The Denny Regrade was a construction job that stretched nearly 50 years.
ONE OF THE Nevada Construction Company’s four “great electric power shovels” is at work on the right, digging away to the north on what little is left of Denny Hill by March 15, 1930. Both the date and prospect are captioned bottom-left, most likely by James Lee, a photographer for the Seattle Engineering Department. By 1930, he had been capturing our public works with negatives and 16mm film for about two decades.
Lee, it seems, was occasionally compass-challenged. His shot, and the “Now” photo by Jean Sherrard, each look west on Battery Street, and not east, as is mistakenly handwritten at the lower left corner of print No. 8297. Seventh Avenue, however, is confident. It is a two-block walk — or ride on the regrade conveyor belts — to reach the low-rise business district that begins on the west side of Fifth Avenue.
It was at Fifth that the Denny Regrade stalled in 1911 for the next 17 years. To the east of Fifth, a cliff was exposed — or created — that rose to a pie-shaped remnant of the hill, referred to as “The Old Quarter.” It was generally filled with homes — some of them large — that received few repairs and probably no restorations. The effect was that it got older, cozier and cheaper: a mix of rentals and family-owned homes, a neighborhood inclined to bohemian pastimes and street games. Regrading was expected to be completed eventually, but not so far-fetched as 17 years later.
This was the last of the six regrades humbling Denny Hill. For the first two, in the mid-1880s and late 1890s, First Avenue was regraded initially for the horse cars, and later for the electric trolleys heading to and fro between Seattle and North Seattle (Belltown and Lower Queen Anne).
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The remaining four regrades were all serious about eliminating Denny Hill as an obstruction to what the forces of regrade promoted as the “natural northern growth” of the city. Beginning in 1903, Second Avenue was brought to the grade we now know. In 1906 came the lowering of the south, or front, summit of the hill between Pine and Virginia streets and the razing of the grand Denny Hotel perched upon it.
The lowering of the slightly higher north summit followed until 1911, when, as noted, all cutting stopped, leaving a cliff on the east side of Fifth Avenue. The cliff was just to this side of the white-faced one-story building at the center of the “then” photo, at the southwest corner of Battery and Fifth. It is signed, “Klean-Rite Auto Laundry Co.” Spread out behind the laundry is the grand 1920-21 fire station No. 2 at the southeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Battery Street. On the afternoon that Public Works recorded this scene, more than 250 fire chiefs and municipal fire officials from around the state were meeting in No. 2’s big auditorium for a three-day “fire-prevention convention.”
Most of Denny Hill was eroded with water cannons, but not this last of the regrades. “The Old Quarter” was lowered with steam shovels that dumped their catches onto several movable conveyor belts. The multiple belts led to a master conveyor that carried the last of Denny Hill west on Battery Street to be dumped into Elliott Bay. As it turned out, the deposits created an underwater Denny Hill, which for the safety of shipping ultimately required dredging.