David B. Williams’ new book, “Too High & Too Steep,” chronicles the massive changes wrought on the city’s landscape in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
On the one hand, you had the swank Washington Hotel, perched on 240-foot-high Denny Hill, with sweeping views of downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay and the Olympics.
On the other hand, you had city engineer R.H. Thomson declaring: “Some people seemed to think that because there were hills in Seattle originally, some of them ought to be left there, no difference how injurious a heavy grade over a hill may be to the property beyond that hill.”
Contemporary Seattleites may be flabbergasted at the thought that the city’s hills were seen as “injurious.” But Thomson and his colleagues prevailed.
David B. Williams
The author of “Too High & Too Steep” will discuss his book at these area locations:
•At 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at Seattle’s University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
•At 2 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Seattle Public Library. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
•At 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-386-4636 or thirdplacebooks.com).
The summit of Denny Hill — and the grand hotel with it — came down by 1907. Eventually, 11,113,025 cubic yards of dirt were excavated to create the flat urban street grid of Belltown.
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Denny Hill was just one highlight in this re-sculpting of the city. All in all, 75,036,595 cubic yards of dirt were moved as streets were regraded, ridges flattened, tide flats filled in and waterways dug.
If you’re having trouble picturing Seattle as it was before the engineers went to work on it, David B. Williams’ “Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography” (University of Washington Press, 239 pp., $29.95) is here to help.
Williams does a marvelous job of evoking the cityscape that used to be. He clues us in to the spirit of civic ambition that drove Seattle’s geographical transformations. He methodically chronicles the stages by which its regrade, canal and landfill projects were accomplished. And he’s meticulous about placing his readers on present-day street corners where they can, with some sleight of mind, glimpse the hills, lake shores and tide flats that vanished. (Maps, illustrations and archival photographs help.)
Williams, a frequent contributor to The Seattle Times, is a native Seattleite whose books (“The Street-Smart Naturalist,” “Stories in Stone: Travels through Urban Geology”) have delved closely into the physical fabric of our city. But even he didn’t have a handle on how drastic the early-20th-century changes to Seattle were until he started researching the book.
“I had heard of the Denny Regrade, but I didn’t know where it was or what it meant,” he said in a recent interview. “I knew the tide flats were filled in — but I didn’t really, again, know what it meant.”
Boston, New York and San Francisco, he notes, all expanded their urban footprints with landfill projects. But Seattle, he writes, was “unusual for the scale and diversity of its metamorphosis.”
Williams begins with the basics — how the Puget Sound basin was formed by seismic, volcanic and ice-sheet activity — before devoting chapters to the filling in of Seattle’s original shoreline (creating much of the Pioneer Square neighborhood and Alaskan Way waterfront); the transformation of the Duwamish River tide flats into Harbor Island; the “replumbing” of Lake Washington, Lake Union and Salmon Bay; and the flattening of Denny Hill and other ridges and dips around town.
Some readers may be familiar with photos of the last butte-like remnants of Denny Hill as it was lowered by 110 feet. But even natives may not know how radically the city’s waterways were changed with the building of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (1911-1916).
The pre-canal shoreline of Lake Washington was nine feet higher than it now is — and it used to empty at its southern end into the now-nonexistent Black River, a tributary to the Duwamish. Salmon Bay, once a saltwater inlet of Puget Sound, became a freshwater lake 21 feet above sea level.
The technology used to effect these changes was startlingly simple. “The pile-driver drove the first trestles across the Duwamish tide flats — and all it is a big hammer!” Williams exclaims. “How did we remove the hills? All we used was a big hose!”
The ship canal unquestionably provided more direct access to Puget Sound from Lake Washington, and the creation of Harbor Island and the reclaimed land east of it supplied a much-needed expanse of flat terrain where dock facilities, rail-yards, factories and warehouses could be built.
When it comes to Denny Hill, though, Williams just shakes his head. By the time the regrade was done in 1930, one major reason for it — that horse-drawn vehicles had trouble getting up it — was a moot point. Cars had taken over.
“I see little reason why it had to be removed,” he writes. “Photographs show that it was a lovely residential complement to downtown. Nor had it stifled any development; the city continued to expand north through the early 1900s and into the teens.”
Williams wasn’t able to track down as many eyewitness accounts of the regrades as he hoped.
“My big dream, when I started the book, was that I would find either journals or letters,” he says. “Someone must have written someone else and said, ‘Wow, today I woke up and my next-door neighbor Jack’s house was gone!’ ”
Maybe after reading the book, he speculates, readers will search their attics and find writings by great-grandparents that give a more personal take on what it’s like to have your neighborhood excavated from underneath you. In the meantime, he remains awed by what he discovered.
“None of these projects could occur now, in any way, shape or form,” he emphasizes. “And they dwarf anything that we’re doing now.”