In Search of the Original 'Seattle'

A naturalist conducts a botanical mystery tour—call it CSI: Seattle—scouring the modern city for clues of the landscape that greeted the first white settlers. Giant trees there were, but what else? From place-names to ancient groves, he traces the answers in our own backyards.

Every child growing up in Seattle when I was a kid learned the following story: On Nov. 13, 1851, 10 adults and 12 children arrived at what we now call Alki Point. Known as the Denny party, the group comprised the founding families of Seattle. The first thing the men did was to start cutting trees for cabins. The women, on the other hand, cried under the dripping forest.

I refer to Seattle's origin not to cast light on any difference between the sexes but to focus on the trees, the dominant feature of the landscape on that rainy day. This story and subsequent pictures of early Seattle created an image in my head of an unbroken Douglas fir and cedar forest from the shores of Puget Sound to the Cascades. I pictured trees so big that it took "two men and a boy to look to the top," as one early writer described them, and a forest "whose dark verdurous hue diffused a solitary gloom—favorable to meditations," as Archibald Menzies wrote in 1792 when he was the botanist on George Vancouver's exploration of the Northwest Coast, including Puget Sound.

These were the pictures I carried until I acquired an intriguing book called Reading the Landscape, by May Theilgaard Watts. Published in 1957, the book is sort of a primer for naturalists who want to be detectives. Watts' theme is that by looking carefully, you can find clues that help you put together the ecological story of a particular landscape.

Inspired by Watts, I decided to read the landscape of Seattle to see if I could find clues to what the city's plant cover looked like at the time the Denny party arrived. Could I take her strategies, such as looking at the shape and location of plants, deciphering place-names, and moving beyond first impressions, to piece together a picture more complex than Menzies' dark forest? In addition, I wanted to make connections to the place I call home. I have long known that the better I understand the natural history of a landscape, the more I enjoy it.

Bubbling Springs And Ancient Oaks

Licton Springs in North Seattle. The name derives from an Indian word for "red," referring to the iron-rich waters that still bubble up today.

(Kevin P. Casey)

I began close to home with the name of the area where I live, Licton Springs, a little-known neighborhood located just east of North Seattle Community College between about 90th and 100th streets. Licton is a corruption of the Lushootseed word liq'ted (LEEK-tuhd), which means "red" or "paint," and refers to iron oxides deposited by springs bubbling out of the ground. At present, the springs are preserved in the 9-acre Licton Springs Park.

Hoping to learn more, I visited the park and found water spilling out of a rusty-rimmed concrete cistern and flowing down an ochre-colored rivulet to a stream that feeds a pond at the park's south end. Most of the vegetation was nonnative, but a recent restoration project had begun to alter the wetland formed by the springs. I saw a few small cedars, red flowering currant, and devil's club. In 1851, these species would have been joined by a diverse suite of water-loving plants including horsetail, cattail, and nettle, as well as odd-shaped blossoms such as yellow monkey flowers and hooded white ladies' tresses, flowers now less common in Seattle.

Other place-names also indicate a moist past. Spring Street honors the former principal source of Seattle's drinking water, a spring on the west side of First Hill. Ward Springs Park, at the base of Queen Anne Hill just north of Seattle Center, commemorates the spring that once provided 80,000 gallons a day of drinking water. It is safe to assume that tens and maybe hundreds of small seep-created wetlands once dotted the Seattle landscape.

Concrete and piping have eliminated most of the springs, but one can still see signs of their persistence. When I see a dense growth of horsetails, nettles, or devil's club, I know I have found one. The persnickety flows often appear as wet spots on pavement, damp patches on lawns, or small pools at the bottom of slopes. This is especially true in winter when it appears that city streets have sprung leaks.

So many springs existed and persist because the glacier that plowed through Seattle between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago deposited a thick layer of permeable sand atop an equally thick layer of impermeable clay. When it rains, water percolates down through the sand until it meets the clay. Springs occur where water flows along the clay and out to the surface. Although these wet areas would have done little to disrupt my image of unbroken forest, the wetland plants would have added at least some color to Menzies' gloom.

Another neighborhood name provides an additional clue to Seattle's early-day plant life and reveals a complexity that I hadn't imagined. Oak Tree Village, at North 100th Street and Aurora Avenue North, refers to Oak Lake School, which stood on that site from 1886 to 1982 and made reference to a nearby pond, where a grove of large oak trees grew. Neither the oaks nor the lake remains.

Washington state has only one native oak, the Garry or Oregon white oak. David Douglas, the Scottish horticulturist for whom the Douglas fir is named, bestowed the scientific name, Quercus garryana, to honor Nicholas Garry, secretary and later deputy governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. More common south of Tacoma, particularly on the prairies around Nisqually and Fort Lewis and on islands in Puget Sound, Garry oaks prefer sunny, open, well-drained sites.

In describing oak prairies, early naturalists often mentioned the broad, flat terrain, luxuriant grass, and abundant wildflowers, in particular the blue camas, which made some prairies look like a lake reflecting an azure sky. These prairies were and still are important refuges for threatened animals, such as the western gray squirrel and western pocket gopher, and two butterflies, the mardon skipper and valley silverspot, as well as several plants, including Torrey's pea and smallflower wakerobin.

A massive, lone oak on Capitol Hill is a reminder of the oak groves that are no more.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Garry oaks grew only in isolated plots in Seattle, and I know of only three spots where one can still see large trees: Seward Park, Martha Washington Park (located a mile south of Seward Park), and 730 Belmont Ave. on Capitol Hill, at the Oak Manor town houses. Each of these localities has or recently had oaks that were likely growing in the 1850s.

The Oak Manor oak, the largest, is a lone tree, several hundred years old. It is awe inspiring, its canopy of dark green leaves towering over the nearby apartments and its 12-foot-circumference gnarled trunk splitting into numerous arms, many larger than typical street trees. Because of this tree, I had long been jealous of a friend who lived at the Oak Manor town houses, and secretly rejoiced when she moved and had to live oakless like me.

The oaks at Martha Washington and Seward parks grow in groves, particularly at Seward. The site faces south and the grove grows on relatively thin, well-drained soil that sits directly atop bedrock, instead of the more typical, less well consolidated glacial deposits that cover most of Seattle. Additional dry-site plants at Seward Park include two other rare natives, poison oak and snowbrush, as well as snowberry, tall Oregon grape, and serviceberry. Although never very prevalent in Seattle, this is ideal habitat for oaks and these cohorts but marginal habitat for Douglas firs.

When I visited Martha's oaks, which grow in a 10-acre park on Lake Washington that encompasses the former home of the Martha Washington School for Girls, I discovered additional clues indicating that my coniferous vision was incomplete. Two streets near the park, Oaklawn Place and Oakhurst Street (hurst is an ancient word meaning "grove of trees"), indicate that oaks were probably abundant or noticeable enough to merit street name recognition. Add to these clues an early name for land around the Seward Park peninsula, Clark's Prairie, and it is clear that an unusual plant community grew in this area.

A Landscape Shaped by Fire

In addition to providing color that I had not imagined in Seattle, particularly in fall when the leaves turn red, the oaks also give a clue about another feature of the forest I had not considered: fire. Oaks, or more properly, acorns, were a prominent food source for native peoples. Edward Curtis, in his multivolume The North American Indians, wrote that tribes from around Puget Sound would canoe down to the Nisqually plains and collect hundreds of bushels of acorns, which they ate raw and roasted and ground for bread making. Native tribes also collected bracken and camas that grew amidst the oaks.

Harvesting these delicacies was not simply a matter of going to the local prairie year after year and collecting the early-day equivalent of fast food. It involved active management of the land, in particular, setting fires that destroyed the Douglas fir seedlings that could take over an oak prairie. Annual blazes would also help check undesirable grasses and shrubs and facilitate the growth of camas and the spread of bracken, which quickly invades disturbed land.

Tribes supplemented fire by transferring camas bulbs to recently burned areas and by gathering them with digging sticks, tilling the soil as they did so. Some botanists have also surmised that native peoples transported acorns to prairies, which may account for the spotty distribution of oaks in Washington. In writing about fire and native peoples who lived on Whidbey and Camano islands, former University of Washington professor Richard White said, "Far from being creatures of the environment, the Indians had shaped their world and made it what it was when the Whites arrived."

But did the native peoples set fire to the Seward Park area? Two lines of evidence may help answer this question. The first comes from land surveys conducted in Seattle in the 1850s and 1860s. Known as Government Land Office (GLO) surveys, they were done to establish township and range boundaries around the country. For the survey that encompasses the oak communities in question, the surveyors recorded two "deadenings," shorthand for burned-out areas. The surveyors do not indicate who or what caused the blazes, but their location seems more than coincidental.

I located my second set of clues atop Seward Park in one of the last old-growth stands in Seattle. This forest gives the best picture of what most of Seattle's presettlement fauna looked like. Douglas firs up to 500 years old are interspersed with younger trees, particularly in openings caused by wind, which either snapped tree tops or toppled entire trees. These downed trees have become nurse logs taken over by salal, western hemlock, and sword fern. Western red cedars occur in the wetter microclimates, although they are found throughout the forest, while larger hemlocks grow best at the north end of the peninsula. Other understory plants include vine maple, Pacific yew, Nootka rose, red flowering currant, and Indian plum.

I had visited Seward Park many times, but it was only after I began this search that I thought about a peculiar feature of many of the large Douglas firs that grow there. At least a dozen have burn marks that reach 25 feet or so up the trunks. None of the smaller Douglas firs show any indications of fire. Most are about the same size, indicating that a disturbance cleared the way for them to start growing and that they postdate whatever fire burned through the peninsula, scarring the big trees.

It is not possible to say if the fire that blackened the Douglas firs was started by the people who may have burned the nearby oak prairie. Lightning could have created the blaze, too, but native peoples also burned wooded areas, which attracted game and improved habitat for various food plants such as berries. The GLO surveys record several such burned areas of forest across Seattle. No matter who or what caused the blazes, I now had to add fire- altered openings to my vision of the uninterrupted forest.

Massive Stumps, False Clues

Not all the clues I found, however, disrupted my image. At Carkeek Park, on Puget Sound, I have found at least three dozen cedar stumps, including a 25-foot-circumference titan. Other parks with stumps include Schmitz, Interlaken, and Frink, as well as several green spaces along Thornton Creek (Park 6 at Northeast 104th Street and Fifth Avenue Northeast and Park 2 at Northeast 104th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast) and in a few lucky people's yards.

Unlike other big tree species in Seattle, cedar stumps decay slowly and can remain intact for more than 150 years. Many also include an extra clue to Seattle's timber-driven past: wedge-shaped notches, where lumbermen inserted a steel-tipped plank, or springboard, upon which to stand. They did this to get above the buttresses of bark and wood that characterize the base of most cedars and that were hard to cut and mill.

My favorite stumps are the ones slowly being taken over by hemlocks, which have sent roots slithering like tentacles down the stumps' sides. I marvel at how full of life dead trees can be. I have found stumps colonized by sword fern, salal, red huckleberries, alder, bracken, and vanilla leaf, and a few so encrusted in lichen and moss that I had to wonder how any other plant could get a seed in edgewise. I revel in their ability to hold water, and I like to visit in winter when I can grab a hunk of brick-red wood and squeeze it like a sponge.

Each stump once supported a tree. I know this is obvious, but I think it is worth stating because a stump exemplifies the connections one can make when reading the landscape. When I see a cedar stump at a park in Seattle, I imagine the surrounding ravines and hills covered in big trees. I think of the arrival of settlers who needed the trees for home and livelihood and who had an understandable belief that the supply of wood was inexhaustible. I think of the present and how these stumps have become nurseries for plants and animals. And finally, I think of the future and the potential for another forest of giants to come.

Although the stump story reconfirmed my image of big conifers, Carkeek Park is also home to misleading clues, the abundant red alders and big leaf maples that dominate the park. They grow on the slopes, on the bluffs, and in the bottom of the ravine. Big leaf maples are beautiful trees with licorice ferns, mosses, and lichen festooning trunks and branches in a green beard of fertility. Alders' gray bark gives them a birchlike appearance, and a patchwork of mosses and lichen adds additional color.

Red alders and big leaf maples are modern Seattle's two most abundant trees, and therein lies their deception. In the 1850s, only small pockets of these species grew here, most likely restricted to seeps and riparian areas, where they were joined by Seattle's other tall deciduous tree, black cottonwood. Some alders probably sprouted in the burned-over areas, too, and the Maple Leaf neighborhood name may reflect an abundance of big leaf maples, although neither tree approached the abundance of today.

With the loss of the coniferous forest, however, maples and alders have crawled out of the creeks and now form dense stands across many of Seattle's logged, landslide-prone landscapes. When the maples' leaves turn golden yellow in fall, they give an indication of another aspect of the botanical picture I lacked, although the abundance of this modern clue provides a little too much information.

These trees are not the only false clues; the name of one Seattle neighborhood also gives misleading information. In 1856, Lt. George Davidson, a surveyor for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, committed a botanical blunder and gave the name Magnolia to the hill north of Elliott Bay. Unfortunately for our curious George, the nearest magnolias grew 1,600 miles away in Arkansas. The lieutenant was referring to Seattle's only common nonconiferous evergreen tree, madronas, a name bestowed on two other neighborhoods, Madrona and Laurelhurst (early settlers often called madronas laurels).

In addition to giant firs and cedars, Seattle's south-facing slopes were often covered with orange-barked madronas, still true today.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Madronas stand out in an area of outstanding trees. Glossy, dark green leaves, papery, cinnamon-ochre bark, a springtime display of thousands of white flowers, and a late-summer explosion of bright orange, warty fruits combine to create a tree that commands attention, as Lt. Davidson observed. Location makes them even more noteworthy; they prefer exposed, sunny sites.

The modern-day locations of larger madrona groves give clues to where they grew historically: the Magnolia bluffs, the south and west sides of Discovery Park, the south side of Lincoln Park, the south end of Seward Park, and the Seola Park/Arroyos neighborhoods. All are south or west facing, and all have well-drained soils. Since I wanted to get a feel for what an extensive growth of madronas felt like, I biked down to the Seola/Arroyos area, the southernmost point in Seattle along Puget Sound.

I started at a spot officially designated the Seola Greenbelt, a small park preserved by the city in 1989. I found a dirt trail that led down into the madronas, through a plant community unlike any I had found in Seattle. Madronas made up the entire slope of tall trees, except for three Douglas firs; the understory was nearly pure salal, with an occasional brown bracken and fir seedling. The biggest madrona I could access measured 11 feet around, and one nearby that I couldn't measure was easily 3 or 4 feet bigger. Most were at least a foot wide, although I also saw many bigger and smaller ones, a good sign of a mature and healthy floral community.

What stood out the most, however, was the open feeling of the trees. Unlike the dense green and brown light of a conifer forest or the pervasive shade of an alder or maple grove, the madrona overstory allowed light to pierce through and illuminate the vegetation, especially the stunning cinnamon bark of the trunks. I felt relaxed, warm, and free, sensations enhanced by my location on a steep, south-facing bluff overlooking Puget Sound. I would have to add a thin band of cinnamon, shimmering green, and light-filled trees to my picture of the dripping, verdurous forest.

Alki Point and Wild Onions

The city's first settlers, like David Denny, found primeval forest, remnants of which still survive at Seward Park. They built homes, like this Denny cabin at Licton Springs in North Seattle. The name derives from an Indian word for "red," referring to the iron-rich waters that still bubble up today.

One final place-name gives a clue to a past plant community that I had not imagined: Me-kwa-mooks Park, a small green space just around the headland from where the Denny party arrived at Alki Point. Me-kwa-mooks is a rough-sounding equivalent of a Lushootseed word (written sbaqwabaqs and pronounced SBAH-quah-books) meaning "prairie point" or "prairie nose." It refers to a grassy, tree-free habitat rich with a brilliant palette of wildflowers.

Preserved at the UW's herbarium are 19th-century plant samples such as this wild onion (held by David Giblin), which once grew at Alki.

(Kevin P. Casey)

All that remains of this unusual plant community is the name, but good insight can be obtained by searching through herbarium specimens at the University of Washington. Housed in Hitchcock Hall at the south end of the campus, the herbarium contains over a half-million specimens, including 58 species collected at or near Alki in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I did not just come up with this number, by the way. It comes from a list given to me by Seattle botanist Arthur Lee Jacobson, author of two books that every Seattle plant lover should own, Wild Plants of Seattle and Trees of Seattle.

Equipped with Jacobson's list, I went to the herbarium to look at what had once grown at Alki. With the help of herbarium collections manager David Giblin, I found the first plant on the list. Early Seattle botanist Charles Piper collected the specimen, known scientifically as Allium acuminatum. His handwriting, now faded to brown on brownish paper, shows that he collected the little wild onion on May 29, 1889. The plant looked surprisingly fresh with a purple-pink tinge to the flowers, which topped a long stalk that emerged from a small bulb.

I felt thrilled to be holding such a specific clue to the past. The other clues I had seen, the maples, oaks, cedar stumps, and Douglas firs, were plants that lived for tens and hundreds of years. I expected to find such evidence, but I had not expected to find evidence from such ephemeral plants as an onion. Furthermore, the onion I held, plus about half the 58 species from my list, no longer grow within the city limits. Visiting the herbarium specimens was like time travel; holding them, I could picture the grassy, open area at Alki erupting with yellow, pink, lilac, white, and violet wildflowers.

If you look at a map of northern Puget Sound, you can see why this ecosystem existed: Obvious headlands or points jut out into the water. The most prominent are West Point and Alki in Seattle and Restoration Point on Bainbridge Island. Sticking out into the Sound made them less hospitable because of buffeting winds, a high water table of brackish water, and less stable soil due to storm events and periodic extreme high tides. These prairies add another splash of color to my vision of green.

Bogs, Moss, and Muck

Unfortunately, prairies are not the only extirpated plant community of Seattle. We have also lost our bogs. Like prairies, our bogs contained an unusual array of plants adapted to an extreme environment that required tolerance to flood, drought, and high acidity. Only one example of this environment remains, and to see it, I had to go outside the city limits.

My destination was a small lake just north of Sea-Tac Airport. To reach the water, known as Tub Lake, I first parked at the south end of Sunset Playfield at South 140th Street and 18th Avenue South. After wandering around for 20 minutes, all I had found were ball fields, although I did discover a fence that I couldn't get around. Suspecting that the lake was behind the fence, I drove south along South 140th Street and found a small pullout. From there, a trail heading north through blackberry led me back to the fence, but this time to a hole, which I crawled through, only to eventually end up at a homeless person's camp.

Not wanting to give up, I continued west on South 140th Street, turned right on Des Moines Memorial Drive, and parked at another turnout. This time, I found a gap in the fence, which led to a narrow path through blackberry to another fence with another hole. I scrambled through this opening and continued to a narrow ditch, which was spanned by a dicey 2-by-10 plank.

The plank was surprisingly sturdy, as opposed to the "land" on the other side, which is not actually terra firma but a thick accumulation of muck—brown, spongy matter technically defined as sphagnum moss decomposed past recognition. After 25 yards or so, I moved out of the muck and was standing on a floating mat of sphagnum and peat, where I could make the nearby western hemlocks sway by jumping up and down and sending waves through the mat.

I was now in another plant community unlike any I had seen or imagined in Seattle. The high acidity and permanent water made this environment no place for the usual botanical suspects. Instead, I saw bog laurel and Labrador tea, classic bog plants that grow around the Northern Hemisphere. I also located ground-hugging cranberries, which along with one of Washington state's few carnivorous plants, sundews, only grow in bogs.

Like springs, bogs provide a clue to Seattle's glacial past. In addition to needing water, bogs require poor soil fertility and poor drainage. As many local gardeners know, when the ice sheet retreated 13,000 years ago, it deposited low-nutrient soils but it also left behind shallow depressions where water could stagnate.

Although no bogs remain in the city limits, some modern residents have discovered clues to a past bog in unpleasant ways. In 2002, people living near North 87th Street and Palatine Avenue noticed cracks appearing in their walls. They also watched as two sinkholes formed, foundations sank, and sidewalks buckled. In addition, a new Safeway was the third major building project near that intersection in the past two years, and the third construction site where workers pumped away millions of gallons of water after discovering peat beds under the property. These clues point to the water-rich, unconsolidated bog that once covered this part of Greenwood.

Residents who lived in Seattle in the first half of the 1900s could have found a clue as to why these bogs are gone. Most were mined for sphagnum moss, which was set out to dry, shredded, packaged as peat moss, and sold at garden stores such as Malmo Nurseries.

Other long gone, but seemingly better drained, bogs include one adjacent to Lake Washington, the old Mud Lake at Sand Point, and ones covered by University Village and Northgate Mall. The largest bog, at 45 acres, filled the depression at what is now Dahl Playfield at 25th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 80th Street, in the glacial-carved trough between the Roosevelt and Wedgwood neighborhoods.

My search for clues ended with bogs. I know I do not have the entire picture of what Seattle looked like when pioneers arrived in November 1851, but the picture I now possess is far clearer and far more interesting than the one I held before I began to read the landscape around me. Instead of my childhood vision of a simple, green and gloomy coniferous forest, I see Seattle as a mosaic with fall colors, spring wildflowers, massive conifers, open spaces, burned trees, and spongy bogs.

In the introduction to her book, Watts wrote, "As we read what is written on the land, finding accounts of the past, predictions of the future, and comments on the present, we discover that there are many interwoven strands to each story." I am glad I have sought out these interwoven strands and that so many clues remain that allow me to piece together the stories. I feel better connected to Seattle and have a richer appreciation of the city. I look forward to more reading.

David B. Williams is a Seattle-based natural history writer whose work has appeared in GeoTimes, High Country News, The Seattle Times, and, in May, Smithsonian magazine. He is a former park ranger who worked at Arches National Park in Utah and at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Massachusetts. This article has been adapted from a chapter from his forthcoming book, The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle, to be published by WestWinds Press this June.

"The Street-Smart Naturalist," ©2005, with permission of WestWinds Press, an imprint of Graphic Arts Center Publishing

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