I Wonder Why Seattle washed away its hills?

Men "rubbernecking" during regrade project <em>Museum of History & Industry</em>

In Seattle, we’re never satisfied: Viaduct out of fashion (… and a little dangerous) – remove it and dig a tunnel; Kingdome no longer fits our vision of a great sports venue – poof!

Remove all the hills because they’re in the way of progress – leveled!

One of the earliest engineers to envision grand changes for Seattle was R.H. Thompson. He’s the guy who leveled the hills in what’s known as the Denny Regrade. To understand our drive to give Seattle a constant make over, we decided to take a closer look at this unsung engineer who dramatically changed the city more than 100 years ago.

Denny Hill being regraded, Seattle, ca. 1909. <em>Museum of History & Industry</em>

In the late 1800’s city engineers refused to be bossed around by the natural landscape. Loraine McConaghy, the public historian at the Museum of History and Industry, says they were remaking a city that they believed could become the sophisticated jewel of the west.

“This was a city that seemed to be bounded in by these natural problems. Lake Washington, the tide flats of Elliot Bay, Denny Hill, and they need to be solved.”

Seattle’s natural beauty was viewed as an obstacle to commerce and comfort.

The engineers solved these problems by moving land and water in ways that seemed, even today, unimaginable. In a span of 30 years, the locks in Ballard were built, the Lake Washington Ship Canal was carved out, causing the Black River to quickly dry up.

McConaghy says the Duwamish, people who had always been here, living along the Black River were in shock at what the city’s white settlers were doing.

“They simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that Lake Washington was falling, that the river was just drying up and then it was puddles and the puddles were gone.”

So many salmon were left flopping in the dry riverbed that people came from miles around to collect them.

So, who were these men playing god with the land to make it more usable?

‘...Seattle was a pit.’ R.H. Thompson

Then & Now

Washington Hotel during regrading of Second Avenue, Seattle, 1906. <em>Museum of History & Industry</em>


The Moore Theater now sits where the Washington Hotel once was. <em>Photo by Paula Wissel</em>

Well, the engineer that had the greatest hand in creating the city we know today was R.H. Thompson. He was the city’s engineer for 20 years. Kit Oldham, a writer for History Link, says Thompson was downright offended by the city’s hills. A quote from Thompson from when he first arrived to Washington State in the late 1800’s shows his disdain for the city’s peaks.

“Looking at local surroundings, I felt that Seattle was in a pit. That to get anywhere we would be compelled to climb out if we could.” 

One of downtown’s tallest peaks was where the Moore Theater sits today. In fact, if you stand at that intersection on 2nd Avenue, you will notice that all of the streets slope down.

When you look up to the roof of the theater, you are looking at what use to be the top of the hill. Oldham says at one time, on top of that hill sat the fanciest hotel in town, the Washingtonian.

“Theodor Roosevelt was a celebrity at the time and he stayed there, and so it was this grand hotel towering over downtown.”

Enter the engineer

While the Washingtonian reveled in its grandeur and refused to budge, R.H. Thompson was busy sluicing away the hill it was on. The hotel was allowed to remain standing on a sort of pinnacle, but no one could get to it because Thompson and his crew had put the street 100 feet lower than the front doors.

Eventually, the hotel’s owners relented and agreed to flatten out what was left.

Over a span of 30 years, 16 million cubic yards of earth were moved in the regrade project. A Total of 25 miles were leveled. Half of Beacon Hill was washed away, filling in the tide flats of Elliot Bay.

Today Safeco Field and Century Link Field sit on dirt from Beacon Hill. Just about every area of downtown was affected, making it easier for trolley-cars, horse and buggies and the new automobiles to get around, just as Thompson had envisioned.

Workers using water hoses to regrade Denny Hill, ca. 1909. <em>Museum of History & Industry</em>

Where did they get the water?

All of water used to tame the hills came from the Cedar River, 30 miles south and east of the city.

“Right here we are 546 feet above sea level,” Ralph Naess, who works for Seattle Public Utilities, said on a recent visit to the spot. “Capitol hill is 500 feet above sea level. Gravity is free and it creates pressure just by virtue of flowing down hill.”

This is what also brought clean water to homes and businesses and it eventually supplied electricity, which it still does today.

Luckily, some plans left on the drawing board

If R.H. Thompson and his fellow engineers had accomplished everything they wanted to accomplish, Seattle would be drastically different today.

MOHAI’s Lorraine McConaghy said one project talked about earnestly in the early 1900’s was to fill in Lake Union. Yes, fill in Lake Union. No more house boats. Forget the sea-planes.

“ ‘Why not fill in Lake Union, turn it into industrial land!’ That to me is the quintessential essence of this confidence that you could take this stuff here, move it there and that in the end it would all be worth it. It would be alright in the end,” she said.

Back to our future

There is a little less confidence and much more public process hemming in today’s big dreamers. But, still, you don’t have to look too far to see audacious feats of engineering. Just look at the tunnel being bored through Capitol Hill, and the tunnel that will be built along the waterfront to replace the viaduct.

The dirt that engineers will be working in will be a lot of the same dirt R.H. Thompson sluiced down the city’s streets all those years ago. He’d be proud, but we wonder – What’s next? A spaceport?