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Seattle, Then and Now (1891 to 2013)

The story of Seattle is the story of booms and busts.

The city's first plats were filled in 1853, and it quickly grew into a timber powerhouse. The resulting influx of immigrants led to racial tensions throughout the city, and unemployed whites rioted against the Chinese in 1885 and 1886.

Three years later, a fire consumed the city's downtown, but it was rebuilt rapidly. So fast in fact, that a 1891 map of Seattle, courtesy the Library of Congress, depicts an economically vibrant, developed city. After the Panic of 1893, the city rebounded again, benefiting from its role as a transportation hub for miners in Alaska and the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush.

Seattle continues to reinvent itself. The city is now known for its tech firms; a boom that followed a 1970s U.S. aerospace industry collapse (which inspired the infamous "will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights" sign).

Below, we compare 1890s Seattle to today, via Google Maps:


We start at Pioneer Square, where the modern version of the city got its start. Just after the Great Fire, the area, previously populated by wood-framed structures, was rebuilt with brick. Many of those structures are still standing. One of the city's most cherished tall buildings, the Smith Tower (the city's tallest structure until the Space Needle debuted in 1962) was two decades away from construction in 1891. You can see the pointy, white neoclassical tower to the right in the current-day image.

Just north of that are some of the city's tallest buildings today, the Columbia Center and the Seattle Municipal Tower. Despite its 1980s corporate appearance (previously named "AT&T Gateway Tower," and "Key Bank Tower") the Municipal Tower hosts a collection of city government offices, including the Department of Planning. One block south (to the right in the above image) is Seattle's City Hall, a much shorter structure, completed in 2005. 

Just south of Pioneer Square, much of the area retains its industrial legacy, with rail and industrial shipping infrastructure dominating the landscape. Two relatively new stadiums, the NFL's Seahawks Century Link Field (built in 2002) and the MLB Mariners' Safeco Field (built in 1999), attract regional visitors. While today's King Street Station (top right corner of right side image) is over a century old, it was still two decades away from construction in 1891. That portion of the city however, had already been defined by its railroad infrastructure in the late 19th century as we see in the image on the left.

Heading to the northern edge of downtown, we see one of Seattle's flashier pieces of contemporary landscape design, the Olympic Sculpture Park built over Elliott Avenue. Debuting in 2007, it replaces an industrial brownfield. In the 1890s, the neighborhood had an active timber industry as depicted by the stacked logs on multiple parcels.

Moving west, we enter the South Lake Union neighborhood, now home to a bevy of apartments, offices, and retail space, anchored by a modern streetcar line. Lake Union park, as shown on the right, demonstrates the city's economic transformation since 1890 quite well, a collection of polluting mills long gone and replaced with green space, recreational boats, and retail. Further emphasizing the shift, recently built offices for Amazon are only blocks away.

Crossing to the other side of Lake Union and entering Portage Bay, we reach the University of Washington. Today's campus grounds were first built out for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exhibition. The school now has over 40,000 students and an endowment of over $2 billion, a defining fixture of the city's University district.

Like the city's persistent ability to shift with economic times, Seattle's infrastructure has continued to evolve. Its waterfront is now centered around recreational usage, while tax coffers benefit from the continued growth of companies like Amazon. There's little doubt that time will eventually force Seattle to change again. Based on its history, that won't be a problem.

Keywords: Seattle, Maps

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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