WHEN WE THINK of waters that define Seattle, which ones come to mind? Puget Sound and Elliott Bay, with Lake Washington and Lake Union close behind. Perhaps Green Lake. Don’t forget the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

But what about the seemingly invisible Duwamish River, harnessed (some say ravaged) beyond original recognition and poisoned beyond palatability? Shouldn’t it rise to the top?

Now & Then

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That’s the question behind a new social and environmental history book with a provocative title: “The River That Made Seattle.” Is it true that the Duwamish “made” our city?

Author BJ Cummings — serving for 25 years in leading roles for Puget Soundkeeper, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Sustainable Seattle and the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program — makes a potent case.

For starters, she says, most of the waterways that surrounded and fed Seattle once drained through the Duwamish. Also, and not incidentally, the river is named for the tribe whose chief’s bowdlerized name became that of the city.

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Cummings further points out that, contrary to commonly told history, the city’s first white settlers (she calls them “immigrants”) were not those who alighted Nov. 13, 1851, at Alki Beach but rather those bearing the names of Maple, Van Asselt and Collins, who roosted two months earlier along the Duwamish.

In time, city-builders’ projects diverted or dried up feeder rivers so that by 1920, a watershed of more than 2,000 square miles had shrunk to fewer than 500. The spaghetti-like course of the Duwamish itself also had been straightened, and the channel widened and deepened, to make way for enormous ships and an industrial identity that nearly erased a tribal homeland.

Even so, portions of the original riverbed survive — some barely. One is shown in our “Then” photo, taken in 1891 from a bend in the Duwamish west bank (present-day South Park) called Cassell’s Point, named for longtime Seattle railroad engineer John Cassell, who might be the gent pointing the umbrella. This spot also lies across from where Chief Seattle paid his final visit to the river.

Though we strain today to imagine the river before unwieldy industry and its persistent pollutants transformed it, Cummings bears a bottomless affinity for its past via her long ties to the tribe and others who care about the Duwamish.

“This trashed river made its way into my heart,” she says. “There have been seven generations of immigrant history and 10,000 years of native history here. The city was built on the back of the river. The river gave the city the riches and the infrastructure it needed to grow, and it’s time for us to give back a little of that love.”