Document 42: "The Straightening"

The Duwamish Diary, 1849–1949 (Seattle: Cleveland High School, 1948), p. 65-72.

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While these improvements were taking place, amazing things were happening to me. I have confessed I was inclined both to wander and be lazy, and that sometimes I overflowed my banks. I have not told much about my formation, or the formation of my valley, but actually “the land lying between (my) valley and the Sound was an island.” The land east of the valley was built up by glacial action and was “a mass of drift of all descriptions, including large angular fragments of rock, rounded and water-torn boulders of various sizes, ground clay, silt chunks of coal, and even remnants of trees.” This material was easy for any stream to erode, and in the course of the ages other streams and I transplanted quantities of this land to the Pacific Ocean. You can see I really had a logical excuse for overflowing, and my natural wandering tendency was greatly increased by enormous quantities of driftwood that would get in my stream. In the early days it seemed to me all right to do this, but I came to know I was slowing the progress of my area; in fact I was slowing the progress of a good deal of the Northwest, for I was needed as an efficient waterway by which ocean going liners might come into Seattle. Industries were growing up along my banks, but they could not expand unless there was an adequate industrial stream. And I was to become that stream.

My conversion did not come quickly, but my personal story is an important one in the development of the South District. To tell it I will have to go back a good many years, to the time in 1890 when the talk about straightening me received some action and the State Legislature created a board to lay land off into blocks and lots in my entire valley, for the State Land Commission to sell. This job was given to Martineas Stixrood, Scandinavian engineer who came to Spokane in 1888, and worked as a draftsman helping to build bridges across the rivers in that vicinity.

Mr. Stixrood also designed a plan for my widening and deepening, which was almost identical to the plans used on the Rhine and other European rivers. Mr. Stixrood's idea was to make provision for recesses, which were to be cut at ninety-degree angles. These recesses would lessen congestion on the main waterway as all loading and unloading would be done in them, and in the case of flood they would provide additional places for the extra water to run.

In 1904, and again in 1908, Mr. R. H. Thomson, Seattle's first engineer, went to Europe to observe methods used to straighten rivers. In nearly all cases the recess method was used. Upon his return he started to work on my development, and made an average of two addresses a week to community organizations to secure support for his plan. In 1909, the State Legislature gave its permission for a commission to begin plans for dredging. Thus the Duwamish Waterway Commission was legally created. The four original members were: Fred A. Newell, chairman; Frank A. Powell, secretary; John B. Shorett, legal counselor, and Dietrich Hamm, assistant secretary.

Mr. R. H. Thomson remembers that Dietrich Hamm “undoubtedly did more than any other person in making the waterway possible. He paid a dollar for every five dollars that was spent on the project.”

Mr. R. M. Thompson was the man chiefly responsible for laying out my big waterway.

“He determined the size of the waterway, its course, and estimated the cost of purchasing the land to be condemned. He figured out the amount of dredging necessary and provided for the disposal of silt dredged from the channel.”

I may have thought things were strenuous before, but after the Commission was formed life for me became turbulent indeed. The plan was to shorten my thirteen and a half miles to four and a half miles; fill in my oxbows and the surrounding tide flats, and direct my waterflow into a channel so deep ocean liners could navigate it. The change was so tremendous it is hard to tell how I felt. I thought regretfully of my easygoing past, but I felt proud and important that I, a careless little river, was about to grow up and become a vital factor in the commerce of a great city.

Progress is slow and laborious, and my development was no exception. I cannot begin to remember all the difficulties that arose, and even if I could there would be little value in recounting them. Growing pains are agonizing, and there was considerable agony before I became dredged, my stream diverted, and my land filled in.

From at least 1911 to 1913 the Town Crier, an early civic magazine, followed the proceedings of the Duwamish Waterway Commission. Early in 1911 the Crier stated:

“On all sides it has been conceded that the opening of the East and West waterways, their connection with the Duwamish, and the straightening out of that River are absolutely essential to any scheme for the proper and reasonable development of Seattle's harbor.”

Toward the end of the year the Crier asked why more had not been accomplished, and almost two years later it became impatient, and said:

“The Duwamish Waterway Commission, supposed to be engaged in important and pressing work of improving the Duwamish, hasn't yet quite reached the stage of moving dirt.”

The next week the Crier discussed the building of East Marginal Way, the road that was to follow my new course, and asked if road funds could be used. The Town Crier was understandably impatient, but all the time vital behind-the-scenes work was going forward. I mention these comments simply because they show the importance of my development.

As I look back on the business of getting dredged I realize what a tremendous undertaking it was, and how much thanks is due the men who formed my Commission. These men gave many years of valuable service to Seattle, and I am proud to have had this close association with them.

My actual dredging began October 14, 1913, and from then on it was pushed rapidly. The place the work began was at the old Country Poor Farm.

It was the commendable practice of my Waterway Commission to make the excavation pay for itself through the sale of earth to be used for filling purposes, consequently the mammoth dredge, (which, by the way, was named Duwamish I, after me), was moved up and down my stream and excavating was done where the earth could best be utilized for fills.

The original contract allowed for the excavation of 7,400,000 cubic yards of earth and five and four-tenths cents per cubic yard. The estimated cost of my waterway was $1,400,000. Four hundred thousand dollars of this amount was realized by the sale of the earth. The dredge alone cost $160,000 and was owned by the Commission.

The amount of the bonds voted for my development was $1,862,075, and an unusual feature is that “the residents of the South End agreed to assess themselves to make the work possible.”

Twenty million cubic yards of earth were removed from me to use on the marshland and tide flats, and 2,500,000 cubic yards of sand were bought by the city for sanitary fills. Dirt was also used from Beacon, Yesler, and Denny hills, and some even came by barge from Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.

My conversion was considered a unique engineering feat, and it was said that:

“The only comparable waterway is that running into Lake Pontchartrain from the Mississippi at New Orleans. About the same length, the latter waterway coast almost $40,000,000 to build.”

The New Orleans canal has a draft of only fifteen feet, and my draft is fifty feet up to First Avenue South, and thirty feet under my bridges. Three large turning basins were dredged so ships coming up my waterway might be able to swing around for the trip back out.

The filling in of the land where I had been, and of the adjoining tide flats, was of vital importance to Seattle's development at this time for the city's greatest industrial need was to have cheap industrial sites that had shipping facilities. Now both were being provided, and I, Duwamish, was the hero. Of course I was proud, and of course, I was glad to have the opportunity to serve my own section and my city.

Nor are the possibilities completed, for it is planned that eventually I will extend from Seattle to Tacoma.

An interesting bit of geography is that when my dredging was completed I became a continuation of the Green River, and the Black and White rivers no longer emptied into me. Today the Black River no longer exists, as it became extinct when the Lake Washington Ship Canal was built. The White River flows into the Puyallup River where they meet at Tacoma.

In 1917, a petition for my further improvement was approved. It had to be tested in courts, however, and the improvements were not put into operation until 1920 when my channel was deepened to thirty feet at mean low tide.

In 1926, Georgetown citizens were complimented for their interest in the improvements of their section, and it was prophesied that after I was made more navigable many new industries would move in and more housing would be planned. This has been so, and in the last twenty years my fill has seen remarkable changes. A depression Hooverville has come and gone, and many of Seattle's most prosperous industries are built where I used to flow. The Boeing Airport is located on the site of my early meanderings, and the Boeing manufacturing plant is built along my new banks. Three drawbridges are on my main waterway, and daily thousands of Seattle's citizens cross my channel.

With the coming of World War II many changes took place in the districts along my banks. My Georgetown section suddenly came into its own, and more people had employment there than any place in the State. People came from all over the country to work in the industrial plants on my banks. I was glad to see them, but there was no place for them to live, so the government helped solve the problem by building housing projects. The housing project in Georgetown was named Duwamish Bend after me. It is a nice compliment and I appreciate it.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest