Shaping Seattle's Central Waterfront, Part 1: Moving People and Freight

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 11/12/2013
  • Essay 10665

The natural harbor of Elliott Bay offered a wealth of resources to the settlers who came to its shores in the 1850s to build Seattle into a city. Its deep waters provided ample space for ships to anchor and the surrounding landscape held timber and coal that could be sold around the world. Moving the resources from land to sea required railroads and a working port. Starting with early efforts to manage railroad rights-of-way and continuing with large engineering projects such as the seawall and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the City of Seattle spent much of the first century of city-building reshaping the central waterfront to move passengers and freight effectively, sometimes guided by planning, sometimes by ad hoc developments. This essay is the first of two on the development and transformation of Seattle's central waterfront (the shoreline area fronting Seattle's downtown between Yesler Way and Broad Street) and the ideas, proposals, and plans for the waterfront put forward over the years; it covers the period from the city's founding through the 1950s. 

Building on the Bay 

From the start Seattle, like many Washington towns, relied on moving both natural resources and people across the water to fuel its economy. Roads and railroads into the interior proved difficult to build and maintain because of hills, wetlands, and heavy timber, so, like the Native communities who lived on the bay, the river, and the lakes, the new settlers used the waterways to move people and freight. When the Denny Party came to Elliott Bay in 1851, they found an excellent deep-water harbor. The region around it abounded with natural resources that could be shipped to places like San Francisco, Hawaii, and Asia. 

A handful of natural impediments stood in the way of city development. Except for a small finger of land known as Piner's Point, about where Pioneer Square is today, tall steep bluffs rose from the shoreline, with little level ground adjacent to the water. A large tideflat area stretched from today's Jackson Street southeast to Beacon Hill and around to the mouth of the Duwamish River. The bay was too shallow there for anchorage, but too wet for building upon. Just offshore of the area later known as the central waterfront, the floor of the bay dropped off steeply, making it difficult to build piers extending very far from shore. 

The people who came to Elliott Bay in the 1850s did not let these impediments stop them. The wealth of timber and coal and fertile river valleys in the surrounding area made it worthwhile to reshape the landscape to fit the town's needs. Over the next several decades the low areas around Piner's Point were filled with sawdust from sawmills and other refuse and the tidelands were covered with piers. The first one was originally built for Henry Yesler's sawmill in 1853 and, according to J. Willis Sayre, a Seattle journalist and historian, it "grew with the village; by the early '80s it was more than 900 feet long, a miniature town of shops, stores, and warehouses" (Sayre, 2).  

New piers grew up to the north and south of Yesler's wharf as it reached capacity. An absence of city regulations allowed the piers to jut into the bay in any direction. Soon, a neighborhood grew up over the beach between the piers as buildings were built on piling foundations alongside the piers. 

Railroads and Harbor Lines 

When the first railroads arrived on the Seattle waterfront in the 1870s and 1880s, they needed access to the piers to transfer their loads to ships. The Lake Shore & Eastern, the Columbia and Puget Sound, and the Northern Pacific vied for routes between deep water on the west and the hills on the east. The city council tried to bring some order to the area in 1887 by establishing Railroad Avenue (later Alaskan Way) running along the tidelands parallel to shore. The new street, built on pilings, quickly became a thoroughfare, and horse-drawn carriages and freight wagons vied for right-of-way with trains (tracks were laid the length of the "street") while dodging pedestrians moving between the piers and the commercial district. 

The Great Fire of 1889 leveled more than 50 blocks of Seattle, including a number of piers and a section of Railroad Avenue. As the city rebuilt, some reorganization of the waterfront untangled the piers and their connections to railroad tracks, but it remained a largely unregulated space. When mills and other industrial outfits on the waterfront were joined in the 1890s by warehouses and supply companies along what became Western Avenue, they added to the congestion of people and freight moving through the area. 

In 1895, the state Harbor Lines Commission published a plat for the waterfront tidelines that established the inner and outer harbor lines. This survey provided the basis for the state to reestablish control of many of the shoreline lots between the inner and outer harbor lines claimed by settlers but also retained for the state in the 1889 the state constitution. The commission's work met with hostility and legal challenges but it brought an underlying order that provided a basis for reorganizing the waterfront along more rational and efficient lines.  

