Reading Seattle
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Reading Seattle

The City in Prose

Peter Donahue, John Trombold

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eBook - ePub

Reading Seattle

The City in Prose

Peter Donahue, John Trombold

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About This Book

Seattle, with its spectacular natural beauty and rough frontier history, has inspired writers from its earliest days. This anthology spans seven decades and includes fiction, memoirs, histories, and journalism that define the city or use it as a setting, imparting the flavor of the city through a literary prism.

Reading Seattle features classics by Horace R. Cayton, Richard Hugo, Betty MacDonald, Mary McCarthy, Murray Morgan, and John Okada as well as more recent works by Sherman Alexie, Lynda Barry, David Guterson, J. A. Jance, Jonathan Raban, and others. It includes cutting-edge work by emerging talents and reintroduces works by important Seattle writers who may have been overlooked in recent years.

The writers featured in this volume explore a variety of neighborhoods and districts within the city, delineating urban spaces and painting memorable portraits of characters both historical and fictional.

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Part 1. Coming into Focus (1930s–1980s)

Northwest Gateway: The Story of the Port of Seattle

From Northwest Gateway: The Story of the Port of Seattle, by Archie Binns. Reprinted by permission of Mrs. Archie Binns and the children of Archie Binns.
Archie Binns (1899–1971) was born in Port Ludlow, Washington. He was one of Seattle's earliest acclaimed novelists and historians and an instructor of creative writing at the University of Washington in 1950. He wrote The Maiden Voyage (1931), Lightship (1934), The Laurels Are Cut Down (1937), The Land Is Bright (1939), Mighty Mountain (1940), The Timber Beast (1944), You Rolling River (1947), The Radio Imp (1950), Secret of the Sleeping River (1952), Sea in the Forest (1953), Sea Pup (1954), The Enchanted Islands (1956), The Headwaters: A Novel (1957), and Sea Pup Again (1965). His nonfiction includes The Roaring Land (1942), Mrs. Fiske and the American Theatre (1955), and Peter Skene Ogden: Fur Trader (1967). The selection below, from Northwest Gateway: The Story of the Port of Seattle (1941), lyrically introduces Elliott Bay, Alki Point, the city's seven hills, and the city's own creation myths. On a more solemn note, Binns also provides the historical setting for Chief Sealth's famous speech to Governor Isaac Stevens.
Steaming south, you open up the fine harbor of Port Madison with its snug inner harbor, and Agate Passage on the west opening into fifty miles of still more-inland waterways. All of them are on the wrong side of the Sound for a great city, though one of them has Bremerton and the Navy Yard.
Still you have not seen one real harbor on the continental side, though the signs keep multiplying. You meet a ferry loaded to its shovelnose with motor cars; a big freighter slides out from behind the headland of West Point and swings toward you. Flying high, an air liner for Victoria passes over your ship. A silver ferry, as streamlined as any car it carries, shuttles across the Sound past Bainbridge Island; a passenger steamer for Alaska plows out from behind the great headland; and a four-motored bomber rumbles overhead on a trial flight from Boeing Field. Between you and West Point, surprisingly, a sightseeing steamer pokes out of the high, yellow bluff and passes confidently between buoys that mark the entrance of the Lake Washington ship canal.
If we were to follow the sight-seer's course in reverse, our big steamship would go comfortably through the Government locks at Ballard and through the ship canal. The canal would open out and we would find ourselves in a mile-long lake in the heart of the city; a lake with wharves, dry-docks and yards where new ships are built and older ones are repaired, and mooring grounds where still older ships, steamers and windjammers, lie enchanted in the still dark water, overtaken by the synthetic death of obsolescence.
From Lake Union we would sail on through the city, through the campus of the University of Washington. When it seemed we had already sailed too far and could go no farther, our ship would steam out of the narrow, dredged channel of reedy Union Bay into a deep, freshwater lake on the other side of the city; a lake twenty miles long, surrounded by the city and shipyards and fir forests, sawmills and cabins and homes of elegance with yachts anchored out in front and seaplanes parked in front yards. That would be Lake Washington. In the lake there would be Mercer Island, five miles long and a mile wide, rising to three hundred feet high, with city streets and homes and fir forests. A floating bridge links it with the city and a fixed bridge spans the distance to the opposite shore.
This is part of the harbor of Seattle, with its infinite variety of waterways through land and land in water, and salt water harbors and fresh: canals and lakes and rivers leading from security to security. That is what we would find if we turned in at the door in the yellow bluff and sailed our steamship into the heart of the city and out on the other side.
But we are still in Puget Sound, between Point Jefferson and Spring Beach, and we are on a more conventional voyage. The wheelhouse clock is striking eight bells, four in the afternoon. Pinch-hitting for your amateur helmsman, you take the lanyard above the wheel and give it eight smart jerks, in pairs. The clangs are answered in deeper tones by the big bell on the fo'c'sle head, and the first officer and a quartermaster step into the wheelhouse. They are coming on their appointed watch, ignorant of the trick you have been playing on history.
The historian relinquishes the wheel to the quartermaster with a sigh of relief. Following you out onto the bridge, he says, “Thank goodness, that's over. I was scared stiff that I might run into some of this shipping, or aground.”
