Document 50: Seattle Regrades

Selections from V. V. Tarbill, “Mountain-moving in Seattle,” Harvard Business Review (July 1930): 482-89.

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It was not just a happen-so that Denny Hill stood in the middle of Seattle’s expanding business district. The matter was quite intentional. The founders of the city very deliberately selected the flanks of Denny Hill as the site of a city which they believed would become the New York of the Pacific Coast. The city of their founding grew even more rapidly than they anticipated, and soon surrounded Denny Hill. The Hill was too high and too steep to be utilized for business purposes so that inevitably (at least so it seems at the present time) the Hill had to be removed, somehow or other.

Removing of the Hill began in a small way at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, in 1897, and has proceeded by installments since then. At first it was done with plow and shovel, team and wagon; later steam shovels and electric cars were used; then came the hydraulic giants, which sluiced the dirt into the harbor; and now the balance of Denny Hill is being transported on a series of endless belt conveyors to the waterfront, where self-dumping scows drop the dirt into Elliott Bay. By the end of 1930, the last of Denny Hill will have disappeared beneath the waters of Puget Sound.

The land here was far from attractive from the agricultural standpoint, for it was rough and hilly, and covered with a dense growth of fir trees. The steep bluff of what afterward became known as Denny Hill looked somewhat forbidding, for it stood in the center of the ground they wished to acquire, immediately adjoining the deep water of the Bay. But here was the harbor they were seeking, and they had to take the land as they found it. So in 1852 these pioneers took up their homesteads, or ‘donation claims,’ as they were then called, covering the slopes of Denny Hill, and even including the top of the Hill itself. At first they busied themselves with the tasks of hewing homes out of the wilderness. Then after a few years, A. A. Denny, who was a surveyor, surveyed and platted all the claims, cut them up into lots, streets, and alleys, and the pioneers all went into the real-estate business.

The business district itself was hemmed in between the harbor on the west and a very long hill on the east some 400 feet high. It could only grow north or south; and it could hardly grow south, for on the south was originally a tide flat covered by shallow water at high tide. This tide flat has more recently been filled in, but not until after the northward trend of the business district was established. Subsequently the tide flats have been devoted to industrial purposes, and this has continued to prevent expansion of the business district to the south.

The result has been a relatively rapid growth of the business district to the north, with a consequent shifting of the retail center. In 1898, the retail center was a Pioneer Square, First Avenue and Yesler Way. In 1930, the retail center is at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street, thirteen blocks away. This means a shift in the retail center of about “Here then was the situation. The business district on the south side of the Hill was built up right to the foot of the Hill, where it came to a precipitous slope and stopped. There was considerable business development on the north side of the Hill; there was no direct was not direct connection between the two districts; the Gold Rush was on; and business was expanding rapidly. In this situation it was not so difficult to secure the signatures of a majority of the property owners on First Avenue, and to cut First Avenue through at the western margin of Denny Hill, from Pike Street to Cedar Street. This work was completed in about a year’s time, and marked the first step in the removal of the hill.

About 1902, an agitation started to regrade Second Avenue. Property on Second Avenue at Pike Street was worth perhaps $2,000 a front foot; but 120 feel away from that, where the Hill was very steep, Second Avenue property was worth only $100 to $200 a front foot, and values were still less farther up the Hill. The incentive was very strong for these property owners to grade their lots down and cash in on these values. After much difficulty, Second Avenue was cut through the Hill from Pike Street to Cedar Street and completed about 1904. About the same time Pike and Pine Streets were regrade from Second Avenue to Fifth Avenue.

These regrades resulted in such an increase in ground values for the property brought down to grade that many property owners on top of Denny Hill began to feel that they could profit if the whole Hill were taken down. The matter was agitated, meetings were held, and petition after petition was circulated. But the matter was not at all easy. Here was Denny hill, covering an area of some 62 city blocks, 240 feet high, and 107 feet above the highest point in the business district. The cost would be enormous. The property regraded would have to pay the entire cost. Many property owners were afraid they would lose their property because they could pay the assessments. Finally a sort of compromise was reached, and it was decided to regrade the half of the Hill nearest the harbor, an area of about 27 city blocks, extending from Pine Street to Cedar Street and from Second Avenue to Fifth Avenue. This area later became know as the First Regrade, or Denny Hill Regrade Number One. An ordinance was passed in 1906 authorizing the work. Work was actually started in 1908 and completed in 1911.

These giants played the water on different parts of the hill. Water theoretically will pick up about 10% of its volume in dirt and carry that dirt away. Actually the percentage is somewhat less, varying with conditions. The water, with its load of dirt, was then run through ditches and flumes lined with wood paving blocks or steel plates to prevent abrasion by the particles carried., and delivered to a central tunnel also similarly lined. The tunnel came out on the side of the hill and emptied into a flume which was carried out on a tresle over the bay, and the water with its load of sediment discharged into the bay.