That same year, the city's Board of Tideland Appraisers hired civil engineer Virgil Bogue (1846-1916) to create a plan for the waterfront, based on the tidelands plat, which addressed the congested streets and railroad rights-of-way and the need for access to deep water. He recommended that the city build a seawall to allow the development of dry ground in place of tidelands, particularly to the south of the city, and the creation of a terminal company that would purchase land for a shared rail-passenger terminal, freight yards, transfer tracks, and freight houses. All of the non-mainline tracks in the city would be owned and managed by the terminal company to reduce the inefficiencies of the existing system. Bogue's plan was not implemented, but it laid out the main issues that would be addressed in the next several decades -- creating new dry land out of tidelands and bringing order to the chaotic operations of the transcontinental and regional railroads operating on the Seattle waterfront. 

City Engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949) utilized the lines drawn by the Harbor Lines Commission to develop a more efficient plan for the layout of the central waterfront in 1898. All piers were to be aligned at the same angle to the shore to allow for more efficient use of the space available and to enable the piers to have the longest usable space possible. By aligning the piers at an angle, the piers could stay in the shallower part of the bay for a longer distance, allowing larger ships to berth at them and larger pier sheds for holding freight.  

Thomson's plan came just in time to address the spectacular growth of the harbor following the July 17, 1897, arrival of the Portland with its ton of gold from the Klondike River, which spurred the Klondike Gold Rush. Seattle became the gateway to Alaska. By 1900, the city had nearly doubled its 1890 population, growing to 80,671 people, and city improvements became both necessary and economically feasible. By the early 1900s, as old piers were replaced and new piers added, the entire waterfront conformed to Thomson's plan. 

Envisioning the Waterfront: Olmsted and Bogue 

In the first decade of the twentieth century, city officials began to look at how development throughout the city should proceed. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement, city leaders hoped to create a city that would support economic development and the health and happiness of its citizens. In 1903, the city's Board of Park Commissioners hired one of the country's preeminent landscape architects, John Charles Olmsted, to design a park and boulevard system for Seattle. In his report, which largely skirted the already-developed downtown core, Olmsted included parks on the waterfront. His plan included a park on the bluff above the waterfront between Blanchard and Battery streets and a park below, on the shore, with space for pleasure boats, fishing, swimming, and an upland park area. Olmsted highly valued the views from Seattle's shores and the waterfront parks offered beautiful views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains in the distance. Despite Olmsted's recommendations, no dedicated park area would be permanently preserved on the central waterfront for several decades. 

The population of the city continued to grow by leaps and bounds. By 1910, it had grown to 237,194 and city leaders again invited civil engineer Virgil Bogue to help develop a city plan for the Municipal Plans Commission. Created in 1910, the commission was charged with creating a city-wide plan addressing all areas of activity -- industry, transportation, government, and parks.  

Bogue's plan was the first to address the need for connections between downtown and the central waterfront. The existing situation, which had grown out of the ad hoc development of the city, tended to be chaotic and haphazard. The bluffs between the waterfront and First Avenue blocked traffic and pedestrian routes, funneling them through the lower ground in Pioneer Square.  

Bogue envisioned several connections. At the north end, a regraded Broad Street would lead from a proposed city center at the south end of Lake Union to a formal water-gate entrance to the city with an arch and a pier. An esplanade at Blanchard Street and Elliott Avenue would allow visitors to take in the views and serve as the terminus of one the radial lines extending out from the civic center. Between Yesler and Pike, Bogue drew in a four-block park on the inland side of a street that ran parallel to the shore. The fill behind a planned seawall would support a more stable commercial district between the waterfront and Western Avenue.  

Voters rejected the Municipal Plan Commission's "Plan of Seattle" in March 1912. The issues addressed by Bogue did not resolve themselves, however, and they would continue to come up repeatedly over the twentieth century. The many competing uses of the waterfront would make park development and connectivity between downtown and the waterfront difficult. 

A Public Port 

Although Seattle residents rejected Bogue's comprehensive plan for the city, voters in Seattle and King County did take a major step toward expanding and improving harbor facilities throughout, and beyond, Elliott Bay when they approved formation of a county-wide public port district in 1911. The Port of Seattle became the first of many public port districts in Washington, and it immediately set about developing public harbor facilities on Seattle's waterfront. Most of those, by necessity, were built on largely undeveloped land some distance from the already developed central waterfront -- a large pier and terminal at Smith Cove north of downtown, another large pier and slip on the East Waterway of the Duwamish River south of downtown, and what became Fishermen's Terminal on Salmon Bay. Those locations, in addition to being less expensive to acquire, provided more space for building piers and handling freight. The Port could also organize railroad operations more efficiently on the filled tideflats than on the central waterfront. 

