A Historic Resource Study for the Seattle Unit of the
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

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"By-and-By": The Early History Of Seattle

Early Local Industries

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 encouraged settlement of the Pacific Northwest. This early homestead measure offered each white male adult 320 acres of land if single, and if he married by December 1, 1851, his wife was entitled to an additional 320 acres in her own right. To take advantage of this measure, settlers were required only to reside on the land and cultivate it for four years. [16]

Seattle further benefited from its proximity to farmlands in the Duwamish Valley. While the town's lumber industry developed during the 1850s, farmers staked claims along the river and prairies as far south as Auburn. Here they raised livestock and a variety of crops, including wheat, oats, peas, and potatoes, which they traded with Seattle settlers. [17]

Probably no development proved more influential to the early growth of Seattle than the arrival of the railroad. Arthur Denny realized the importance of connecting the town by rail line from the outset of his settlement on Puget Sound. His dream was delayed, however, by conflicts with Indians during the 1850s, and by the opening of Kansas and Nebraska for homesteading, which diverted potential settlers. During the 1860s, the Civil War further slowed railroad development in the West. Denny's hopes were rekindled in 1870, when the Northern Pacific Railroad began building a road west from Minnesota and a branch line from the Columbia River to Puget Sound. To help finance construction, the federal government gave the Northern Pacific the rights to millions of acres of land. [18]

Columbia and Puget Sound Railway Terminals
The Columbia and Puget Sound Railway Terminals on King Street and Occidental Avenue about 1883.
[Source: Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time
(Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916)]

Seattle and Tacoma competed for the position as terminus for this transcontinental railroad. In 1873, Seattle residents urged the Northern Pacific to build its terminal in their town, extending offers of $250,000 in cash and 3,000 acres of undeveloped land -- much of which was located along the waterfront. The railroad company, however, decided to make Tacoma its terminus, owing to the greater opportunities for land speculation that the "City of Destiny" to the south presented. As The Oregonian, a Portland newspaper, explained, Tacoma became a company town, "largely the creation of the Northern Pacific" for "the benefit of some of its managers who compose the Tacoma Land Company." [19] Disappointed Seattle residents, including Denny, formed the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad, resolving to build their own connection over Snoqualmie Pass. On May Day of 1874, they organized a picnic and started laying track. Historians came to view this "bold and amusing" incident as reflecting a distinctive "spirit" in Seattle, characterized by optimism and determination. [20]

The effort to build a rail line from Seattle across the Cascade Mountains soon languished, due to lack of funds. Similarly, the Northern Pacific had collapsed in 1873, when Jay Cooke, its financier, went bankrupt. [21] Meanwhile, the discovery of coal deposits south and east of Seattle further encouraged city residents to develop local rail lines. By the 1870s, Seattle had nearly exhausted its supply of timber -- and the coal located in Renton, on the southern shore of Lake Washington, presented the opportunity for an additional export. In 1876, James Colman purchased Yesler's wharf, taking over construction of the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad. He extended the rail line to Renton and Newcastle, and Seattle began sending coal to markets in Portland and San Francisco. Trains carried coal across the tideflats, to docks on Elliott Bay. The rail connections, along with deposits discovered in Issaquah and Black Diamond, helped make coal a significant export, second only to lumber. So significant was the development of coal that Seattle came to be called "the Liverpool of the North." [22]

During the 1880s, Seattle enjoyed its "first great spurt of growth.." [23] Residents established a chamber of commerce to promote business interests in 1882, and five years later the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its transcontinental line to Tacoma, thus linking Puget Sound to the markets of the eastern United States. The railroad also helped make Seattle accessible to migrants, who traveled north from Tacoma on a branch line. [24] As the mayor of Seattle, Henry Yesler viewed these railroad connections with considerable enthusiasm. He predicted in 1886 that "in the near future more than one transcontinental railroad will be humbly asking for our trade and support." So bright were Seattle's prospects that Yesler downplayed its competition with Tacoma. Once the transcontinental railroad reaches Seattle, he suggested, "it will be a matter of wonder that any other city upon Puget Sound ever dreamed of being our rival, far less our superior." [25] By 1888, a tunnel through Stampede Pass, which cut through the Cascade Mountains, had allowed for direct rail service from eastern points to Seattle.

