Document 53: A Harbor without a Hinterland

Read Bain, “Seattle: A Harbor without a Hinterland,” The New Republic (December 19, 1928), pp. 131-34.

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Seattle: A Harbor without a Hinterland

There she sits, “Queen of the West!” Like that ancient, imperial Queen of the West before the West was East, Seattle sprawls over her Seven Hills, pets her pride, and makes her boasts in the shadow of lordly mountains. Lake Washington, eighty miles around, is a shining mirror for her regal beauty; Lake Union is a gleaming jewel for her girdle; and Elliott Bay, her green crescent door-mat, leads outward to the spacious waters of the Sound.

The jagged Olympics are her westward outposts, looking across the blue Pacific toward the Orient, that rich Hispania of the twentieth century waiting to be gutted by trade as Old Spain was rifled by Roman legions. To the east, the martial Cascade peaks, clad in royal forest-purple and helmeted with snow, keep perpetual watch and ward over their proud mistress. Mt. Rainier (named for a fat English admiral who never saw the mountain) holds himself aloof from human eyes most of the time, but occasionally the glory of his 15,000 feet bursts through the haze and mist. The Indians called him Tak-ho-mah (The Mountain that was God) and the citizens of Tacoma have spent many years and dollars trying to get the Indian name on the maps. Seattle, however, has blocked every move to change the name. The English admiral and the Queen City still hold the peak, although the view of it is clearer, closer, and more frequent from Tacoma.

When God set Paul Bunyan to work making the Puget Sound country, He doubtless had the new Queen City of the West in mind. The site of the city is admirably fitted to make the most of lakes, mountains, and Sound. Almost every house on every hill has “A View.” The islands, bays, and lakeshores provide endless places for beautiful summer homes and resorts, where fishing, boating, bathing, and tramping are possible all the year. Fresh and salt-water dockage and harborage are unlimited. Through the canal connecting the two lakes with the Sound, great ships may go and lose their accumulated barnacles and other sea-foulage while loading and unloading in the very heart of the city.

The climate, too—note well!—leaves little to be desired. It is seldom hot and never cold. In spite of the forty-or-so inches of rain per year, the humidity is low and the summer months are little cursed with rain. Snow seldom falls; there are no electric storms, no tornadoes, no earthquakes—as yet—no floods, blizzards, drouths, or other meteorological damnation. Gentle breezes, stately conifers, lush leafy trees, beautiful flowers; all kinds of hunting and fishing within a couple of hours' drive; great natural resources of scenery, timber, coal, iron, and rich, though limited, agricultural land.

So much for the raw material upon which realtoric fauna thrive. Seattle is their Promised Land. Next to Los Angeles there is probably no city in the West where the professional and lay “realtors” so nearly merit the alleged etymology of the world—real, royal; toro, bull. Enterprise has stalked abroad; the hills have been washed down to make them habitable; the mud-flats have been filled up by this washing down, and by dredging up the bottom of the Sound. These thousands of acres of reclaimed industrial sites are pointed to with pride, even though they are still largely devoid of factories. Signs bid you “Welcome to the Charmed Land” and tell you to come again; signs say “A Half-Million in 1930” (they said “A Half-Million in 1924” and also “in 1928”); newspapers gloat over the rise in bank clearings and building permits, especially when they show excess over the corresponding figures for Portland, gains on Los Angeles, and improvements over “A Year Ago.” The proud citizen boasts of the climate—it explains the lower-than-the-U.S.-average death rate and the very low rate of infant mortality. The “effete East” is explained in terms of climate, and even Los Angeles is held to be deficient therein, being in fact, the very vestibule to Hades in the opinion of the true Seattleite. Tacoma is a “suburb” or Seattle, and Portland is cursed with rain (sic!), has no harbor, and hence no future—is, in reality, a mere puff of air, rose-scented.

