Seattle Map 9 – Black River

The Black River is Seattle’s most infamous river, or more accurately, lost river. The river was only about three miles long but was critical to the early history of the city. It was Lake Washington’s lone outlet and hence lone access point for boats traveling from the salt water of Elliott Bay to the fresh water of the lake, a route replaced in 1916 by the opening of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. (The canal officially opened on July 4, 1917, but the canal and locks had been completed in 1916.)

As you can see from the accompanying map, the 1909 USGS Topographic map of the Tacoma quadrangle, the Black flowed out of the lake near Renton, and was almost immediately met by the Cedar River, coming west out of the Cascade Mountains. The Black then wound around low hills, under the Columbia and Puget Sound RR, and met the Green River, where now became the Duwamish with the addition of the Black. Screen shot 2013-09-03 at 2.18.58 PMHistorically, the Green River flowed into the White River in Auburn, and the two continued as the White to the confluence with the Black. Floods in 1906, however, changed the course of the White, which now drained, and still drains, into the Puyallup River. The Green kept its course and now became the outflow for the Black, until the disappearance of the Black in 1916, which is why the Green changes name for no apparent reason and becomes the Duwamish.

The Black’s name came from sediment washed out of the Cedar’s old river terraces. The White was significantly clearer. The Cedar gave the Black a second name. When the latter flooded it reverse the flow of the Black and pushed it back into Lake Washington. This is the origin of the name for the Black in Chinook jargon, Mox La Push, or “two mouths.”

King County’s first sawmill outside of Seattle was at the confluence of the Black and Cedar rivers. Started in 1854 by Henry Tobin, Joseph Fanjoy, and O.M. Eaton, it had two circular saws. In order to operate the mill, the trio built a six-foot high dam. Unfortunately for the men, the mill did not last long; the Black was too windy for transport. It was not too twisted though for vessels.

Soon after the discovery of coal near what is modern day Issaquah, a variety of people were “engaged in wordy discussions of the quickest and best way to render the Squak coal mines available,” noted The Seattle Gazette in February 1864. In floated William Perkins, who built a boat, floated and paddled to the mines, and returned with a full load. The 140-mile-long trip via the Duwamish and Black rivers and across Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish and back took him 20 days. Trips up and down the riparian highway eventually became easier as river travelers dredged sand bars and cleared out stumps and overhanging vegetation.

But everything changed in 1916, when Lake Washington was connected to Lake Union, which lowered the level of the larger lake by nine feet. This was enough to drop the lake below its historic outlet and the Black River slowly died, with remnants persisting until at least 1969. A photograph shows a narrow swath of shrubs, weeds, and cottonwoods that curved east between North Third and Second Streets toward the intersection of SW Sunset Boulevard and Rainier Avenue South. That last vestige of the Black now lies under the parking lot of a huge Safeway.

The other remnant of the river still exist. At its confluence with the Duwamish is the Black River Riparian Forest. Not the most beautiful of spots but following years of restoration, visitors have reported over 50 species including salmon, coyotes, salamanders, and bald eagles. The area also supports the largest heron rookery in the region.

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.

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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.

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