Yarrow House

Small Towns of Seattle: West Seattle

Each spring I rent a little hut of mason bees for a few months to pollinate my fruit trees. In June it’s time to take my mason bees back to the bee folks. The drop-off site this year was in West Seattle, so one Saturday I headed across the West Seattle Bridge to deliver the bees.

Access has always been a defining factor for the West Seattle peninsula, and agitation for better bridge connections to the mainland has been a constant in West Seattle history. The high-rise bridge was built in 1984. Before then traffic regularly had to stop for draw bridge openings.

The bee drop-off site was at a nursery on California Avenue. I rarely have a reason to go to West Seattle  anymore so I wasn’t sure exactly which direction to turn on California, but luckily for me as I headed up the hill off the bridge, I noticed I was behind a pickup with Rent Mason Bees printed on its tailgate. Taking this hint from the Universe, I followed the pickup to the nursery and helped them set up their tent and tables while I waited to turn in my bee hut.

West Seattle is one of Seattle’s former small towns that’s still physically, and some would say mentally, separate from the rest of the city. It covers a hilly peninsula, ending on the north at  Duwamish Head, a massive cliff thrusting out into Elliott Bay.

Below Duwamish Head is Alki Point, the designated birthplace of Seattle. The Denny party landed there in November 1851—10 adults and 12 children. Anyone who’s spent a winter in Seattle knows that November is practically the worst time to arrive here. When the women saw the dense, dripping forest of fir trees that greeted them, they sat on a log, it’s said, and cried.

They quickly built a few log cabins. One of the more optimistic members of the Denny party called their little settlement New York. Early visitors, seeing only rough log cabins, called it New York Alki, Chinook for “New York by and by.”

Alki Point was the only flat land above high tide along this part of the Sound. The local natives called it Prairie Point. It looked like the best spot for the Denny party to settle, but by the next year most of the settlers had headed across the Bay — finding deeper water there and more protected anchorages for the port they envisioned building. After their move, for years Alki was only a place to go for picnic outings and summer camping. Seattleites reached Alki by a ferry that docked near today’s Seacrest Marina. The campers hiked around the headland to set up tents on the flat point, equipping them with rugs and even furniture, for the entire summer.

The earliest link between the peninsula and the rest of Seattle was a trestle bridge built by a railroad company in 1890. By 1907 the county had added two swing bridges across the Duwamish. It hired only one bridge tender, though. So when a boat needed to pass, after the tender opened one of the bridges, he bicycled to the other bridge to open it.

When I came to Seattle, in the mid 1970s, I used to hang out with a bunch of construction workers and artists of one kind or another who lived in West Seattle. My friend Julie, a painter and single mom, lived on Ferry Avenue, the street that followed the former cable car line from the ferry dock up the steep east side of the Duwamish Head to a little business district at Admiral and California. We spent many a party at her house, drinking beer on her sagging porch and celebrating the splendid view of downtown Seattle.

The drawbridges that opened regularly for freighter traffic up the Duwamish River enhanced West Seattle’s separateness, and slowed its development. In the 1970s businesses and storefronts seemed lost in time and made a trip to West Seattle a little like traveling back to the 1950s. On my bee-returning trip, I noticed that the high-rise bridge had made West Seattle much more accessible, and developers had been hard at work. California Avenue was now lined with apartment buildings.

Developers were an ongoing part of West Seattle’s history. In 1907  the first street car line from Seattle to Fauntleroy ran on a trestle across Spring Hill Pond at the top of the hill, a swamp with three to five feet of water. A few months later a street car from California and Admiral Way crossed the Fauntleroy line at the same swamp, and the Junction was born. More streetcar lines threaded their way through the timber, followed by developers with their optimistic maps showing streets and amenities already in place. Land sales boomed, and plots were bought and sold, often sight unseen. The swamp was filled in, and a new and bigger business district grew up around the Junction. The swamp is more than a memory, though. Local homes and businesses still have to run sump pumps year round to keep their basements dry.

West Seattle has long had a reputation as a blue collar town, and home to eccentrics following their own path. Ivar Haglund of Ivar’s Acres of Clams fame, grew up in West Seattle, and so did mountain climber Jim Whittaker and poet Richard Hugo. Bob, one of guys who hung out at Julie’s parties, was a modern example. He was a dancer but earned a living, such as it was, working construction jobs. To cut expenses, one summer he rented tent space in Julie’s backyard garden. But like the early campers, he gave up tenting when the rains started, and the garden turned into a bog.

As with all the other small towns that merged with Seattle in the early 1900s, the need for the bigger town’s financial help with water, sewage, garbage, and most importantly for West Seattle bridges, convinced the majority of the peninsula’s free spirits to throw their lot in with the burgeoning city across the bay. On June 1907, West Seattle voted 325 in favor and 8 opposed for annexation. 

Duwamish Head’s springs, ponds, and streams provided drinking water for the early settlers, but as the population grew, the water supply couldn’t keep up with demand. After it became annexed to Seattle, West Seattle gained access to the water from the Cedar River watershed. In 1911, a when a higher swing bridge was built across the Duwamish, the bridge carried West Seattle’s new Cedar River water mains. Every time the bridge opened, however, the mains had to be uncoupled, temporarily shutting off the town’s water supply, sometimes up to 40 times a day. The intermittent service continued until the bridge was scrapped in 1918, and the mains were submerged at the river bottom.

On my bee-returning trip, I appreciated not having to wait for a draw bridge to close, and I reveled in the view of Seattle from the crest of the high-rise bridge. But as a state of mind, West Seattle is still a world away from the mainland, and if you live elsewhere in Seattle, it’s still a good day’s outing to go for a picnic on Alki.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2016