Life by the Water

December 10, 2018 | Life by the Water | By Francesca Reeves, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation |
IMG_1346_2.jpgPhoto credit: David Newman, Visit Seattle

Washington Main Street will co-host the 2019 Main Street Now Conference in Seattle, March 25-27. Get to know our host city through this special pre-conference blog series. Register for the conference today to take advantage of the early-bird, member rates, and the new special rate for civic leaders.

Seattle’s waterfront – a crucial part of the city’s culture and industry

When you think of Seattle, Wash., what comes to mind? Some would say one of the city’s sports teams, while others think of the mountains or one of the many famous musicians originating from the area. One feature people consistently mention when asked that question is something involving the waterfront. Whether it be the Great Wheel, the ferries, or Pike Place Market, at least one aspect of waterfront leaves an impression. Seattle’s iconic waterfront is an extremely important part of the city. Its rich history dates back thousands of years, long before white settlers arrived and began industrializing the area, starting with tribes that resided there.


Duwamish Tribe

Photo credit: Backbone Campaign

The Duwamish Tribe, as well as many others, lived in the area for thousands of years prior to white settlers’ arrival. They lived along streams and rivers that flowed into Puget Sound in cedar plank longhouses and fished for salmon, which provided an important food source. The Duwamish fished and hunted along the waterfronts, and some spent their winters in a camp that was at the south end of Lake Union. The tribe has been a crucial part in Seattle’s history. In 1851, white settlers first came to the area settled in what is now the Pioneer Square district. They named their settlement Seattle after Chief Si’ahl, or Chief Sealth, a Duwamish chief who greeted and befriended them.

The Duwamish people continue to be stewards and leaders in the Puget Sound area. In 2009, the tribe celebrated the opening of a new longhouse at The Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center in West Seattle, a space that accommodates their business offices, community events, and preservation of history and identity.

Pike Place Market

Photo credit: Jeff Wandasiewicz

One of Seattle’s most iconic landmarks is Pike Place Market. What many people don’t realize is that the Market, which is now one of the city’s main tourist attractions and a historical landmark, was once in danger of demolition. It is a preservation success story that saved an important site and turned it into a vibrant and thriving area of the city.


From 1906-1907, the price of produce reached a high – angering customers and farmers alike. While the farmers produced the goods, they rarely made a profit because the wholesalers who purchased from them sold the produce at a commission. In response to the outrage, Seattle City Councilman Thomas Revelle devised a solution to this issue. Pike Place Market opened in August of 1907 providing a space where consumers could buy products directly from the farmers, rather than through wholesalers.


The Market brought crowds of farmers looking to sell their goods and shoppers seeking bargains. However, during World War II, Pike Place fell on hard times and lost over half of its farmers to Japanese internment camps. The buildings were neglected and began to fall apart. During the 1960s, developers wanted to demolish the decrepit buildings and use the highly valuable land for office and apartment buildings. In 1964, Victor Steinbrueck and other citizens of Seattle formed the group, Friends of the Market, to try to protect Pike Place from demolition. After years of hard work, Seattle voters passed the Market Initiative in 1971, which put 1.5 acres within the Market on the National Register of Historic Places and created a local seven-acre Pike Place Market Historical District and a Market Historical Commission to help protect it.


Today, the Market is continually evolving. Its most recent expansion added 30,000 square feet of public space, 47-day stalls for local vendors, and 40 units of low-income senior housing. Pike Place Market and the surrounding neighborhood is a booming area of the city that allows multiple economic industries to thrive – including farming, tourism, and fishing.


Visit the Pike Place Market, one of the city’s premier attractions, at How Does the Market Grow? tour at the 2019 Main Street Now Conference on Wednesday, March 27, 2019.

Ballard Locks

Aerial of Hiram Chittenden Locks (1963) | Photo credit: Forward Thrust Photographs (Record Series 5804-04), Seattle Municipal Archives.

Arguably one of the most important locations of Seattle’s waterfront are the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, known locally as the Ballard Locks, which have been open since 1917. The Locks play an enormous role in Seattle’s economy, serving as the only passageway between Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound. The Locks include a spillway and fish ladder, gardens, historical buildings with a visitor center, administrative offices, and maintenance facilities. The Locks play a crucial role in the life cycle of the Pacific salmon species, which use the fish ladder to get to the ocean after they hatch in the rivers of the area. The Northwest Marine Trade Association states there are 200 business that rely on the Locks, including tribal fisheries, passenger cruise companies, marine services, North Pacific Fishing Fleets, recreational vessel sales and marinas, major shipping companies, scientific research vessels, recreational visitors, and more.


As one of Seattle’s top tourist attractions, the Locks provide Seattle and the Pacific Northwest with enormous economic and public safety benefits. The Seattle Fire Department, U.S. Coast Guard, King County Sheriff, and the Seattle Harbor Patrol regularly use the Locks to travel between fresh and salt water, and most importantly – to keep the public safe. The University of Washington and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have research vessels that often travel through the Locks. The Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes help researchers track the health of the salmon population as they exercise their Tribal Rights to fish in Salmon Bay. Fleets of fishing boats that travel to Alaska moor and get repaired in Salmon Bay. Seattle’s Community Development Plan states that the marine services made possible by the Locks are crucial to the neighborhood’s future and further development.

Explore Seattle like a local at the Two Wheels, One Trail tour at the 2019 Main Street Now Conference on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. 

 Port of Seattle

5102554570_963dd0e1f6_b.jpgPhoto credit: Kathleen Leavitt Cragun

By 1895, there were four transcontinental railroad lines competing for control of the Seattle waterfront. Seattle also had growing trade with Asia and Alaska. Many people from the Pacific Northwest traveled to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. Those lucky enough to strike it rich in Alaska returned, spending much of their money in the city building private docks and railroads. However, the city wanted public control of the waterfront. Committees argued for years before voting on creating a public port in 1911. Since then, the Port of Seattle has been an integral part of the area’s economic growth. The Port has created a busy and successful container terminal, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, among many other facilities. The shipyards and airport have been extremely important for Seattle’s tourism and trade industries and have provided thousands of people with jobs.

Harbor Island

Harbor Island is located at the mouth of the Duwamish River and is the site of the Port of Seattle. | Photo credit: Flickr

Another vital part of Seattle’s waterfront is Harbor Island. This port and shipyard, located in West Seattle at the mouth of the Duwamish River, is the largest man-made island in the United States. The artificial island was created in the early 1900s using soil from regrades of the city’s hills and has played a significant role to the city’s economy. During World War II, shipbuilding plants in Puget Sound built and repaired an astounding number of ships from Harbor Island. Since the end of the War, the Island has been used for both commercial and industrial activities and is home to warehouses, cranes, and other industrial buildings.


There are many resources available to continue exploring Seattle’s history and connection to its waterways:

  • Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI): Temporary and permanent exhibitions, including a permanent exhibition about Seattle’s historic waterfront and how it has changed throughout the years and shaped Seattle and the surrounding area.
  • The Center for Wooden Boats: Sailing and woodworking classes, boat rentals, and exhibits on the historical wooden boats of Seattle
  • Hiram M. Chittenden Ballard Locks: Beautiful gardens, an exhibit on the Locks and how they work, and a fish ladder where you can observe local salmon.