington," submitted to WSDOT August 2010, in SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program, I-5 to Medine: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project Section 106 Technical Report: Archaeology, Vol. 1, Appendix G, August 2010, prepared for Washington State Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, available at Washington State Department of Transportation SR 520 Project office, 999 3rd Avenue, Seattle, Washington; SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program, I-5 to Medina: Bridge Replacement and HOV Project Section 106 Technical Report: Archaeology, Vol. 1, January 2011, prepared by ICF International for Parametrix, Inc. and Washington State Department of Transportation, available at Washington State Department of Transportation SR 520 Project office, 999 3rd Avenue, Seattle, Washington.

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