25 Objects That Changed Seattle

From fossils to software, artifacts tell the story of the Emerald City.

By Bess Lovejoy December 1, 2013 Published in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met

1. Bathybembix Washingtoniana Shell

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

One hundred million years ago, a fateful game of continental bumper cars produced what is now Western Washington. Some of the oldest objects in the city are mollusk shells resting in the cabinets of the Burke Museum. These iridescent spirals are from a now-extinct species of snail that lived 25 million years ago, when the earth was cool and forests covered much of what is now Washington. Since then, the land, drenched in lava and carved by ice, has undergone radical shifts. The last glacier covering Seattle began receding 13,000 years ago, leaving a freshwater lake, then a saltwater sea, and eventually room for the earliest human inhabitants.

2. Adze Blade

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

The oral histories of local Native American tribes refer to their existence here since the beginning of time. According to archeologists, the oldest signs of human settlement in Western Washington date back about 13,000 years. The land’s original inhabitants lived in large, complex villages with elaborate art and architecture. (The Seattle area's original inhabitants are the Duwamish, although Puget Sound was home to a variety of distinct groups before white settlers came along.) Tools like this one—found beneath blackberry bushes at the base of Stone Way, near Gasworks Park—were used to cut and carve cedar, fish, meat, and other materials.

3. Arthur Denny’s Compass

Washington State Historical Society

On the rainy morning of November 13, 1851, the 22 members of the Denny Party stepped off the schooner Exact and onto today’s Alki Beach. The men immediately began putting a roof on a cabin built by an advance party, while the women supposedly sat down and wept. Arthur Denny, their 29-year-old leader, had brought the party from Illinois over the Oregon Trail and by boat from Portland. They hoped to build a city that would be the northwestern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. But in the spring of 1852, after finding Alki too vulnerable to winter storms, most of the Denny Party decamped to present-day downtown Seattle. When David “Doc” Maynard arrived later that spring, he convinced the settlers to change the name of their town-to-be from Duwamps (their attempt to pronounce the name of the area’s native people) to Seattle, an attempt to pronounce the name of the local chief who had become a good friend.

4. Treaty of Point Elliott

Washington State History Museum

On January 22, 1855, the governor of Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens, joined leaders of local native tribes at a conference in Point Elliott (now Mukilteo). The point of the gathering was the signing of a treaty ceding the lands of Puget Sound to the United States government. Chief Seattle’s X exchanged some 54,000 acres of Duwamish land—the future site of much of King County—for monetary payments, reservations, and other promised benefits, some of which never materialized. Almost from the moment it was signed, the treaty and others like it became a sore point for local Native Americans. Clashes erupted around the region in 1855, and, on January 26, 1856, some natives attacked the city. (Friendly natives had already warned the settlers, who hid in a blockhouse, while Doc Maynard moved hundreds of other Native Americans to safety.) Artillery fire from the Navy’s Decatur, anchored in Elliott Bay, drove off the attackers, who suffered an unknown number of casualties. Two settlers died, and the so-called Battle of Seattle temporarily put a damper on further immigration.

5. UW Columns

Sylvan Grove, University of Washington

When classes began at the Territorial University (later the University of Washington) on November 4, 1861, only about 300 settlers lived in Seattle. Early photos show the graceful white building, on what is now Fourth and University, surrounded by mud and stumps. Asa Mercer, the school’s first president and only instructor, taught about 30 students (mostly of primary school age) in a two-story structure on land donated by Arthur Denny. Attendance was sparse, and the first college graduate (a woman named Clara McCarty) didn’t finish until 1876. Still, the university gave the young city bragging rights, especially after Tacoma scored the railway and Olympia became the capital. In 1895, when the school moved to its current site on Lake Washington, Edmond S. Meany, then head of the history department, rescued four hand-carved wooden columns that had graced the original building’s entrance. In 1911, the columns were moved to the quad of the current campus, where they were named Loyalty, Industry, Faith, and Efficiency: LIFE. By 1920, the columns looked out of place against newer constructions, and the columns were again moved, this time to a grassy expanse near the Drumheller Fountain. Meanwhile, the University of Washington still owns the original downtown site, known as the Metropolitan Tract, leasing the space and collecting millions of dollars of revenue each year.

6. Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad Stock Certificate

Washington State Historical Society

Early Seattle staked many of its hopes and dreams on the transcontinental railroad. But when the Northern Pacific snubbed Seattle in 1873 in favor of Tacoma, city founders didn’t give in to despair. They built their own railroads: short lines connecting the waterfront to the newly discovered coal deposits south and east of the city. Seattle’s first major railroad—a distinction disputed by some historians, who say a less advanced railway came first—the Seattle and Walla Walla set off on its maiden journey from Seattle to Renton in 1877. Volunteers had begun building it during a May Day picnic in 1874, although immigrant Chinese laborers finished the line.

