by Kit Bakke, Washington Women's Foundation member and author
We invite you take a few minutes (or even an extra day or two) to acquaint yourself with this part of our country. February is actually a good time to be here because tourists are at a minimum, so you can rub shoulders with the locals. We know Seattle’s not on most travelers’ radar, so here are a few bits and bytes that might help bring our city in clearer focus:
Back in the 1950s a well-known local newspaper columnist led a movement he called “Lesser Seattle” that tried to discourage people from coming here. Talking up the incessant rain was one of his major tactics. But in fact, Seattle has less rainfall, about 37 inches/year, than 13 major U.S. cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston and New Orleans. The problem, though, is that our rain comes down slow and steady—we average 225 cloudy days/year. Even though we’re 2 degrees latitude north of Maine, we don’t get much snow either—but when it comes, we panic (why? See below).
We’re a city of many steep hills. It’s those hills that close down the schools and keep us home from work with only an inch or so of snow. Their verticality also accounts for the electric motor assists on most of our bike-share equipment.
Further afield, we are accustomed to seeing snowy mountains ringing our horizon—we have the Olympics (which are not volcanic) to our west and the Cascades (still active volcanos) to our east. Topping the volcanos is Mt. Rainier, the third highest mountain in the U.S. after Denali and Mt. Whitney. The first American to summit Mt. Everest was a local Seattle man, Jim Whittaker. He and his team trained on Mt. Rainier for their 1963 Himalayan success.
Besides volcanos, our corner of the country is also known for earthquakes. Along with the rest of the west coast, we are part of the “ring of fire” that circles the Pacific Ocean. Young and active geological forces remind us that the earth is still changing beneath our feet.
We also have an abundance of water. Seattle is said to have the largest number of boats per capita. The boundary between the salt water (Puget Sound) and fresh water (Lake Washington) is maintained by a set of locks, which are the busiest locks in the U.S. and second in size only to the Panama Canal locks.
Lake Washington is a 20 mile long and very deep (over 200 feet) glacially-formed lake running along the eastern border of the city. On it float three multi-lane concrete bridges which serve thousands of commuters daily to and from Seattle’s eastside suburbs.
Why floating bridges? First envisioned by an engineer in the 1930s, the idea solved two problems: the lake bed is too soft and the lake too deep to build the piers to support a conventional bridge, and the span from land to land would require the towers for a suspension bridge to be over 600 feet tall. We also have a floating bridge over a salt water inlet, even trickier to build as it must account for tidal flow. These four bridges are the four longest floating bridges in the world.
Seattle is the only large city in the country named after a Native American chief. Local tribes lived here for centuries, raising their families and eating well off the abundant food found in the water and the forests. The first outsiders arrived in 1851 by boat to the shores of what is now the West Seattle neighborhood. Their intention was to stay, build a sawmill, raise their families and build a town, which they did.
Like many cities, Seattle had its “Great Fire.” In 1889, started by an overturned glue pot, it burned 29 square blocks and many of the city’s wharves. No one was killed, but it’s said that a million rats died. Rebuilt mostly in brick above the ruins, you can see the remains of the old city one story down on the “Underground Tour” in Pioneer Square.
Seattle grew into a rough-and-tumble port city, full of gambling saloons and, during Prohibition, major smuggling operations. The term “skid row” originated here as the city’s most disreputable elements congregated in Pioneer Square where the logs were skidded down from the forests to waiting ships in the harbor.
Seattle has a strong labor history with many strikes, including a general strike. Socialists were elected to city and county offices. In 1936 one federal official described the U.S. as having “47 states and the Soviet of Washington.” Seattle was an early adopter in the growing number of U.S. cities that guarantee its citizens a $15/hour wage.
Washington men voted to give women the right to vote in 1910, a decade before the idea became national law. In 1926 Seattle became the first major city in the U.S. to elect a woman mayor. Bertha Knight Landes cracked down on gambling, bootlegging and police corruption perhaps a little too heavily, and she was not elected to a second term.
Bainbridge Island, a lovely 25-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle across Puget Sound, was the home of the first Japanese-American families to be taken from their homes and interned during World War II. The federal government was worried about resistance to the idea of internment so they decided to try it out first in our far west and out-of-the-way part of the country. If you go to Bainbridge Island, you will find a historical park dedicated to telling.
The World’s Fair hosted in Seattle in 1962 is the first such event to have posted a profit. Many of the buildings from the fair are still in use and form the core of the popular Seattle Center.
Seattle is one of two U.S. cities holding the title of a UNESCO City of Literature. Maybe because of all those cloudy days?
Seattle and our region is or has been the home of a dozens of people whose artistic talents have been appreciated nationally and globally. Here are just a few: musicians Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Curt Cobain, Mark O’Connor and Macklemore; artists Jacob Lawrence and Dale Chihuly; and writers August Wilson, Theodore Roethke, Timothy Egan, Jonathan Raban, Elizabeth George, David Guterson, Tom Robbins, Deb Caletti, Nancy Pearl, Frank Herbert, Dan Savage, Neal Stephenson, and Garth Stein.
We can’t close without naming many of the businesses that were born here and that have transformed our region. The technology bent of many of them owes a nod to Bill Boeing, who, from 1916 onward, drew flocks of engineers and innovators to his Boeing Airplane Company. Other familiar corporate faces headquartered in greater Seattle are Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Weyerhaeuser, Paccar, Alaska Airlines and Expedia. Seattle is also home to the largest private philanthropic foundation in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.