The new Port of Seattle built one pier, which contained its headquarters and a terminal serving the various privately owned vessels known as the Mosquito Fleet, on the central waterfront at the foot of Bell Street, although at the time that location was well north of the main business district. The Port's headquarters building at the Bell Street pier included warehouse and cold storage space and a rooftop park, the first public park area on the central waterfront (that park did not last long, closing within a few years after being deemed a "moral nuisance" -- it was frequented by sailors and their dates). The Port's Bell Street, Smith Cove, and East Waterway terminals were operating by 1915, just in time to take advantage of a huge boom in Pacific trade as World War I shut down Atlantic shipping.  

Although the Port of Seattle developed and executed plans for expanding and coordinating harbor facilities, due to the rejection of Bogue's Plan of Seattle the city moved forward without a blueprint for planned development connecting the waterfront to the rest of the city, which was booming, thanks in considerable part to wartime trade and shipbuilding on the waterfront. Seattle's population continued to grow at an astonishing rate, reaching 315,312 by 1920. Conditions on the waterfront continued to deteriorate as automobile traffic increased and the upkeep of the pilings that supported the streets, railroads, and buildings proved onerous. A seawall was built in the 1910s between the Duwamish River and about Washington Street (near Pioneer Square), but the great depth just offshore of the waterfront between Madison Street and Bay Street (at the north end of the waterfront beyond Broad Street) increased the difficulty and the cost of building a seawall there and the project was continually put off. 

The only cross streets that carried people and traffic into downtown were at the south end, leading into the Pioneer Square area. Passengers from Colman Dock and other pedestrians could cross the overhead viaduct at Marion Street to First Avenue or walk along Yesler, Washington, Main, or King streets. To reach the upper business district, pedestrians could catch a streetcar from Pioneer Square or use wooden stairways to traverse the steep slope between First and Western, but first they faced the gauntlet of railroad tracks and truck traffic running across their paths. 

The Seattle City Council approved the city's first zoning system in 1923. On the waterfront, the western side of Western Avenue and the area around Railroad Avenue was zoned for manufacturing. This allowed commercial and light industrial development, but not office, retail, or residential uses. The eastern side of Western Avenue joined the downtown's commercial zone. This allowed residences, hotels, stores, banks, restaurants, dance halls, and city services like police and fire stations.  

Change and Decline 

The 1920s saw the beginning of important changes on the central waterfront. A combination of factors, including the area's topography, changes in regional transportation modes, expansion of the Port of Seattle, and the growing downtown led to a decrease in freight handling and passenger service on the central waterfront. The relatively narrow space between the deep water of the bay and the bluffs north of Madison Street made it difficult to move people and freight. As development in the downtown area encroached on this space along Western Avenue, that situation became more pronounced. Long-distance and international shipping gravitated away from the central waterfront to Port of Seattle piers south of the central waterfront and at Smith Cove.  

Additionally, the development of more and better regional roads and the introduction of automobiles allowed more people and freight to travel locally by land, reducing the need for the Mosquito Fleet steamers that docked on the waterfront. The concomitant rise of auto ferries, however, introduced more vehicle traffic to the already-congested and deteriorating Railroad Avenue. 

During the 1930s, activity on the waterfront slowed, but not only because of the Great Depression. The Maritime Act, passed in 1936, included new safety regulations for passenger vessels. According to a 1970 report of the Mayor's Waterfront Advisory Committee, a number of passenger lines and Mosquito Fleet vessels ceased operations rather than try to meet the new rules. 

The wooden piles and planks upon which the central waterfront district was built continued to decay through the 1920s and into the 1930s. Large sections of Railroad Avenue had to be closed at times because the wooden structures, riddled with shipworm holes or damaged by heavy truck traffic, gave way. Efforts to secure funding for a seawall repeatedly failed, however, until city officials worked with the state to put Depression-era employment programs to use in funding a seawall and it was finally built in 1936. Fill behind the seawall created solid, level ground between the wall and Western Avenue. A new four-lane street, Alaskan Way, replaced Railroad Avenue. Train tracks continued to run in the space between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue, with spur lines crossing the new street to reach piers and warehouse loading docks. 

Though the physical conditions for businesses and people improved, the central waterfront continued to decline in economic importance. More shipping companies moved to the Port of Seattle facilities to the north and south. Smaller-scale operations like fishing suppliers and processors remained on the central waterfront because their work still fit the scale of the piers and streets in the area.  