The tracks never did make it as far as Walla Walla, but the coal hauled to Elliott Bay helped establish the city’s economic dominance. The stock certificate depicted here, for 11 shares, was issued to Arthur Denny, the line’s president, and signed by Henry Yesler, who owned the city’s all-important sawmill. In 1880, the Seattle and Walla Walla was subsumed under the Columbia and Puget Sound Railway, and in 1884, after many delays, a spur line finally linked Seattle to the Northern Pacific

7. Glue Pot

Museum of History and Industry

On the afternoon of June 6, 1889, a Swedish cabinetmaker named John Back failed to notice a pot of glue bubbling over in his downtown shop. The sawdust and turpentine littering his floor caught fire, and the resulting conflagration burned throughout the night, visible around Puget Sound. Volunteer firefighters battling the blaze were stymied by an inefficient water system, plus pipes and fire hydrants made of wood. 

The next morning, authorities discovered downtown in ashes. No one had died, although losses totaled millions of dollars. Author Rudyard Kipling, who happened to be visiting, wrote that the fire produced “a horrible black smudge…. I know now what being wiped out means.” But Seattle quickly rebuilt in stone and brick, instead of wood and canvas, and raised the sidewalks to improve drainage. The result is today’s Pioneer Square.

8. Gold Poke

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

Seattle caught Klondike Fever on July 17, 1897, when the steamship Portland docked at Schwabacher’s Wharf carrying two tons of gold from Canada’s Yukon. “Gold, gold, gold, gold!” cried the headline in the P-I, which scooped the story by chartering a tug to intercept the boat. By 6am, 5,000 people had crowded the docks. The news set off a mad dash to Alaska, and many local men—including Seattle’s mayor—quit their jobs to head north. 

Those who made the trek collected their gold in pokes like these, while those who stayed behind mined the miners by selling food, supplies, and entertainment at top dollar. The government assay office, built in 1898 to process Klondike gold, also guaranteed a stream of newly rich miners pouring into town. The boom helped Seattle recover from the economic panic of 1893, and many prominent Seattle businesses—such as Nord-strom and Bartell Drugs—were started with Gold Rush profits.

9. House-Moving Log Rollers

Museum of History and Industry

For city engineer Reginald Thomson, the hills encircling Seattle’s downtown created a major barrier for growth. Although the peaks made for stunning views, they were a hassle for horses and carriages, not to mention the construction of roads and houses. The city had been leveling its streets since the 1870s, when First Avenue was flattened, although nothing was as dramatic as Thomson’s efforts to squash Denny Hill. The tons of dirt carved out of the hill starting in 1898 (using water cannons and other technology straight from the gold fields) were dumped south of Elliott Bay, creating the industrial district in what we know today as SoDo. Houses were often relocated using log rollers like these, although some property owners refused to participate, occupying their houses atop narrow mounds that came to be known as spite hills. Work on the Denny Regrade continued until 1930, part of a series of maneuvers that radically reshaped the city by flattening hills, straightening rivers, dredging wetlands, and lowering lake levels.

10. “Iron Chink”

Museum of History and Industry

Fish has been a staple food of the Northwest for thousands of years, but processing it has often been labor intensive. In 1903, Seattle inventor Edmund A. Smith developed a machine he called the “Iron Chink,” designed to replace the (usually Chinese) butchers who beheaded and deboned salmon by hand before canning. The racist name highlighted the ethnic tensions that had long festered within the city, notably during the depression of the 1880s, when Chinese were forbidden from owning property. During the fatal riots of 1886, some local citizens tried (unsuccessfully) to forcibly eject all Chinese from the city. The machine was bad for the workers it replaced, but for cannery owners it was a miracle, capable of processing fish 55 times faster than a skilled hand butcher. The Iron Chink even won the grand prize at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s first world’s fair, when four million visitors showed up to admire exhibits extolling the city’s commercial potential. (Sadly, Edmund Smith never saw his machine crowned: He died on the way to the exhibition in a car crash.)

