Seattle: History

Illinois Farmers Build Sawmills in Seattle

The original inhabitants of the region surrounding the site of present-day Seattle were the Suquamish tribe. Their chief, Sealth, befriended a group of Illinois farmers who settled in the area in 1851. These settlers, the first people of European descent to arrive north of the Columbia River, had established a town at Alki Point on Elliott Bay then moved to the location of present-day Pioneer Square. They named their new town Seattle in gratitude to Chief Sealth.

Finding an abundant lumber resource in the rich forests, the settlers set up sawmills for the preparation of logs for export to San Francisco, where the 1849 gold rush had generated a building boom. By 1853 the lumber industry was thriving in the area, and for several years it provided the sole economic base of Seattle, which was incorporated in 1869.

City Rebuilds After Fire; Becomes Commercial Center

In 1889 a great fire, ignited by a flaming glue pot in a print shop, destroyed the entire business district, consuming sixty blocks. Damaged wood-frame buildings were replaced by masonry structures on a higher elevation than the original storefronts, resulting in the creation of an underground city that is a popular tourist attraction in modern Seattle. The city recovered fairly quickly from the setback caused by the fire.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century Seattle became a rail and maritime commercial center when the Great Northern Railroad reached town and the city was selected by a major shipping line as the port of entry for trade with the Orient. The Alaska gold rush brought further growth and development, and Seattle, dubbed the "gateway to the Klondike," increased in population from 56,842 people in 1897 to 80,600 people in 1900. Prosperity continued and within the next decade the population grew to 240,000 residents.

Rise of Aerospace Industry; World's Fair Brings Tourists

Seattle's aerospace industry began when a small local firm that became the Boeing Company—now the world's foremost manufacturer of jet aircraft and spacecraft—started making two-seater biplanes in 1916. The shipping and aircraft industries continued to play an important role in the city's economy during both world wars and into the 1960s.

The Seattle World's Fair in 1962 brought new economic dimensions to the region, establishing Seattle as a tourist and entertainment center. As a result of the reduction of federal support for aerospace projects in the 1970s, the city's reliance on the aircraft industry shifted to development of its position as a transportation hub in the international market. Since 1975 Seattle has undergone renewed economic expansion to become the financial, industrial, and trade center for the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle made international headlines in 1999 when the city played host to the World Trade Organization meeting. Forty thousand demonstrators gathered to protest globalization; city leaders had hoped that the summit would showcase Seattle as a world-class friend to free trade. The event highlighted the tension between those who liked the new high-tech, high-wealth Seattle and those who believed that Seattle is losing its small-town charm.

Today, Seattle is a hotbed of activity in the Pacific Northwest. Located just two hours south of Vancouver, Canada, the city of Seattle is an international port that boasts several professional sports teams, hundreds of restaurants, a myriad of cultural venues, and a lifestyle that is unique to the Pacific Northwest.