“Skid Road” came into the English language because a Seattle founder named Henry Yesler built a sawmill on the Puget Sound shore and used horse teams to pull old growth fir trees down an ancient native American footpath to the front door of his mill. Soon, the road that led to Yesler’s mill became home to rickety buildings lived in by the out-of-plumb citizens drunks, prostitutes, miners, gamblers, cutthroat businessmen and people so shattered by where and how they lived that they could only stare straight ahead. If you saw the HBO Series Deadwood, you saw Seattle in the 1860s and 1870s.
And then it all burned down on one summer afternoon in 1889. Without bothering to clear away much of the debris, Seattle’s people built it back within a year, this time with fireproof brick for the buildings, stone streets and an anti-recessionary event called the Alaska Gold Rush. As it is today, Seattle then was the fastest growing city in the United States. It doubled in population between 1890 and 1900 and doubled again the following decade. This occurred, in part, because people felt they could make a buck in Seattle without paying the full price of admission, by cutting timber, fishing, mining or by just taking it without the consent of the holder. Also, the fire prodded the city to invest in a splendid water system and one of the earliest electricity systems, leading, of course, to a miles of unrivaled electric trolley track. These investments, impossible for the smaller, nearby towns, made their natural rivalries with Seattle disappear and they happily annexed to the growing giant.
Our tour will walk by Pioneer Square’s rising and falling narrative, as it somehow fends off the parking lots and cars, redlining policies of lenders, blight and despair as the suburbs rise. Still, most of the buildings make it through and, at the end of a bad patch, something good happens, as it is happening now, as the food, sports complexes, and technology businesses push the urban heat up and up and all of a sudden they’re building hotels in the square and young workers are moving into new condos built on the parking lots of the Fifties.
We will pass by and see some beautifully restored buildings designed in the Second Renaissance-Revival, Beaux-Arts Classical, and Richardsonian-Romanesque styles, the century-old pergola, the square’s public parks and cutting-edge contemporary art installations but our story remains the core story of this place: a neighborhood situated by an historic, even ancient roadway that just can’t stop becoming itself.