But unkind me have hinted that there are some things lacking in Seattle, that gall and wormwood are mixed with the nectar in the charmed land, and even that Someone Blundered in making the Puget Sound country, to wit:

1. For nine months, the rain it raineth every day, and the fog it foggeth also.

2. The Emerald Hills, they slide eternally, so that a man's front yard may be found in his neighbor's backyard ever and anon, and vice versa.

3. Grading and regrading are ever-present burdens on the defenseless taxpayer. At the present time the city is nearly insolvent, what with mastering the natural environment, buying street railways at fearful and wonderful prices in the face of increasing automotive transportation, buying power sites for a “City of a Million in the Near Future,” preparing the harbor for all the trans-Pacific trade, and seeking to actualize other dreams. But bonds are harsh taskmasters and interest must be paid.

4. The Finest Harbor in the World has no hinterland. Three-fourths of the area of Washington is naturally tributary to Portland. The same is true of the whole Inland Empire, including all of Idaho, part of Nevada, Utah, and Canada—in short, all of the Columbia basin. Jim Hill, the godfather of Seattle, once said that the freight outlet for the Columbia basin eventually must be through the Port of Astoria. He backed his judgment with many millions, built the North Bank road into Portland and erected a great terminal at the mouth of the Columbia. He believed that the greatest population concentration in the Northwest would ultimately be somewhere on the lower Columbia.

For a long time Seattle flourished by differential rates. It was cheaper to ship freight over the High Cascades into Seattle than it was to follow the water grade to Portland. But those halcyon days are no more. The Great Northern is attempting to meet the situation by boring a twelve-mile tunnel under the mountains. The foresighted Seattle businessmen are trying to promote a highway tunnel under the Cascades to drain eastern Washington and northern Idaho into Seattle. These look like gestures of desperation, but with the ictus of prestige and the punch of promotion it may work. The result is on the laps of the traffic gods, but it seems unlikely that tunnels can permanently counteract the pull of gravity down the Columbia. The differential grade may win now that the differential rates are gone. “All roads lead to Rome,” but they lead over exceeding high mountains. The natural roads lead to Portland down the Columbia. Tunnels that cannot reach the water-grade do not make good Appian Ways.

So there she sits—Queen City of the West, ruling over one of the (many) finest harbors with a (comparatively) dwindling trans-Pacific fleet. Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Portland-Astoria, San Francisco, and even Los Angeles, are disputing her aspiration of hegemony in the oriental trade. Hemmed in by mountains, she must increasingly seek her destiny in fish, forest, and tourist, rather than in transcontinental and trans-Pacific commerce. She will probably reach her million in time—but not in 1940.

If a city may be said to have a personality, one might say that Seattle is characterized by vast egoism and vaunting ambition in the face of great obstacles and many disappointments. In 1851, John N. Low and Lee Terry came up from Portland and laid out a town-site at Alki Point on Elliott Bay. A hint of the “Seattle spirit” is suggested in the name they gave to the new town—New York. But it did not flourish as they anticipated, so they changed the name to “New York Alki,” the latter word meaning “By-and-by.” It was not long until the town was moved across the pay to the present site of Seattle and named Seattle in honor of Chief Sealth, a noble red man who was consistently friendly to the whites up to his death in 1889. Every year an impressive memorial service is held over his grave.

One of the first blows of misfortune fell upon the city in 1889, when it was completely destroyed by fire. But the citizens immediately held a mass-meeting and planned to build a “Bigger and Better Seattle,” and soon came magic days. In '98 the Arctic Golconda began to pour its treasures into the lap of the hill-throned queen. In 1900, the population was over 80,000. By 1910, Seattle had passed through one of the greatest booms in the history of any city.