“Not aground,” you say. “Right here we're in the greatest depth of all, with nearly a thousand feet of water under us.”
“Remarkable waters,” the historian says, “truly remarkable!”
You stand on the port wing of the bridge as your ship steams around West Point, opening up Elliott Bay, with a great city rising before you. And still the Sound is three miles wide, and better than eight hundred feet deep. Off to the west a freighter is passing close to the beautiful shore of Bainbridge Island, with the smoke from her stack drifting before her in the light southerly blowing out of the Sound. The freighter is a big one of ten thousand tons, but she does not look big or small. Against the high, forested shore she looks a part of nature, comfortably at home, as a ship should look. Above the ship and the wooded hills of the island there is the long range of the Olympic Mountains, blue and crested with snow like long seas breaking in the sky.
To port, that three-hundred-foot cliff, golden in the sunshine, is Magnolia Bluff, crowned with madroña trees. By now there may be magnolias around some of the fine residences, but there were only madroñas when it was named by some amateur botanist who was confused by somewhat similar foliages. Like Appletree Cove back there beyond Point Jefferson. One of Vancouver's men saw dogwood in bloom and predicted apples in the fall. Among discoverers the first to arrive is awarded the palm, even though he has left his glasses at home and accepts it for a pine.
Those madroña trees have never borne magnolia blossoms, but they have done something even more remarkable. Notice how some of them lean out over the edge of the bluff toward the sun and this water of Adriatic blue. Remember their wood is weak and brittle and tremendously heavy. By all laws they should break in the first good breeze. But they do not break, even in a rare gale. They accomplish that by adopting the principles of engineering and growing their trunks in the shape of “I-beam” girders. You are not expected to believe that, but drive out there sometime and look for yourself. As the trees grow older and heavier, their cylindrical trunks flatten on two sides. And as they grow still older and heavier, the flattened sides become concave until the cross section of the trunk has an unmistakable I-beam shape.
The flora is remarkable in other ways. With a good telescope used at the right moment you could make out date palms up there in someone's garden, out of doors the year round and making a go of it. On Queen Anne Hill ahead, you could see fig trees ripening their fruit, and hedges of bamboo. Sometimes roses bloom on Christmas Day. Admittedly, such things are strange in the latitude of Maine.
The warm Japan Current has something to do with it, but the real explanation lies in your own field, Historian. We have it from history that Juan de Fuca invented these mythical waters in Venice. Never having been near the Puget Sound country, he could not be expected to get everything right. It was only natural that some of the trees and flowers of the Adriatic should slip in; and some of the climate; and the color on those golden cliffs and on the deep waters of this gentle northern sea-waters as blue as the Adriatic, forever with the quality of a dream.
There, to port, is Smith Cove Terminal and the Great Northern Docks that were a part of Jim Hill's empire. Not part of the real harbor, but a port big enough for a fair-sized city: piers half a mile long and channels dredged through mud flats. Japanese steamers load there mostly, sometimes a dozen of them at a time, and Smith Cove longshoremen are a breed of their own.
It has a tough sound, Smith Cove, but Henry Smith was another sort. He was a medical doctor and a literary man who wrote good prose and better verse. One was about “Time that blows a wreath of wrinkles to us all.…” But that was when he was an old man. When he was young he had his share of adventure. On the night the Indian War broke he rowed out of the cove with his mother in a boat with muffled oarlocks, and escaped to the Seattle blockhouse. Then he came back with two runaway sailors and harvested the crop in his clearing—the crop that the Indians burned along with his house before his harvest sweat was dry. Like the doctor whom they could have killed a dozen times, they had a sense of humor, and they let him garner everything into the house and barn before they fired the flaming arrows. No, Smith wouldn't be surprised to see the freight terminal and those piers. He settled in that wilderness cove in the belief that it would be a railroad terminal—and he lived to see it happen.
Beyond Seattle, protecting the harbor from the south, that long, low headland with the fir trees is Alki Point, where the pilgrims landed. Protecting the harbor from the west, the inner point we see, nose on, is Duwamish Head. Between it and the main city, the Duwamish River is split by Harbor Island, which divides the East Waterway from the West Waterway. Between there and here is the main harbor, with deep water up to five miles of curved harbor shore, finned with piers that lie from east to west. The depth of water is authenticated. The Denny brothers and Boren and Bell took soundings from an Indian dugout before they decided to build a city here. Mary Denny supplied the clothesline, with a warning to bring it back. They had a horseshoe for a sounding lead, and their city was fortunate.
There it is, on its seven hills; a city of upwards of half a million people, with all the trappings of a modern metropolis, and a sky line something like New York's. But its personality is its own. And its history is not like that of any other city, Historian. It is a piece of American mythology. The guardian spirits of the city are two horses that came out of the sea at the beginning: a docile black mare and a milk-white stallion with an unbroken spirit and a disposition toward violence.
