Beware Weyerhaeuser

Media outlets around the region are trumpeting Weyerhaeuser’s plan to transfer its headquarters from its 430-acre Federal Way campus to what is now a parking lot adjacent to Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. The move may be wise from a financial aspect but the forest industry giant should be cautious because their chosen location is not the best building site. When the first settlers arrived in Seattle in 1851, the proposed building site was a tidal marsh, covering about eight acres. It was situated just behind a mound of land, where the first houses were built. You can see the marsh in this early Seattle map, modified from Paul Dorpat’s web site. The building site is at the red X.

The marsh was one of the first areas altered in Seattle by the settlers. Legend holds that one infamous land reshaper was “Dutch Ned,” who either wheelbarrowed or toted on his back sawdust from Henry Yesler’s mill and dumped the material into potholes and other less than solid spots. As you might imagine, sawdust isn’t the best subsurface to base one’s foundation upon. It has a tendency to rot and decay, creating voids and soft spots. One of the best places to see this is to go to the parking lot where Weyerhaeuser plans to build. Look at the cars. They are not exactly what one would call parked on level terrain. In some places, they are at relatively steep angles, at least relative to what one might expect in a parking lot.

Another way to see what lies beneath is core samples. It’s not a pretty site down below. “Zones of sawdust and wood chips.” “Brick, mortar, asphalt, cinders, concrete, wood and charcoal debris.” “Very loose to loose WOOD debris; creosote/petroleum odor.” Basically, what one finds is the detritus of bygone history: the remnants of the Great Fire of 1889, Dutch Ned’s dumpings, and perhaps collections of garbage from early residents and industries.

Of  course, none of this means that the new Weyerhaeuser headquarters won’t be a solid, well built structure. I am sure they are aware of what they are getting into, or onto. But these cores and early maps do give one pause to consider Weyerhaeuser’s decision to move. I can only hope that if and when the building is built that Weyerhaeuser does some good archaeology on the spot. Who knows what new stories they will unearth?

Material for for this story comes out of research I have done for my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

If you so desire, you can like my geologywriter Facebook page.


Seattle 1841 – aka Piner Point

Like many people interested in geology, I have had a long fascination with maps, particularly of the places I live. I find it appealing to see how people have portrayed the landscape and how that landscape has changed over time. Beginning today, I plan periodically to post a variety of maps of Seattle. I will start with a pair of maps, including the one that was the earliest to apply a formal name to the area we now call Seattle.

They maps are startling for how completely different they look from the modern city. Obviously, there is no urban infrastructure, or even any sign of humans, though we know that in the Seattle-to-be there was a well-developed Native community, with many longhouses housing several hundred people. But what stands out more to me is the look of the land and what it would take to travel across it. To get from what we call Beacon Hill to West Seattle would require a boat, unless the tide was out and then one could walk across mud flats. To leave the shoreline and go inland would require climbing steep bluffs, unless you slogged up a gully.

Those maps were produced as part of Charles Wilkes’ United States Exploring Expedition (Ex.Ex.). From 1838 to 1842, Wilkes explored the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas. The expedition reached Puget Sound in May 1841, when Wilkes had Lt. George Sinclair, sailing master of the brig Porpoise, map the area that the expedition would be the first to name as Elliott Bay. (Be patient, these are large maps that take a wee bit of time to show up.)

Curiously, one of the unsolved aspects of the expedition is who was the eponomous Elliott of the bay: the Chaplain J.L., the Midshipman Samuel, or the First Class Boy George. Most modern sources believe it to be Samuel, as apparently J.L. had fallen into disfavor with Wilkes, a notoriously unpleasent leader.

The larger of the two Ex.Ex. maps, Chart of Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound, and Hoods Canal, Oregon Territory, depicts the land and water from Whidbey Island to Budd Inlet. Elliott Bay is shown, with Duwamish Head labled as “Pt. Rand or Moore.” At the mouth of the Duwamish River, the cartographer has written “Bare at low water.”

The second map is the more interesting one, as it is a close up of Elliott Bay. Pt. Moore is shown, as is Pt. Roberts (modern day Alki Point) and West Point, along with Quarter Master Cove and Tubor Pt., in the area we now call Smith Cove. (Henry Tubor was a seaman on the Ex.Ex.) The other long-abandoned name is Piners Point, for a small bit of land located at the modern day Pioneer Square, which makes it the first official, non-Native name for Seattle. Thomas Piner was a quartermaster for Wilkes, who described him as “a very faithful and tried seaman.” Although Piner’s name appears on no other map of Seattle, Wilkes was more successful in creating extant names with a Piner Bay in Antarctic and Point Piner on Vashon Island.

This more-detailed chart depicts Elliott Bay ringed by conifer-topped, steep-faced bluffs bisected by ravines. Piner Point looks less like a point and more like an island, or high mound, covered in shrubbery. North and northeast of the mound, and below the bluffs, the cartographer has drawn in what looks like a marsh with tufts of plants. The marsh gives way to tidal flats that run south below bluffs around to the mouth of the Duwamish, where two uvula-like bodies of land project north.

Wilkes was none too impressed with Elliott Bay noting “the great depth of water, as well as extensive mud-flats.” He concluded “I do not consider the bay a desirable anchorage.”

Apparently Wilkes’ opinion was not heeded as just a decade later, the first settlers began to arrive. In contrast to Wilkes, they were “thoroughly satisfied as to the fitness of the bay as a harbor.” I will consider a map from this era for my next Seattle map post.

These are some of the stories that work their way into my new book on Seattle – Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.

If you so desire, you can like my geologywriter Facebook page.