11. Copper Still 

Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum

New Year’s Eve 1915 should have been one of the drunkest in state history, since as soon as the clock struck 12, prohibition made it illegal to manufacture or sell alcohol in Washington. Instead, the evening had a somber air, with many revelers sipping soda pop and bars closing early. Washington went dry four years before national prohibition, in part to conserve grain for the war roiling Europe. But alcohol didn’t disappear from the city: Drugstores sold “medicinal” liquors, while speakeasies like the International District’s Chinese Gardens flourished. In more out-of-the-way spots, moonshiners operated portable distilleries. This copper still belonged to a King County deputy sheriff, who brewed corn-based alcohol in the hills outside Auburn with his father, also a deputy sheriff. Low pay for law enforcement officers meant such activities weren’t unusual. Most notorious was the “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers” Roy Olmstead, who started rum-running from Canada while still a Seattle police lieutenant, earning a tidy fortune before his 1924 arrest. (The radio station that later became KOMO was started in one of his spare bedrooms; authorities speculated that he used it to send messages to his rum-running boats during children’s bedtime stories.) In 1932, Washington state prohibition was repealed, and the nation followed suit the next year. 

12. Tear Gas Gun Used in Longshoremen’s Strike

Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum

The Longshoreman’s Strike remains the most violent episode of civil unrest in the city’s history. On May 9, 1934, Seattle members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) joined workers at other West Coast ports in a strike to demand better wages and hiring practices from waterfront employers. Fierce clashes among police, scabs, and strikers led to fatalities on both sides, notably at the June 20 Battle of Smith Cove, when hundreds of policemen used beatings and tear gas guns like this one to try to break the strike. Union leader Shelvy Daffron was killed during a confrontation on June 30, while on July 9, King County Sheriff’s deputy Steve S. Watson died after strikers rolled over a car at Third and Seneca. The strike ended on July 31, 1934, with the ILA having achieved all of its demands. 

13. Hooverville Postal Sign

Museum of History and Industry

In October 1931, a group of unemployed Seattleites began building a cluster of shacks on a vacant shipyard south of Pioneer Square. Like others suffering through the Great Depression around the country, they named their encampment Hooverville—a jab against president Herbert Hoover, on whom they blamed the nation’s economic nosedive. Police burned down the encampment twice, but each time residents rebuilt, the second time with tin and steel. The city finally allowed them to stay, after imposing sanitation rules and forbidding women and children. Eventually over a thousand people lived in the shantytown, which stretched for nine acres. Remarkably well organized, the residents even had their own postal delivery and de facto mayor, a man named Jesse Jackson. Jackson called the Hooverville—one of the largest in the nation—“the abode of the forgotten man.” By 1941, the city decided the Hooverville land was needed for shipping and created a Shack Elimination Committee to clear the area. Today the site, just west of CenturyLink Field, is used to unload container ships. 

14. Virginia V

Steamer Virginia V Foundation 

From the 1850s through first few decades of the twentieth century, transportation to and from the coastal communities on Puget Sound was provided by small steamers known as the -Mosquito Fleet. The most famous of their vessels might be the Virginia V, constructed of local old-growth fir, which served the Seattle-Tacoma route from 1922 until 1938 and carried thousands of northwestern girls to summer camp on Vashon island until 1970. During WWII, the steamship also carried workers between Poulsbo and the naval station in Keyport; after the war, it served as a commercial excursion vessel, and is still available for charter. Washington’s ferries only became state-owned in 1951, and today the system is the largest in the country, making about 23 million trips a year.

15. Suitcase from the Minidoka Internment Camp

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

This suitcase bore silent witness to one of the most shameful episodes in Seattle history. Hours after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, FBI agents began arresting Japanese Americans in Seattle, including priests, teachers, and community leaders. By the morning of December 9, more than a hundred had been taken into custody. At King Street Station, Japanese porters were replaced by Filipinos. At Seattle schools, Japanese women resigned from clerical jobs after parents complained. On February 19, 1942, president Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the creation of “military areas.” While the order failed to say just who would be excluded from where, both Seattle mayor Earl Millikan and Washington governor Arthur Langlie declared support for removing Japanese residents—Seattle’s largest nonwhite ethnic group—from the city. On April 21, evacuation notices appeared on bulletin boards and telephone poles, and local Japanese boarded vans and buses bound for the “Camp Harmony” relocation center on the Puyallup fairgrounds. By September, most had been transferred to the Minidoka internment camp near Hunt, Idaho, the source of this suitcase. More than 7,000 refugees from Seattle (along with thousands of others from around the Northwest) suffered through extreme weather in bare-bones facilities at Minidoka. It was more than two years before they were allowed to return home, although none were ever charged with a crime.