That is not folklore. It was such a little while ago that there are men living on those hills, keeping office hours in those skyscrapers, who remember the man who drove Seattle's first horses from the sea. His name was Thomas Mercer. Mercer Street and Mercer Island are named after him. He named Lake Union and Lake Washington, and first proposed the ship canal. Discreet and factual histories mention and praise the docile mare and give her name, which is “Tib.” They record that Mercer brought two horses, but they do not say much about the other one, because they want their city to have a good name. But the spirits of those two still gallop over the mighty hills of the city: the impatient, pale stallion and the docile black mare.
. . .
Even in the early days of the village that bore his name Seattle knew that he had made a hard choice of one-sided co-operation. He saw his high-spirited granddaughter bought from her parents by a drunken and brutal white man. He saw her beaten and pursued and brought back and beaten again when she ran away. He could not interfere because he was an Indian, and the whites did not interfere because the girl was an Indian. Presently the girl killed herself by hanging, leaving a son who turned out no better than his father. A white man could do as he pleased with his squaw. But when one of the Indians killed his squaw the white men hung him to a tree.
Neither the Americans nor the Indians were sufficiently advanced in civilization to be able to live together. Chief Seattle saw that early, and he was relieved rather than otherwise when he heard that the Government was preparing to buy the Indians’ land and segregate them on reservations.
On a hurried visit to the Territory in 1894 [Governor Isaac] Stevens devoted a month to traveling about the large region west of the Cascade Mountains, “familiarizing” himself with thirty-odd tribes of Indians, “learning their needs” and deciding on the value of their land. The haste was ominous and at best the results could only be tragically superficial. The Governor had been handed a bad situation and he made it worse with haste and bad judgment. He was an ambitious man and he had insisted on having charge of the railroad survey along with his other superhuman tasks. The realization of the railroad was twenty years away and the Indian War only a year, but Governor Stevens made a bad guess. After the hasty survey of his new territory he raced back to Washington, D.C., to fight Jefferson Davis on the routing of the railroad.
In his hurried glance over Indian affairs Governor Stevens visited the village of Seattle, where all the Indians of the Elliott Bay region were called together. The shore was blackened with hundreds of canoes drawn up on the beach, and the narrow forest trails poured out Indians until three thousand of them crowded the village.
The Governor's party arrived in the new Sound steamer Major Tompkins, which the canoe-traveling settlers looked on as a miracle of luxury. The small and swarthy Governor addressed the Indians from in front of Doctor Maynard's drugstore-real-estate log cabin. Doctor Maynard was master of ceremonies, and an interpreter hacked and jammed the Governor's English into Procrustean Chinook Jargon. The Governor told them how the Great Chief in Washington loved Indians, and he told them that he loved them as much as if they were the children of his own loins. Because of his love for them he was going to have the Great Father buy their lands and he was going to give them fine reservations and the blessings of civilization, such as schools and blacksmith and carpenter shops.
The Governor made a fine speech, but he was outranged and outclassed that day. Chief Seattle, who answered in behalf of the Indians, towered a foot above the Governor. He wore his blanket like the toga of a Roman senator, and he did not have to strain his famous voice, which everyone agreed was audible and distinct at a distance of half a mile.
Seattle's oration was in Duwamish. Doctor Smith, who had learned the language, wrote it down; under the flowery garlands of his translation the speech rolls like an articulate iron engine, grim with meanings that outlasted his generation and may outlast all the generations of men. As the amiable follies of the white race become less amiable, the iron rumble of old Seattle's speech sounds louder and more ominous.
Standing in front of Doctor Maynard's office in the stumpy clearing, with his hand on the little Governor's head, the white invaders about him and his people before him, Chief Seattle said:
Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change. Whatever Seattle says the great chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons. The White Chief says that Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. That is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. The great, and—I presume—good, White Chief sends us word that he wishes to buy our lands but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably. This indeed appears just, even generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise also, as we are no longer in need of an extensive country…I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach our paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.
Youth is impulsive. When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, it denotes that their hearts are black, and then they are often cruel and relentless, and our old men and old women are unable to restrain them. Thus it has ever been. Thus it was when the white men first began to push our forefathers further westward. But let us hope that the hostilities between us may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men wh...

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Citation styles for Reading Seattle
APA 6 Citation
Donahue, P., & Trombold, J. (2014). Reading Seattle ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Donahue, Peter, and John Trombold. (2014) 2014. Reading Seattle. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press.
Harvard Citation
Donahue, P. and Trombold, J. (2014) Reading Seattle. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Donahue, Peter, and John Trombold. Reading Seattle. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.