A second blow soon fell, however. Perhaps it was the natural reaction from the Exposition boom, or the belated effects of the panic of 1908, or the decline of the Alaska excitement, or a combination of all these factors. For several years after 1909 there was a decided slump, until the War made increased demands for timber products and the Finest Harbor came into its own. Shipbuilding, aeroplane spruce, and naval training then all played their part. It is true the Wobblies were still in evidence, giving Carleton Parker a chance to make a bid for fame. There was a marked depression shortly after the War, characterized by some unpleasantness such as the Great General Strike, when Ole Hanson “saved the city from the Reds,” water-front strikes, Centralia “massacres” and lynching, Bellingham Wobbly riots, much unemployment, large-scale bootlegging, street-railway purchases, purchase of power sites that cannot be used, et al. These menaces have all been safely overcome.

Some things of interest emerged from the above catalogue of horrors. In the first place, Ole Hanson, having “saved the city from the Reds,” reaped his just reward on lecture tour and by being mentioned for Vice-President in 1920. It is alleged that he was also instrumental in getting the city to pay $16,000,000 for a street railway, without enough electrical power to run it, worth about half that sum. In spite of the bad buy, the street-car service is good and at least as cheap as in most cities that have private systems. The light and power rates are much lower.

In the second place, as an aftermath of the water-front strikes, the Waterfront Employers Association learned some lessons. They put their employment in the hands of a Mr. Foisie, a trained social worker with vision and organizing genius. The result is an almost complete decasualization of the longshore work. A large percentage of the workers own their own homes and are contented, progressive citizens. Mr. Foisie's methods are being widely adopted.

Thirdly, the great bootlegging ring organized by an ex-police lieutenant, Roy Olmstead, was recently rounded up by federal agents. Olmstead is doing a short term for his activities, alleged to have involved from four to ten million dollars. Largely as a result of the notoriety from the Olmstead case, Bertha K. Landes, wife of the Dean of the College of Science at the State University, was elected Mayor on a clean-up platform, ably backed by the Women's City Club and the Municipal League. Both the organizations named, and particularly the latter, have furnished a hopeful political leaven in the affairs of the city—not always thoroughly appreciated, however, as is attested by the twice-repeated defeat of the League's city-manager plan the the summary dismissal of Frank J. Laube, now secretary of the League, from his position on the faculty of the University because he allowed his name to appear upon the city's primary ballot.

Mrs. Landes' administration, while not completely successful in its clean-up program, acquitted itself on the whole very creditably; the police department, under suspicion in the Olmstead case, was reorganized and some of the more notorious dives were closed. It is doubtful whether the “clean-up” was very thorough or permanent, but prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging were at least driven under cover.

In March of this year Mrs. Landes was landslided out of office to the tune of 20,000 votes of about 90,000 cast. Her opponent spent (or at least reported) about $28,000, while Mrs. Landes spent nearly $13,000 as against her salary of $15,000 for her two years as mayor. It is difficult to explain her defeat. All the leading papers, the Municipal League, women's clubs, and all the forces of respectability supported her. The consensus of opinion seems to be that she was defeated because of deep-seated prejudice against women in politics. Seattle and its woman mayor had become a stock Pullman-smoker joke. So the first woman mayor of a major American city makes her exit.

Seattle's tenderloin district is called the “Skidroad,” or more commonly, “Below the Line.” Here fruit-pickers, harvest hands, loggers, sailors, hoboes, “gobs,” casuals of every sort, are gathered in great numbers. Seattle is winter quarters for most of the causal workers and unemployed of the whole Northwest. Yesler Way, named for the man who built the first saw-mill in Seattle, runs through the heart of the district. The forty-two-story Smith Building, still the pride of of Seattle's magnificent skyline, towers above a motley array of cheap shows, dance-halls, card rooms, pool-rooms, “slave markets,” cheap rooming houses, blind-pigs, missions, pawnshops, second-hand stores, shooting galleries run by scantily clad, highly painted ladies, quack medicine joints, houses of ill-fame, and other indices of disorganization. The used to be the center of the city, but due to the northward movement, it has become a sink-hole for the down-and-outers—Seattle's Hobohemia. It is adjacent to Jap-town, China-town, Negro-town, the railroad yards, the County-City Building and the city jail.