16. Boeing VC-137B, Air Force One

The Museum of Flight 

Boeing became the industry in Seattle during the postwar period. In 1947, the company employed 20 percent of the manufacturing workers in King County; 10 years later it employed half of them. The 707, the first commercially successful jet airplane, was responsible for much of that growth, which would intertwine the fates of the company and the city for decades to come. Regular jet service across the Atlantic Ocean was inaugurated on October 26, 1958, when a 707 flew on Pan--American Airways from New York to Paris. But the first jet plane to act as Air Force One came along in 1959, when this custom-built 707-120, known as Special Air Missions 970, was delivered to President Eisenhower. Along with Eisenhower, the plane also ferried Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, as well as dignitaries such as Khrushchev and Kissinger. Although replaced as the presidential plane in 1962, it continued carrying vice presidents and other top brass until 1996. Boeing has built more than 14,000 jetliners since those early days—including the new 787 Dreamliner—and now accounts for almost three-quarters of the world’s commercial jet fleet. 

17. Chinese Shoes 

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

When Chinese-born Wing Luke was elected to Seattle City Council on March 13, 1962, he simultaneously became that body’s first nonwhite member and the first Asian American to serve in an elected office in the Pacific Northwest. During his time on the city council, Luke championed civil rights, progressive reform, and conservation (architect Victor Steinbrueck would later say he catalyzed the 1970s movement that saved Pike Place Market). Sadly, Luke’s term—and his life—were cut short when his plane disappeared over the Cascades during a snowstorm in May 1965. Supporters donated money to locate the wreckage, and leftover funds helped realize Luke’s dream of a museum devoted to Asian history and culture. It was a glimpse of shoes like these in a store that first made Luke reflect on how much had changed for Seattle’s Chinese community and sparked his idea of a museum. 

18. Space Needle

Lower Queen Anne Hill

The Seattle World’s Fair was originally intended to be a “festival of the West” marking the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Boosters hoped it would bring new energy downtown, then being drained by the postwar flight of inhabitants to the suburbs. But in October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, catapulting America into the Space Race, and fair organizers realized they could harness federal funds if they focused the event on science and technology. Thus Century 21 was born. Supposedly first sketched by hotel executive Eddie Carlson on a cocktail napkin after dining atop Germany’s Stuttgart TV Tower, the Space Needle was constructed with $4.5 million of private investment in just over a year. The 605-foot-high steel tripod, topped with saucer-shaped revolving restaurant and observation deck, originally sported a space-age color scheme of astronaut white, reentry red, orbital olive, and galaxy gold (the last briefly restored for the fair’s 50th anniversary last summer). Nearly 20,000 people rode the high-speed elevators to the top of the Needle each day during the fair, while the building now hosts over a million visitors each year. The Needle continues to fulfill the goals of its creators, who wanted to build both a permanent landmark and iconic symbol of Seattle.

19. Police Megaphone Used in Protests

Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum

Seattle’s protest era began in earnest in the latter half of the 1960s. Important early players included the UW Black Student Union, which organized sister chapters in high schools and middle schools. In April 1968, UW members founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party—the first outside California. The next month, BSU members and supporters took over the UW administration building and stayed until the school’s president agreed to their demands to make the school more inclusive. (The plan worked: African American enrollment at the UW jumped 310 percent that year.) By the spring of 1968, student protests were spreading to campuses around the county. Seattle saw its most dramatic chapter of the movement in February 1970, when the anti-Vietnam Seattle Liberation Front, formed by visiting UW professor Michael Lerner, led what became a violent protest at the downtown federal courthouse. Two thousand protestors threw rocks and paint bombs at the courthouse and police, with 20 people injured and 76 arrested. Seven SLF members eventually served time in jail on charges of conspiracy to plan a riot; one of them, Jeff Dowd, later moved to Hollywood and became the inspiration for The Big Lebowski’s Dude. (“Ever hear of the Seattle Seven? … That was me and, uh, six other guys.”) Other violent protests at the UW followed, though by 1971 both the protests and the SLF had dissolved. 

20. Starbucks Sign

Museum of History and Industry

While much of Seattle lapsed into a recession in the 1970s after Boeing layoffs, at least one major new business was being born. In April 1971, Starbucks opened its first store at 2000 Western Avenue (it later moved inside the Pike Place Market). Started by two teachers and a writer, the first Starbucks location sold whole beans, ground coffee, tea, and spices—but no brewed coffee or espresso. This hand-painted wooden sandwich board stood outside. Employee Howard Schultz, hired in 1981, first brought the cafe concept back to Seattle after a trip to Italy in 1983, and the first Starbucks latte was served the following year. In 1987, the original owners sold to Schultz, who soon began building his coffee kingdom. Today the company runs more than 18,000 retail stories in 62 countries, and has helped make java culture synonymous with Seattle. 

