The bottom of the southern slope of Queen Anne Hill was home to the Duwamish Tribe’s potlatch celebrations, the Denny family’s gardens and an Army corral for horses and mules during the Spanish-American War.

Share story

FOR REASONS THAT might in part have had something to do with nostalgia for farm life and open Midwestern pastures, young city builders David and Louisa Denny protected from development most of the swale, or naturally cleared wetland, on their pioneer claim.

Much of that clearing is included in this look south from the still lightly developed southern slope of Queen Anne Hill, in the foreground, to the extensive scatter of structures on Denny Hill, crowned by the landmark Denny Hotel, at the middle distance. The far horizon extends from West Seattle, on the right, along the ridge of Beacon Hill to First Hill, the “Profanity Hill” part of it, where the tower of the King County Courthouse makes a perpetual promotion for law and order.

This week’s “then” is one of a dozen or more panoramas that photographer A.J. McDonald took of Seattle from a few of its hills during his, it seems, brief stay in the early to mid-1890s. This is one of the more softly focused of the photographer’s recordings, but it is still outstanding.

No doubt, McDonald is standing with his tripod on or near Ward Street and sighting south on Second Avenue North. It is about 1895, the year the Seattle Department of Public Works regularized and thereby restrained the often imaginative collection of Seattle’s street names. Previously, Second Avenue North was Poplar Avenue, and Ward was Villard Street. The last was named for the journalist-capitalist who brought the Northern Pacific Railroad to Seattle in the early 1880s and then promptly lost it.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Running left-right (east-west) above the center of the pan is Harrison Street, which now passes through the fanciful clutter of irregularly shaped Seattle Center. Nob Hill Avenue, which was Ash Avenue until 1895, reaches Harrison directly above the center of McDonald’s panorama. Directly below that intersection is the swale, still holding on to its green, but now transformed into part of the artificial grass field of Memorial Stadium.

The list of historical uses of this clearing begins with the Duwamish Tribe’s ritual and practical potlatch celebrations, and their catching in nets of low-flying waterfowl passing between Elliott Bay and the south end of Lake Union. With the Dennys in the early 1850s came their extensive gardens, which helped feed both their family and Seattle’s produce needs. In the late 1890s, the swale was fitted with an Army corral filled with horses and mules for help with the Spanish-American War. Soon after McDonald’s visit, the swale repeatedly hosted other horses, with carnivals and traveling circuses. Part of it was also developed into a fenced field with bleachers for professional baseball. In 1927-28, the swale was appointed with the concrete core for Seattle’s arts and entertainment culture: Civic Auditorium, Civic Arena and Civic Field.

In 1958, the Seattle City Council allotted $7,550 for the clearing of 18 “dilapidated buildings” from the probable site of The Century 21 Exposition, Seattle World’s Fair. It is likely McDonald’s panorama includes some of the condemned structures in the neighborhood beyond Harrison Street, on the far side of the swale.