Seattle: Boomtown USA

Jonathan Raban – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
June 29 2007
When I first came to live in Seattle in 1990, one had only to look from the streets to the water to see the city’s essential history: slow-moving tugs towing rafts of logs like floating islands; Japanese-flagged freighters laden with raw timber destined for the Tokyo construction industry; husband-and-wife gill-netting boats, laying nets across the tide for Puget Sound salmon. Squint, and you could almost see Seattle as it was in the 1850s: a sheltered deepwater harbour on the edge of a limitless forest of massive Douglas firs and cypresses, with an abundant fishery on its front doorstep. Given such lavish natural resources, it would be hard for a city founded here to fail. Add a railroad connection to the interior (James J. Hill’s Great Northern transcontinental line reached Seattle in 1893, in ample time for the Klondike gold rush of 1897) and the place was bound to enjoy the kind of extravagant and unruly success that is both the blessing and curse of the American boom town.
Yet – even in 1990 – there was a rootedness to Seattle that evaded most boom towns. The cautious, Lutheran, Scandinavian character of so many of its settlers perhaps helped; likewise the Lutheran, Scandinavian quality of its weather. Manic elation is difficult to sustain under the low grey skies of the Pacific northwest, and Seattle was never likely to emulate the dizzy excesses of Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Hemmed in by parallel mountain ranges to the west and east, its livelihood grounded in tall trees and deep water, the city stood at an odd, proud, provincial angle to the rest of the US, insulated by its geography from the crazes and fashions that took hold elsewhere.
Entirely predictably, the city’s first “big” business was Henry Yesler’s steam sawmill, built in 1853 on Elliott Bay at the foot of what is now Yesler Way. Docks, mills, salmon canneries and shipbuilding yards quickly assembled themselves along the waterfront, forming a basic infrastructure that shaped Seattle’s development for more than a hundred years. When William Boeing, president of a family-owned timber company based in Aberdeen, Washington, entered the aircraft-manufacturing business in 1916, he moved into a bankrupt yacht yard on the Duwamish River, where he employed shipwrights to construct his first planes. Built on the “stick-and-stringer” principle, with light wooden frames sheathed in fabric instead of timber planking, early Boeings, such as the Model C training seaplane, were like featherweight avian boats (lovely examples of these shipshape planes hang from the ceilings of the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field airport). So the pedigree of the 787 Dreamliner is thoroughbred Seattle, reaching back to the fir forest, the mill, the delicate skills of the boatbuilder with his spokeshave and chisel.
When I arrived here, I cherished this kind of logical continuity. No city I knew seemed on such comfortable and unselfconscious terms with its own beginnings. I warmed to Seattle’s downtown, its modest cluster of skyscrapers rising from streets still dominated by turn-of-the-century brick-and-stucco examples of far-west neoclassical swank. Rebuilt after a fire levelled most of the business district in 1889, Seattle had Roman dreams of the grandeur yet to come, and its hotels, clubs, department stores and theatres were designed like palaces in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. In a region of logging and mining camps, of here-today-and-gone-tomorrow, Seattle meant to stay for the ages.
From early on, Seattle had a canny grasp of how to act as a provincial capital. Its potential hinterland was vast if underpopulated, stretching to Alaska in the north and beyond the Rocky Mountains to the east, a nearly boundless territory of isolated, makeshift towns, whose inhabitants might reasonably look to Seattle as their centre for shopping, entertainment, medical facilities and higher education (the very large and highly ranked University of Washington began life as Territorial University in Seattle in 1861, just 10 years after the arrival of the first settlers). The behaviour of the city during the gold rush was typical: when prospectors swarmed through, en route for the Klondike diggings, Seattleites mostly stayed home, preferring to make reliable fortunes from the miners rather than chance their luck in the gold fields. Stores sold clothing, shovels, pans, sluice-boxes and hydraulic equipment to the stampede of hopefuls, and for those few who returned with money in their pockets, the city laid on whorehouses, dives, casinos, restaurants and burlesque shows. Seattle effectively turned Alaska into its own client-state, making the last open frontier dependent on the city for shipping, supplies and services, and handsomely enriching itself in the process.
Few cities have enjoyed such a long-distance reach into their hinterlands. In the mid-1990s, I conducted an experiment. Driving eastward, I stopped at towns along the way, trying to find out where allegiance to Seattle’s big-league sports teams, such as the Mariners (baseball) and Seahawks (football), gave way to support for the Minneapolis-St Paul teams, the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. At the 500-mile mark, Missoula, Montana was solidly for Seattle. I crossed the continental divide near Butte, and drove on to Billings, where, with 830 miles on the clock, I saw a travel agency advertising weekend packages to Seattle, with hotel, Mariners tickets and a show at the 5th Avenue Theatre thrown in. A day or two later, I was more than a thousand miles from Seattle, at a barbecue lunch on a North Dakota ranch, after a long morning’s calf-branding. Minneapolis was now 600 miles away. I asked my neighbour which baseball team was most closely followed in these parts. “Seattle Mariners,” he gruffly said, as if I’d asked a silly question. Seattle’s reach is that long. The Montana novelist Deirdre McNamer had a piece in The New York Times Magazine not long ago, describing how she and a Missoula friend would drive to Seattle to get their hair done. Five hundred miles for a haircut.
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