The hydraulic method of removing Denny Hill Number One was perhaps a little slow, but it was sure and steady. There were few shut-downs, except when it was necessary to reline the flumes and tunnel. At one time the contractors ran for 47 days straight without a shut down. The hydraulic method was very efficient also. Many of the houses that were to be removed from the hill did not have to be torn down. They were simply undermined by a stream of water, and when they tumbled into the hole they were set on fire, with no danger of the fire spreading and getting away, with such a stream of water at hand. Then many of the boulder which were found in the glacial clay of which Denny Hill is composed, were also carried away by the water. It is hard to realize that running water has such force, but it is a fact that boulders weighing up to 2,700 pounds were dumped into the flumes and carried out into the bay. One rock of such shape that it would roll, weighing 3,000 pounds, was carried away by the water. The heavier rocks had to be handled, but this was without expense to the contractor, because such rocks were in demand by the landscape architects for rockeries, and they were removed free of charge.

Under the hydraulic method, several apartment buildings were lowered from the top of the Hill and set on new foundations after the dirt was removed. It was necessary to build a falsework or cribbing of blocks under the structure, which was added to on the bottom as the dirt was washed away, until finally the building was left standing high in the air on its cribbing. Then the building was lowered as the cribbing was removed.

The removal of the Denny Hotel was more of a problem than that of the apartment buildings. It was the largest and finest hotel in Seattle, and stood on top of the Hill, a hundred feet in the air. Moreover it stood right across Third Avenue, for Third Avenue had never been opened through the double block occupied by the hotel. This building had to be torn down; but such was the expected increase in value of the ground that the owner of the hotel wrecked the building himself, asking no damages whatever, and permitted the city to remove the dirt.

Regrading half the Hill helped very materially, of course. Business gradually pushed up into the regraded area, but still that area did not derived full benefit from the improvement. Although traffic could now move northwest and southeast on First and Fifth Avenues, there could be no cross traffic from northeast to southwest, because the balance of Denny Hill was still in the way. Much of the business district thus created came to be regarded as relatively undesirable, because of its poor accessibility. After the initial increase in ground values resulting from the regrade, values remained rather stationary in most of the area for a period of about fifteen years. And as for the property on that part of the Hill that was not regraded, values slumped to nearly nothing. No one would repair or paint a house or flat building, because of the hope (or fear) that another regrade would soon take place. An so the remainder of the Hill became a very cheap and undesirable residence section.

Merchants and property owners in the vicinity of the retail center at Second and Pike became insistent that an arterial street should be cut through Denny Hill to give better access to and from the north end of the city.” Traffic had to go around DH from the east or west side; most preferred the east side, with retail district following by shifting from Second to Third and Pike or Fourth and Pike. Demand that Dexter Avenue be cut through DH and extended south along Denny Way in a straight line to First Avenue and Virginia to “furnish a direct artery from the north end to the retail center. And the demand was wonderfully insistent. The Denny Hill Improvement Club, organized by the property owners, opposed the Dexter Avenue Extension on the ground that it would create more triangular blocks, of which there were already too many, and that it wasn’t necessary. The Second Avenue merchants and property owners insisted that it was necessary, and they kept on insisting, until the officers of the Denny Hill Improvement Club concluded that the best way to solve the problem was to take the whole Hill down, as should have been done twenty years before.

Petitions were put in circulation calling for this improvement, with the cost to be assessed against the property benefited. Almost no opposition was encountered, for everyone seemed to be thoroughly sold on the idea that Denny Hill Number Two had to come down. The necessary condemnation ordinance passed the City Council, and the contract for the work was awarded late in 1928, calling for completion in fall of 1930.

In Regrade Number One, the removal of dirt was handled in one contract, and the paving of streets, sidewalks, sewers and water-mains were handled in haphazard fashion. The result was that many of the improvements were late in being installed and development was retarded thereby. In Regrade Number Two, the one contract includes everything, removal of dirt, paving of streets and sidewalks, sewers, water-mains, and even cluster lights for street lighting. Thus, when the contract is finished, the district will be completely ready for occupancy, and the property owner need not be deprived of the use of his property any longer than the time necessary to erect a new building.

Denny Hill Regrade Number Two is being accomplished by the use of a series of endless belt conveyors, a method said to be entirely new as applied to a regrade job. A covered tresle has been built from the edge of the Hill at Fifth Avenue and Battery Street to the waterfront at the foot of Battery Street. This tresle carries the main belts which convey the dirt in an endless stream over the intervening streets and business district. These belts are 36 inches wide, and there are three of them. The first section is 950 feet long, from Fifth to Third Avenue. The second section, 1,500 feet long, extends from Third Avenue to Railroad Avenue. The third section, 400 feet long, runs outs on a dock to a hopper which dumps into the scows.

Under this method of operation with electric shovels, endless belts and self-dumping scows, dirt is moving from Denny Hill Number Two to Puget Sound at the rate of approximately 12,000 cubic yards per day. This rate will be increased shortly to 15,000 cubic yards per day, so that by the end of 1930 the last of Denny Hill will have disappeared.

The property at 2018 Third Avenue, between Virginia and Lenora Streets, may serve as an indicator of the increase in ground values through both regrades. From 1891 to 1897, this was the home of a YMCA secretary, who afterwards made a fortune in the Klondike. He sold the property, in 1897, for $3,500. While Regrade Number One was in progress, it was resold for $10,000. Later still, it sold for $25,000. In 1927, the writer bought it for his own company for $50,000. Late in 1929, an offer of $75,000 was refused.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest