By East Coast standards, Seattle got a late start in U.S. history. Although explorers visited the region as far back as the late 1700s, the first settlers didn't arrive until 1851. Capt. George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy -- who lent his name to both Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vancouver, Washington -- had explored Puget Sound as early as 1792. However, there wasn't much to attract anyone permanently to this remote region. Unlike Oregon to the south, Washington had little rich farmland, only acres and acres of forest. It was this seemingly endless supply of wood that finally enticed the first settlers.
If you distilled Seattle’s post 18th-century history into five points, it would read something like this: a great fire (1889), a frenzied gold rush (1897), a World’s Fair (1962), the formation of an airplane company called Boeing (1917), and the emergence of a game-changing computer company named Microsoft (1975). Wait, we’d better add a sixth point: the arrival of Amazon’s massive corporate headquarters in 2017. For much of its relatively brief existence, Seattle was the wettest, wildest city in the Pacific Northwest, a gritty maritime depot that became the jumping-off point for tens of thousands of Alaska-bound gold-seekers.
The region's first settlement was on Alki Point, in the area now known as West Seattle. Bad choice. Because this location was exposed to storms sweeping in off the Pacific Ocean, the settlers soon decided to move across Elliott Bay to a more protected spot that has since grown into the city of Seattle. The new location for the village was a tiny island surrounded by mud flats. Some early settlers wanted to name the town New York Alki -- even then, Seattle had grand aspirations -- but chose "Seattle" as a tribute to Chief Sealth, a local Native American who had befriended the newcomers.
In the middle of town, on the waterfront, Henry Yesler built the first steam-powered lumber mill on Puget Sound. It stood at the foot of what is now Yesler Way, which for many years was referred to as Skid Road, a reference to the way logs were skidded down to the sawmill from the slopes behind town. Over the years, Skid Road developed a reputation for its bars and brothels. Some say that after an East Coast journalist incorrectly referred to it as Skid Row in his newspaper, the name stuck and was subsequently applied to derelict neighborhoods all over the country. To this day, despite attempts to revamp the neighborhood, Yesler Way continues to attract the sort of visitors you would expect (due in part to the presence in the neighborhood of missions and homeless shelters), but it is also in the center of the Pioneer Square Historic District, one of Seattle's main tourist destinations.
Up from the Ashes
Puget Sound was Seattle’s gateway to the rest of the world until the railroad arrived, at which point it became a major freight terminus by land and a port by sea. By 1889, Seattle had more than 25,000 inhabitants and was well on its way to becoming the most important city in the Northwest. On June 6 of that year, however, 25 blocks in the center of town burned to the ground. By that time, the city, which had spread out onto low-lying land reclaimed from the mud flats, had begun experiencing problems with mud and sewage disposal. The fire gave citizens the opportunity to rebuild their town. The solution to the drainage and sewage problems was to regrade the steep slopes to the east of the town and raise the streets above their previous levels. Because the regrading lagged behind the rebuilding, the ground floors of many new buildings eventually wound up below street level. When the new roads and sidewalks were constructed at the level that had previously been the second floor of most buildings, the former ground-floor stores and businesses moved up into the light of day and the spaces below the sidewalk were left to businesses of shady characters. Today you can tour sections of this Seattle underground.
Among the most amazing post-fire engineering feats was the leveling of two hills. Although Seattle once had eight hills, there are now only six -- nothing is left of either Denny Hill or Jackson Street Hill. Hydraulic mining techniques, using high-powered water jets to dig into the hillsides, leveled both mounds. Today the Jackson Street Hill has become the flat area to the west of the International District, while Denny Hill is the flat neighborhood south of Seattle Center. This latter area was historically known as the Denny Regrade but today is known as Belltown.
Eight years after the fire, another event changed the city almost as much as the fire. On July 17, 1897, the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle from Alaska, carrying a ton of gold from the recently discovered Klondike goldfields. Within the year, Seattle's population swelled with prospectors heading north. Few of them ever struck it rich, but they all stopped in Seattle to purchase supplies and equipment, thus lining the pockets of local merchants and spreading far and wide the name of this obscure Northwest city. When the prospectors came south again with their hard-earned gold, much of it never left Seattle, sidetracked by beer halls and brothels.
