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'They Were Crazy': The Seattleites Who Shaped Our City

There’s an easy explanation for all of mountain-moving ambition of Seattle’s forefathers.

“They were crazy,” geology writer David Williams told KUOW’s Ross Reynolds.

Williams is the author of the new book “Too High And Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle's Topography.”

He said that soon after the city’s founding, its residents began transforming its shape to suit their needs, digging the Ship Canal, filling in the tide flats, cutting off the top of Denny Hill.

Part of that was necessary because Seattle’s setting was chosen for its qualities as a port, with the landscape as an afterthought.

“But they were so driven and so determined to succeed that they knew that they could alter the land and make it work,” Williams said.

Filling of the tide flats began in 1895, and over about 20 years, some 2,000 acres of new land appeared, he said.

“So all of the property between West Seattle and Beacon Hill that the Sodo neighborhood sits on – all of that is made during that time period. At the same time you also have the building of the Ship Canal, so 1916 to 1917, and you have that complete alteration of the landscape in the replumbing of Lake Washington.”

Then there were the regrades of Denny Hill, Jackson Street and Dearborn Street – all of these huge projects in 35 years.

“They were crazy. It's ambitious, it's sort of foolish in a way, it's what has come down to be called the Seattle spirit – that they would do whatever necessary to make Seattle succeed,” he said.

Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. Take a project to build a canal through Beacon Hill.

“That was going to be 300 feet deep and they started work on it,” he said. But business interests in the Ship Canal to the north intervened to halt the project.

“We can still see the effects of that,” Williams said. “If you're going along the Spokane Street Bridge and you take the Columbia Street on-ramps up to Beacon Hill, those go right through the cut. That's where the canal would have been.”

And then there is the iconic image by Asahel Curtis in May 1910 of the huge precarious mounds of earth left after the rest of Denny Hill was sluiced away with jets of water.

“The story has always been that they are called 'spite mounds'” – aimed at people who opposed the regrade, he said.

“But we know that two of the mounds in the picture were actually owned by a man named James Kelly, who had come to Seattle early in the 1890s, gone to Klondike, made his money and then was actually up in Alaska when they start doing this regrade between 1908 and 1910. … The guy was out of town and couldn't sign the paperwork to make it happen.”

So huge projects to rework the landscape became part of Seattle’s DNA. Now the city is digging the state Route 99 tunnel to avoid having the Alaskan Way viaduct collapse in an earthquake. A new seawall is being built in part to deal with rising sea level because of climate change.

“The early people came to Seattle with this vision of changing the landscape,” he said. “We now worry and know that the landscape is going to change us,” he said.

Williams will give a reading of his new book at Seattle Public Library's Central Branch at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015.

Produced for the Web by Gil Aegerter.

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