During the 1880s, the city's population expanded from 3,500 to more than 43,000. [26] Rapid growth had its drawbacks, at least from an aesthetic perspective. Ernest Ingersoll, a writer who visited Seattle at this time, characterized it as "scattered" and disorganized. "The town has grown too fast to look well or healthy," he informed readers of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. "Everybody has been in [such] great haste to get there and get a roof over his head that he has not minded much how it looked or pulled many stumps out of his door-yard." [27]

Yesler's Wharf, 1885
Yesler's Wharf about 1885.
[Source: Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time
(Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916)]

Seattle's commercial district remained centered around the waterfront, which, by the late 1880s, had featured a patchwork of piers and frame buildings extending over the bay. [28] While developing its rail connections, the city relied heavily on maritime traffic -- some of which focused on the Far North, due to an increasing commercial interest in the region's fur seals and fisheries. Although the Alaska Commercial Company was based in San Francisco, by the 1880s, Seattle also had become a center of water trade between Puget Sound and the Far North. [29] The construction of "larger and better wharves" and improved shipping facilities hastened this transition. [30]

The Pacific Coast Steamship Company provided the first direct, regular service from Seattle to Alaska in 1886. During the mid-1890s, the Alaska Steamship Company formed in Seattle, and the Japan Steamship Company placed its western American terminus at the city, contracting with the railroad for exchange of freight and delivery. This development represented an "immense advance in the commerce of the city." [31] When the Japanese steamship Miiki Maru sailed into Elliott Bay with a cargo of silk and tea in 1896, the Seattle city council declared a holiday. [32] In the years before the Klondike Gold Rush, then, Seattle established a trade link with Alaska and the Far North as well as with the Far East.

A variety of shipping company offices were located along First Avenue South , which also supported such businesses as meat packing, food processing, furniture manufacturing, and breweries. These industries served Seattle residents as well as the outlying logging, farming, and mining communities. [33] City laborers found lodging in hotels, tenements, and boarding houses located off Main Street. [34]

During this era, Seattle included a Chinese community, located initially in the area around First Avenue South and Occidental Avenue. Chinese immigrants came to the Northwest in the 1870s, to work on the region's rail lines and in its mines. For the next two decades, they also labored on regrading projects and in laundries, canneries, and stores. By the 1880s, the Chinese community had moved to Washington Street, between Second and Third avenues, where residents often lived above stores and retail businesses. Anti-Chinese sentiment, encouraged by white laborers, erupted in riots during the mid-1880s, prompting declaration of martial law. Before troops arrived, many Chinese workers were evicted from the city. Those remaining in Seattle continued to live along Washington Street, where they were joined by an influx of Japanese workers. [35]

Most of the town's infrastructure -- including streets, wharves, businesses, and residences -- was made of wood. In 1889, however, Seattle had the opportunity to rebuild itself. On June 6 of that year, a devastating fire swept through downtown, beginning in a store on the corner of First Avenue and Madison Street eventually destroying more than 30 blocks. Although destructive, this blaze resulted in new development, as Seattle passed an ordinance requiring that buildings downtown be constructed of brick and stone. [36]

Early Population Growth in Seattle

c. 150
c. 350

Source: Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 2 (Chicago: S.J. Publishing Co., 1916), p. 698.

Observers -- and investors -- noted that the fire sparked the "Seattle spirit" of optimism and determination. Seattle resident Judge Thomas Burke, for example, described the post-fire mood of the town as one of "vigor and energy." The flames "had scarcely been extinguished before the rebuilding of the City and the re-establishment of business in the various lines had been begun," he stated in July of 1889. "Banks have now on deposit more than they ever had before." [37] Early historians similarly praised the pluck and resolve of Seattle citizens for their swift response to the disaster. "Fate lit a torch," explained Welford Beaton in 1914, "which called to arms the enterprise and spirit of the people," who began the task of rebuilding "while the ashes were still warm." [38] Citizens in Seattle had further cause for optimism in July of 1889, when territorial delegates met in Olympia to draft a state constitution and by-laws. On November 11 of that year, Washington was admitted to the Union as the 42nd state. [39]

After the fire, the center of business activity in Seattle gradually expanded from Yesler's wharf to the north, east, and southeast. Neighborhoods emerged along the electric streetcar lines, established in 1884, that ran north and east from downtown. [40] Many residents lived in the core of the city, in the five blocks on either side of Yesler Way, between First and Third Avenues. According to Sale, downtown Seattle featured "furniture and cabinet makers, machine shops, groceries, laundries, dressmakers, meat and fish merchants, and in a great many instances the owners and employees of these businesses lived there or nearby." In short, "light industry and office work were next to each other, and both were next to all kinds of residences." [41] The presence of these various industries, along with the transportation infrastructure, helped business interests in Seattle take advantage of the opportunities presented at the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Founding the City | Early Local Industries
The 1890s | Gold Fever Strikes

Chapter: Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Table of Contents

Last Updated: 18-Feb-2003