Uncover the past

Uncovering Seattle's stories through archaeological exploration

{Digging History}

As part of the S. Holgate Street to S. King Street Project, archaeologists working for WSDOT excavated an area west of First Avenue S. Now an archaeological site, a neighborhood once existed here during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The small neighborhood was abandoned around 1905, when it was filled with dirt and turned into a rail yard. However, archaeologists knew that pieces of the area's history remained, including building foundations and discarded household materials like shoes, bottles, and glasses. The excavation was designed to find those remains and use them to tell the story of the vanished neighborhood.

The longshoremen, saloon-keepers, chambermaids, transient workers and entrepreneurs of early waterfront Seattle are silent now. No historian wrote down their words, and no artist painted their portraits. But does the story of their lives survive, buried under our feet?

Archaeologists sift through soils to look for artifacts, May 2010
Historical items found during an archaeological excavation, May 2010
Archaeologists sift through soils to look for artifacts, May 2010
Archaeologists find tip of blade during excavations, May 2010
Archaeologists excavate a trench, May 2010
Archaeologists find tip of an old bottle, May 2010

View more photos of the project's May 2010 archaeological dig on WSDOT's Flickr site.

{Building on the Tideflats}

As archaeologists address what remnants of Seattle's past may exist below ground, they review the history of development of the tideflats in early Seattle. In 1890, Benjamin Harrison was President of the United States, Wyoming had just become the 44th state, and the invention of the escalator, the game of basketball, and the internal combustion engine were right around the corner. Fashionable ladies wore leg o'mutton sleeves, and gentlemen still sported top hats on special occasions.

The 42,000 residents of Seattle were bouncing back from the Great Fire of 1889. Hemmed in by hills, the residents of the 35-year-old city looked to the tideflats for growth and expansion. As the city grew, additional wharves and docks were built south of King Street onto the vast tideflats. In the days before zoning and planning, factories and foundries were neighbors with floating shanties, hotels, restaurants and stores.

Out of sight, out of mind – people cast garbage off the wharves without a second thought. In addition to using debris from the Great Fire of 1889, the City and private companies began to "reclaim" the tideflats with sediments dredged with hydraulic equipment. In some areas, the tideflats were filled up to the level of the wharves, but in others wharves and piers still created the only dry surface above the water at high tides.

Businesses and factories thrived in the area, but the railroad eyed the waterfront as a transportation corridor. Railroad companies bought up real estate in the tideflats. By 1909, the railroads had demolished all the shanties, shops, factories, piers, and wharves on the block that is now between South King Street and South Royal Brougham Way, from Alaskan Way to First Avenue South. The area was completely filled to sit above the high tides with dry ground for railroad operations, rail yards and depots.

This series of maps and photos shows the development of the waterfront and tidelands. For reference, the green dot marks the approximate location of Qwest Field, home to the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle Sounders. The red dot marks the location of the Centennial Flour Mill. The mill was opened in 1898 on the site that is now the Port of Seattle property on the waterfront just southwest of Qwest Field.

1874 City of Seattle, Washington territory.  A Mackintosh Real Estate Map prior to filling of tideflats. Seattle Times
1891 Seattle and Environs.  Birdseye Map. University of Washington Libraries Rare Map Collection MAP123
1908 Baist's Real Estate Map. University of Washington Libraries, King County Museum Collection
1881 Photo of tideflats from Beacon Hill—first movement onto the tideflats.  University of Washington Libraries, Asahel Curtis Photo Collection 17047
Circa 1895-8 Photo of tideflats from Beacon Hill—early pier and wharf insfrastructure, limited areas of filling. Centennial Mill is circled in red Seattle Municipal Archives 130374
Circa 1898 Photo of tideflats from Beacon Hill. Increasing filling and construction of bulkheads. University of Washington Libraries, Seattle Photograph Collection, SEA 1464
Circa 1901 Photo of tideflats from Beacon Hill—filled area extending southward. University of Washington Libraries, Asahel Curtis Collection 03022
1909 photo of tideflats from Beacon Hill—increasingly orderly development, with roads and railways. University of Washington Libraries, Asahel Curtis Collection 16381
1914 photo of tideflats from Beacon Hill—tideflats nearly completely filled. University of Washington Libraries, Asahel Curtis Collection 29679 and 29680

{Learning from Layers}

In 2010, archaeologists dug into a site that was identified in historical records as the former location of hotels, lodgings, restaurants, warehouses, and factories. These researchers searched for clues in everything from nails and bottles to sediment particles viewed through a microscope. Artifacts would be nothing more than curiosities unless researchers could use them to tell the stories of the people who lived in this former neighborhood.

Careful analysis revealed that the most structures outlined in historic maps of this area were mostly standing on pilings, which in turn stood on wooden support platforms on the tideflats. Although historic maps could only show two dimensions, archaeology revealed the complex three-dimensional mish-mash of buildings built partially on filled tideflats, but mostly on wharves and piers. When the railroad developed this area, they didn't just add fill on top of everything – they demolished the complex maze of piers and wharves that supported hotels, restaurants, and factories. All that remains now is jumbled debris resting on top of the former support platforms and interspersed by pilings.

The results of this archaeological research provided further insights into how the tideflats were filled, and how the earliest structures were built upon shifting sediments. However, the stories of the working poor who once lived in this neighborhood remain a mystery.

By recovering these pieces of history, WSDOT is fulfilling its commitment to ensure that the history hidden within the archaeological site will not be left unrecorded by the project. Archaeologists will continue to monitor the area during construction as a safeguard against any accidental damage to archaeological sites.

Read more about the history of the tideflat area (pdf 1.4mb) as revealed during WSDOT's archaeological exploration.

Circa 1900. Floating shanties on the waterfront. MOHAI 1988.33.22
Waterfront, 1896. Note roads on pilings, and mix of lodgings and industrial buildings. Seattle Municipal Archives SMA 29984
Waterfront, 1900.  Rails and commerce on the waterfront, showing the intertidal area to the left. MOHAI SHS1701
Map showing 1904-5 Sanborn map on aerial photo
Map showing building types on aerial photo
2010 Photo showing piling support platform.  The platforms were built on fill sluiced down from the hills during regarding. (WSDOT)
1902 City of Seattle engineering plans for Plummer Street and the American Steel and Wire Company Warehouse, showing how streets and buildings were constructed over tideflats. Seattle Municipal Archives Engineering Department Records Items 107-79-1 and 79-46-1
Profile of excavated area. Notice the piling and its support, and the different levels of fill. At the bottom is hydraulic fill sluiced down from regrades. On top of that is demolition debris topped with engineered fill, from when the railroad demolished existing structures and filled to make dry land. At the top is fill placed during later construction episodes. (WSDOT)
2010 Photo of demotion debris.  Railroad companies demolished waterfront businesses and housing to create a rail corridor along the waterfront. (WSDOT)
Artifacts from the excavation.

About us

This site is dedicated to the history of Seattle's downtown and waterfront, especially the State Route 99 / Alaskan Way Viaduct corridor. It was developed by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration as an educational resource and as part of a Memorandum of Agreement for Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (pdf 1mb).

Copyright 2011 Washington State Department of Transportation