The Boeing Years
In 1916, not many years after the Wright brothers made their first flight, Seattle residents William Boeing and Clyde Esterveld launched their first airplane, a floatplane, from the waters of Lake Union. Their intention was to operate an airmail service to Canada. Their enterprise eventually became the Boeing Company, which grew to be the largest single employer in the area. A wartime boom in shipbuilding and plane manufacturing bumped the city’s fortunes up another notch. Until recently, Seattle's fortunes were so inextricably bound to those of Boeing that hard times for the aircraft manufacturer meant hard times for the whole city. The Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 was another turning point, an event that introduced this unique and atmospheric city on Elliott Bay to a new generation of visitors. While Boeing still employs thousands of people in the Seattle metropolitan area, it no longer controls the city's economic fate.
Computers and Coffee
1792 British Capt. George Vancouver explores and names Puget Sound.
1851 The Denny party makes land at Alki Point (now West Seattle) and endures a harsh first winter with the help of local Indian tribes.
1852 Denny and gang move their town to the more temperate east side of the Puget Sound; “Doc” Maynard names the town Seattle after Chief Sealth of the local Duwamish tribe.
1853 Henry Yesler opens the first of many sawmills to be built in the Puget Sound area.
1861 The University of Washington (then called Territorial University) opens its doors to students.
1863 The Gazette, later to become the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, publishes its first newspaper.
1878 Seattle gets its first telephones.
1885 Chinese immigrants are forced out of Seattle.
1889 Twenty-five blocks of Seattle burn to the ground in the Great Fire, prompting a frenzy of building—several feet higher than the original shops had been.
1889 Washington becomes the nation’s 42nd state.
1893 Transcontinental Great Northern Railway reaches Seattle.
1897–1899 Seattle booms as a stopping-off point for Klondike gold-seekers.
1907 Pike Place Market brings farmers and customers directly together.
1914 Smith Tower is completed in Seattle, becoming the tallest building west of Ohio.
1917 Construction is complete on the Lake Washington Ship Canal (Hiram M. Chittenden Locks).
1917 Boeing Airplane Co. is launched.
1919 Eddie Bauer’s first store opens.
1921 The Alien Land Law is passed in Washington, restricting Asian immigrants’ rights to own or lease property.
1924 Native Americans are made U.S. citizens.
1926 Seattle elects the first woman mayor of any major U.S. city.
1940 Lake Washington Floating Bridge becomes the first of its kind in the world.
1942 FDR signs order sending Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps; thousands in the Seattle area are forced to abandon their homes and businesses.
1942 Seattle native Jimi Hendrix is born.
1949 Sea-Tac International Airport is opened.
1951 Washington State Ferries begin service on Puget Sound.
1954 First successful passenger jet, Boeing 707, takes off.
1962 Seattle builds Space Needle and monorail for the Seattle World’s Fair.
1966 Boeing builds 747 assembly plant.
1970s Boeing layoffs devastate the local economy.
1971 Starbucks opens its first shop.
1975 Microsoft is founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Albuquerque; three years later it moves to Seattle area.
1979 The Seattle SuperSonics win the NBA Championship.
1999 A World Trade Organization conference in downtown Seattle prompts riots, property damage, and accusations of police misconduct.
2001 The Nisqually Earthquake causes extensive damage to many older Seattle buildings.
2004 Washington elects Christine Gregoire in tightest governor’s race in U.S. history, giving Washington state three women in its powerful political positions—two U.S. senators and the governor.
2009 The Link light rail station opens at SeaTac Airport, providing rapid mass transportation from downtown Seattle to the airport.
2010 A new law makes it a primary offense to text message or hold a cellphone to your ear while driving.
2012 Washington State legalizes same-sex marriage and possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use; the two events are in no way related.
2013 After two terms as state senator and 11 years as state representative, Ed Murray becomes the first openly gay mayor of Seattle. Work begins on the demolition of Alaskan Way, a 1950s-era viaduct that blights the downtown waterfront; a new tunnel will carry traffic, and streets adjacent to Seattle’s waterfront will eventually be transformed into a park.
2014 Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos and win the Super Bowl. An estimated 700,000 people celebrate the event at a downtown parade.
2014 Massive mudslide in Oso, 60 miles northeast of Seattle, kills 41 people, destroys dozens of homes, a highway, and a river.
2017 Online sales giant Amazon opens three high-rise office towers as part of its world headquarters in South Lake Union area of Seattle. By 2018, this huge development project will include three biospheres enclosing gardens and amenities.