21. Sonics 1979 Championship Trophy

Museum of History and Industry

June 1, 1979, was a golden day for Seattle. On the other side of the country, in Washington, DC, the SuperSonics defeated the Washington Bullets 97 to 93 to bring home Seattle’s first—and only—NBA championship trophy. Fans lavished praise on coach Lenny Wilkens and captain “Downtown” Freddie Brown, among other players, saying the win made the city finally feel “big league.” The recent history of the Sonics has been less sunny. In 2006 Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett bought the team from Howard Schultz, promising to keep them in Seattle if a new stadium could be built to replace KeyArena. The state refused to fund the plan, saying it had better ways to spend money, and the team played its last home game on April 13, 2008. 

22. Copy of Windows 1

Museum of History and Industry

From its humble beginnings in the Lakeside School’s computer lab, where Paul Allen and Bill Gates tinkered when they were barely teenagers, Microsoft has grown into the world’s largest software company. While MS-DOS put Microsoft on the map, Windows (first released in 1985) may be the company’s most recognizable product today. Initially headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico (chosen for its proximity to a client), the company moved to Bellevue in 1979 and Redmond in 1986, shortly before going public and creating thousands of local millionaires, as well as a few billionaires. In the years since, the company has expanded beyond operating systems and office suites into web browsers, news and entertainment, search, mobile phones, and more. Microsoft’s wealth has reshaped the city, not only through its robust payroll and constellation of contractors, but also through Paul Allen’s investments in the Experience Museum Project, the Seahawks, and the redevelopment of South Lake Union. Meanwhile, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works to improve health around the world, to the tune of several billion in grants each year.

23. Nirvana Demo Tape

Experience Music Project

The awkward stepchild of hardcore punk and heavy metal, grunge burst into the mainstream music scene in 1991 with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After MTV put the single on heavy rotation, the album Nevermind became a smashing success, surprising both the band and the label—not to mention the music industry at large. Soon journalists from around the world had arrived to cover the “Seattle Sound,” shining a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight on the city. (One beleaguered receptionist at the band’s record label, Sub Pop, memorably fooled The New York Times with a hoax “grunge lexicon.”) Meanwhile, bands such as Mudhoney, the Melvins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Tad rocked out at clubs like the Crocodile in Belltown, not to mention venues around the world. This cassette tape could be said to have started it all. Laid down with Jack Endino at Reciprocal Recording in Ballard, it was Nirvana’s first professional demo. Endino gave a copy of the tape to the heads of Sub Pop, who decided to sign the group and produce Bleach. Nirvana later moved on to a major label for Nevermind.

24. Spray-Painted Window at WTO Protests

Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum

The World Trade Organization protests caught Seattle unprepared. Though city leaders and state companies such as Boeing, Microsoft, and Weyerhaeuser had welcomed the chance to host a round of talks aimed at expanding free trade, labor, environmental, and student groups pushed back—hard. The morning of November 30, 1999, became one of the most memorable in the city’s history, as tens of thousands of protestors prevented delegates from getting to the convention center and shut down the opening ceremonies. By that afternoon, the downtown core had become half street carnival, half riot zone, with puppets and performers entertaining the crowds in some areas and some protestors smashing property in others. In response, police fired tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. At 3:30pm mayor Paul Schell declared a state of emergency and imposed an evening curfew, and governor Gary Locke ordered in the National Guard. After several more days of protests, a few hundred people had been arrested; costs to the city and businesses ran into the millions. Locals heavily criticized police response, leading to the resignation of top police officials and influencing Schell’s loss in the 2001 election. 

25. The Amazon Box 

On Your Doorstep

In 1994, Jeff Bezos quit his job at a New York hedge fund and moved to Bellevue, where he started the online retailer Cadabra.com from a rental house. (The name was changed to Amazon.com after some thought cadabra sounded like cadaver.) The company sold its first book—Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought—in 1995, and has since branched out into selling toys, music, movies, video games, and clothing, as well as publishing, content creation, and cloud computing, not to mention Kindles. After successfully navigating the dotcom crash of the early 2000s, the company first pulled in a full-year profit in 2003, and now rakes in $1,500 a second. It is also rapidly changing the city itself. Since moving its headquarters to South Lake Union—creating a polar shift in the commercial real estate market toward that end of town—the tech giant has taken over nearly three million square feet of office space, with plans to build three skyscrapers totalling 3.3 million square feet.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Seattle Met under the title "The History of Seattle in 25 Objects."

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