On any Saturday night, one may hear “Derby Dan Kelly,” the Cockney Communist orator, haranguing his cohorts of discontent. The Wobbly Spielers and the “Jesus Jazzers,” as he calls them, are his particular enemies. They all try to drown his profane words of wisdom with holy words, salvation songs and blatant brass; he merely moved to another corner and takes most of the crowd with him. Likewise, the “Long-Haired Preachers” are often in evidence. They are a group of religious devotees, shoeless, unshaven and unshorn, who make a specialty of preaching to bare stone walls the doctrine that “Many now living will never see death.” Their Prophet is one Daniel Sawlt, a patriarchal dissenter from the House of David.

In contrast to the above conditions, there are numerous Forces of Righteousness. The Catholics have orphanages, old peoples' homes, cathedrals and other institutions on the tops of most of the many hills. In a noble edifice on the brow of Capitol Hill, the Reverend Mark A. Matthews, a stately silver-haired and silver-tongued orator and a godly man, holds the largest Presbyterian congregation in the world spell-bound with the gospel of Fundamentalism. He, like Aimee McPherson, has his own broadcasting station. Below the citadel of the Ancient Gospel, the Reverend Mr. Hawkins preaches extreme Modernism in the Pilgrim Congregational Church. At one time, he had on his staff Dr. J. J. B. Morgan, an eminent psychiatrist, who played the part of a Modernist father confessor in adjusting disturbed personalities and applying psychiatric balm to wounded souls. Out in the university district, the Methodists are building a million-dollar “Temple and Plant” on the very edge of the campus. Their pastor is a real liberal who began life as a child laborer in the coal mines of Cornwall. The University Y.M.C.A. was also a rather liberal place until recently. It gave forum privileges to Scott Nearing, Albert Weisborg, Kenneth Lindsay, et al. Soon after, the ambitious secretary lost his official head.

The Queen City has not neglected the cultural side of life in here scramble for population and commercial power. Her libraries and schools are first-class. The latter, however, are carefully protected from the pernicious influence of married women-teachers, none of whom may be employed. The University of Washington has about 10,000 students, a first-rate football team, a monster stadium, and a sometimes Champion Crew. The city boasts of a Civic Opera, a fair symphony orchestra, and now building a million-dollar civic auditorium. It has a fine outlay of city parks, golf links, playgrounds, and bathing beaches. Washington, D.C., is the only city that has more park area per capita than Seattle. Seattle is also the proud possessor of a fine monument on the very spot where the late lamented noble martyred President, Warren G. Harding, made his last public address. It looks out upon the Zoo, where monkeys and laughing hyenas gibber and howl.

In discussing the cultural side of life, one must not neglect the Mountaineers, an organization to which every true Seattleite belongs. Its function is to organize trips “to scenic points,” leading the fair, frail, and fat, clad in thick shirts, high shoes, and “tin breeches,” up to the tops of high mountains, where they admire the view and in due course slide down upon the leather seats of their pants.

Nor must one neglect to mention the up-and-coming Chamber of Commerce which has lately given one of its own second-Vice-Presidents to become President of the University of Washington, presumably under the advice and protection of His Excellency, Governor Roland G. Hartley, who fired President Suzzallo and the whole Board of Regents for no reason thus far divulged. The Lions, Kiwanians, Rotarians and Realtors make minor music for the Chamber of Commerce's diapason booming.

The Wobblies are destroyed, the unions are much decayed, the Tunnels are being built, building is booming, the Mountain can be seen (sometimes), the Tourists are coming, the fish are being caught—things are looking up in the Puget Sound country. Seattle may reach her half-million yet. She surely has the will, is earnest, honest, and persevering—she must succeed or the Chamber of Commerce philosophy is all wrong.

Read Bain.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest