Newcomers to Seattle might have a hard time naming the wide river that runs from the Cascades to Elliott Bay. They might not even know it’s there, even having crossed it on the First Avenue South or West Seattle Bridges — when the latter was operational. Unlike Lake Washington or Puget Sound, the Duwamish River is not a place many people visit if they don’t have to. Opportunities for kayaking, swimming or paddle boarding are limited. Fishing is chancy; signs warn that consumption of fish from the river should be limited because of bottom contamination.
Yet, as author BJ Cummings puts it, the Duwamish is “the river that built Seattle.” The river was an important part of indigenous culture long before white settlers arrived in the mid-19th century — it drained the west side of the Cascades from the Sunrise area at Mount Rainier north almost all the way to Snoqualmie Pass, and channeled water from Lake Washington as well, supporting numerous villages and major salmon runs.
Seattle’s location was chosen in part because the river provided good access into the Puget Sound interior, a source of lumber for building San Francisco, fish for canning, land for agriculture and coal mines to provide power. Over the years, the river was straightened to increase the size of the harbor for ocean-going ships, and its remnant bends were filled to create land for industry. A never-completed canal to Lake Washington through Beacon Hill provided fill dirt for building more industrial space at Harbor Island, the largest human-made island in the world at the time. When the present Ship Canal was completed, it took Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish out of the river’s northern drainage, and a flood-caused logjam on the White River took that watercourse out of the Duwamish’s southern drainage; that change was made permanent to prevent more flooding, as King County sent armed guards to keep Pierce County farmers from dynamiting the logjam and moving the drainage back.
Cummings does a good job of describing the villages and life before the white settlers arrived, though sometimes her narrative gets lost in the details of Duwamish Indian lineages, and she barely touches on the evocative creation myth about the bedrock hills in the valley. But she makes the point that the Duwamish Indians — the group that welcomed white settlers to Seattle and provided much of the labor in the early history of the town — were officially excluded from living in the city, though some of them never left to live on reservations in the upper watershed or across Puget Sound, and continued to supplement wage labor with traditional fishing.
The Duwamish River went from being a source of food and agricultural fertility to functioning as a domesticated ship canal, its salmon runs declining from pollution as much as overfishing, shipbuilding, concrete and asphalt production and, of course, the first Boeing plant. Industry not only filled and paved over the once-fertile valley, but it dumped thousands of barrels of toxic chemicals, sometimes using an abandoned coal mine in the watershed, and sometimes pouring chemicals directly into the water. In 2001 the river became a Superfund site, as investigators found unbelievable levels of pollution. For example, the PCB level across from houses in South Park was almost 10,000 times the EPA limit for residential use.
This is the subject of the rest of the book. Cummings was the founder of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Getting Boeing and other corporations to step up and commit to bring levels down to the point where someday people living along the river might safely eat fish and live without fear of cancer. It was a decades-long struggle, involving the Duwamish tribe and immigrants and people of color living in the relatively inexpensive neighborhoods along the river. It’s only been in the past few years that a plan has been agreed to for doing the cleanup.
The book could include more discussion about communities like South Park and Delridge along the river banks; unlike the chapters about the Duwamish tribe, the chapters covering the 20th century are more about the damage done to the river than the stories of the people who lived and worked along it; other than the South Park neighborhood, post-settlement communities along the river are barely mentioned.
To some extent Cummings seems to be trying to make up for this near the end of the book by including a long description of the various community and cultural groups involved with improving the Duwamish and its surroundings in the present day — but because there isn’t much about their history, it feels more like an attempt at being inclusive rather than a cohesive discussion. The book could also benefit from more maps, identifying the numerous places and stories that are discussed, as a way of bringing home to the Seattle reader the background of the places they see as they drive, bike or walk over or past them.
Still, “The River That Made Seattle” is a good introduction to the river and its history. If the river is a blank spot in your mental map of Seattle, this is the place to start.
Read more in the June 17-23, 2020 issue.