World War II brought a resurgence of activity to the central waterfront. In 1940, Seattle became the supply depot for military forces in Alaska. The U.S. Army and Navy took over a number of piers for loading supply ships. In 1944, the Army renumbered Seattle's piers to reduce confusion. The existing system of labeling piers was a hodgepodge of different numbering conventions. The Army's system started the numbering in the south, near the Duwamish River and increased to the north. The Army's system remains in use in 2013. 

At the end of the war, the central waterfront remained rundown and further decreased in importance. With the introduction of containerized freight at Port of Seattle terminals in the 1960s, the role of the central waterfront in freight handling essentially ended. Containers required large cranes and acres of space for holding areas. The central waterfront did not have the space for either, so it became the domain of smaller-scale activities, such as fishing and ferries, retail stores, tourist activities, and restaurants. 

Building the Viaduct 

Although freight handling on the central waterfront declined after the war, traffic on Alaskan Way, like much of the downtown core, remained congested. A scarcity of north-south streets through downtown because of the narrow strip of land and hills between Elliott Bay and Lake Washington limited the number of through routes in the most densely developed part of the city. Drivers traveling to the north or south of downtown often used Alaskan Way to bypass downtown's dense and hilly grid of streets. 

To improve this situation, city and state officials, as in many American cities in the 1940s and 1950s, began to study how highways could be developed in the downtown area. Seattle's 1947 Origin and Destination Traffic Survey concluded that the city needed two north-south highways, one along its western waterfront and one through the central part of the city (where Interstate 5 runs today). An east-west highway at each end of downtown would complete a ring-road type of system. 

The waterfront route was chosen for a highway because of the level ground it offered and the relatively open space available in the unused portion of the railroad right-of-way. A few voices spoke out against the construction of an elevated concrete viaduct between downtown and the shoreline, but practicalities prevailed and the state Department of Highways completed the first section of the viaduct in 1953 (the final stretch opened in 1959).  

Although it helped with traffic congestion in the city, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, in the words of later city planning officials, "helped seal the fate of the Waterfront District as the city's back alley instead of its front door" ("Draft Guidelines ...," 3). Since the viaduct's construction, city officials, local residents, and business owners have attempted to mitigate its effects. Numerous plans since the 1960s have proposed ideas to hide it, design around it, or soften its visual and noise impacts.

The construction of the viaduct created an obstacle that would make it more difficult to reintegrate the waterfront with the rest of the city and make it a place where people wanted to spend time. Its presence amplified other problems that blocked improvements on the waterfront, including a lack of public access to the water, a decline in water-dependent uses, steep topography, the trains on the railroad tracks, and traffic on Alaskan Way. Planners, city leaders, and citizen activists spent the next half-century working around the viaduct until the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001 damaged the structure and opened up the possibility of removing it from the waterfront altogether.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, v. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), 425; Richard C. Berner, Seattle Transformed: World War II to Cold War (Seattle: Charles Press, 1999), 59; " Park, Playgrounds, and Boulevards of Seattle, Washington (Seattle: The Pacific Press, 1909), 109; Seattle Tide Lands as surveyed and platted by The Board of Appraisers of Tide and Shore Lands for King County, Washington," 1895, Item No. 1321, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington; Board of Park Commissioners, Virgil Bogue, "Report on the Plat of the Tidelands and Waterfront of Seattle, 1895," Folder 19, Box 38, 5210-01, Office of the Mayor, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Draft Guidelines for Evaluation of Contract Rezones in the Central Waterfront District: Draft for Public Review and Comment," prepared for the Office of Policy Planning, March 1, 1979, Item No. 5754, Seattle Municipal Archives; Origin-Destination Traffic Survey: Seattle Metropolitan Area (Olympia: Washington Department of Highways, 1947), binder available at Seattle Municipal Archives; Karen Link, "The Pacific Net and Twine Building Nomination Report," revised August 2011, City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website accessed September 13, 2013 ( PacificNetTwineNomination.pdf); Kit Oldham, Peter Blecha, and the HistoryLink Staff, Rising Tides and Tailwinds: The Story of the Port of Seattle, 1911-2011 (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 2011); Plan of Seattle: Report of the Municipal Plans Commission Submitting the Report of Virgil G. Bogue, Engineer (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1911), Plate 18; J. Willis Sayre, The Early Waterfront of Seattle (Seattle : J.W. Sayre, 1937); Caroline Crane Tobin, "Planning for the Urban Waterfront: A Historical Case Study of Seattle's Waterfront" (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1977); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Port of Seattle Central Waterfront Cybertour" (by Paul Dorpat) and "Klondike Gold Rush begins on July 17, 1897" (by Greg Lange), (accessed September 12, 2013).
Note: This article was corrected on February 27, 2020.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You