This is one of an occasional series of essays commemorating the centennial of the Ballard Locks and the Ship Canal. Guest blogger Nancy Dulaney of the Rainier Valley Historical Society gives us an overview of the South Canal, an alternative vision of the Ship Canal, and of the Wetmore Slough in Southeast Seattle, what it was, what it could have been, and what it is today. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Rainier Valley Heritage News (Spring 2016).
Detail from Guide of Seattle, Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, 1895. Image courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections.
In the summer of 1916 Lake Washington was lowered by about nine feet as the sluice gates on the east end of the newly completed Montlake Cut were opened and the lake waters flowed westward.
Southeast Seattle has its own special part in the ship canal story. Long before Seattle’s pioneers first arrived, the Duwamish people were canoeing on Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Lake Sammamish, as well as the inland river systems. By the 1860s larger European-American shallow boats and barges passed from Lake Washington to Elliott Bay via the Black River at the south end of the lake, with some portage required as water levels demanded. A man-made connected waterway between Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound was attempted in various fits and starts, agreements and disagreements, commencements and abandonments. By the 1870s, the U.S. Navy proposed a shipyard be built on Lake Washington, and Seattle city planners and the surrounding coal and logging industries quickly joined in the call to action.
Not everybody agreed on what exactly that action should be, however.
"Mud will Fly!"On July 29, 1895, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed “mud will fly, whistles will blow, the people will shout and the South canal will be fairly commenced.” The next day former Washington Territorial Governor Eugene Semple started dredging the proposed two-mile waterway and canal project with the financial backing of St. Louis investors and local subscribers. The planned route was from the mouth of the Duwamish River through Beacon Hill just north of Spokane Street and eastward towards Wetmore Slough at the western shore of Lake Washington. Earthen material removed was used as fill in Elliott Bay tideflats to create new real estate – think SODO and Harbor Island. Beset with legal battles and financial problems the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company project was halted and by 1904 the northern route for the locks and ship canal, eight miles long from Salmon Bay to Lake Washington, became favored and funded.
Perhaps the single most noteworthy legacy of Semple’s drive for tidelands reclamation and harbor improvements left to Southeast Seattle was the future site of the Interstate-5 exit 163A, Columbian Way, as the dirt washed away by the water cannons had left a sizable cut in the slope of the west side of Beacon Hill.
Frank Wetmore (1856-1931), second son of Seattle pioneers Seymour and Anna Wetmore. Image courtesy of Rainier Valley Historical Society, Accession #1996.0026.0011.
"The Unsightly Slough"In its own backyard, Wetmore Slough as a place-name has mostly gone by the wayside, supplanted by Genesee (Park and Playfield) over the years. As for the slough’s namesake, Seymour Wetmore, he and his wife Anna and family homesteaded 160 acres just north of Columbia City along what later became Rainier Avenue and east to Lake Washington in about 1870. He and his sons Birdsey and Frank farmed the land and claimed to have produced 6‑1/2 tons of well cured hay on one acre in 1876. Much of the land was at least seasonally inundated with water, particularly before the lowering of the lake.
For a first-hand account of the lay of the land before Lake Washington was lowered, we can look to Columbia City native John Parker in his oral history collected by RVHS in the 1990s:
Wetmore Slough, from Genesee Street, was a swamp. It was full of big water willows and it always had water in there, summer and winter, because the crick that came down through where the Columbia Library is, went across the Columbia Playfield and joined another crick that came down from Franklin High School and then went out across Wetmore Slough and to Lake Washington. Everybody had outdoor toilets, of course, but later on, as the population grew, this crick became an open sewer and it dumped right in to where the Stan Sayres pits are for the Gold Cup races. When I was a boy, when you left Genesee Street that was a lake. And Nick Nelson had a lumber yard right across the road from Frogner’s Store, which was on Genesee…and it was right on 43rd South. And that, believe it or not, was water! Tugs used to bring in lumber from Taylor’s Mill and they’d land at a dock, just like they would in Seattle Harbor, and it was deep enough water that a tug could get in there. (RVHS oral history)
Lakewood Grocery, 1937. Original proprietors Iona and Charles Frogner in about 1911. Rear of grocery built on stilts. In the late 1930s, neighborhood kids stopped in what was then Art and Grace Thompson's store for malted milk balls and bubble gum in between running along the Wetmore Slough sewer line pipes. One wrong step and into the swamp you go! Image courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Archives.
Lake Washington Boulevard trestle over Wetmore Slough, 1913. Image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, #29548.
This bridge fell into disrepair in the 1920s and in 1928 Rainier District businessmen proposed to dredge a 200‑foot wide, 2,000‑foot long canal south from Lake Washington to Genesee Street to permit Columbia City to become a seaport town, welcoming ocean-going vessels to its (new) shores. The Genesee Improvement Club reasoned that dredging would be cheaper than obtaining fill dirt and the time was ripe for the sanitary improvement of the stagnant swamp which acted as a mosquito incubator. (Seattle Daily Times, 3/29/1928). In 1915, the Rainier Valley Citizen had written of a similar proposal -- to dredge the slough to accommodate the large ocean-going steamers the ship canal would bring. Think back to yesteryear’s visionaries and just imagine, if Columbia City was a port of call to the cruise ships of today!
For some reason or another, the seaport project failed to get sufficient traction; instead, the wetlands (a.k.a. “the unsightly slough”) continued to be filled with dirt. By 1937 the trestle bridge no longer spanned water and was demolished by WPA workers. Additional fill material was provided by municipal garbage between about 1945 and 1963, much to the chagrin of neighboring residents. What had once been waterfront property became a sensory overload of rats and seagulls, steamy fumes, rotting vegetable matter, flies, and garbage fires. To add insult to injury, the Rainier Valley Dump drainage polluted the lake, curtailing summer swimming and forming a cause for later community activists.
Park and Playfield Developments
The Rainier Field House recreation center was begun in 1928 and with the passage of the 1948 Park Bond came funds to complete it. In 1957, at the mouth of the former Wetmore Slough, Stan Sayres Memorial Park was crafted out of land which had surfaced back when the lake was lowered, where the H1 Unlimited hydroplanes race for the Seafair Gold Cup each summer. The passage of Seattle’s Forward Thrust bond measure brought recreational improvements to the former slough area, now the 57‑acre Genesee Park and Playfield, in the late 1960s. Two of four planned tennis courts were built ;the fill had yet to settle. Volunteers began work on the Arnold Sadler fitness course in 1979. In the early 1980s over $800,000 was planned for improvements. An off-leash dog park and a new community center were created in the 1990s. 21st century park improvements totaling over $2.1 million thus far include synthetic turf for soccer and lacrosse fields and stadium style lights over the previous garbage landfill.
A 1984 Seattle-King County Department of Health report on abandoned landfills, in which Genesee (Rainier valley) was one of the sites studied, notes: “The fill has areas where the ground surface over the past 65 years has been raised approximately 50 feet.” We venture to guess Seymour Wetmore wouldn’t recognize the place!
Aerial of Genesee Park area, courtesy Seattle Parks and Recreation. The Stan Sayres Pits are at the top on the north end of the park. The intersection at the lower left hand corner is where Rainier Avenue meets Alaska Street and, just to the east, is where where Genesee Park meets Rainier Playfield.
Nancy Dulaney, Rainier Valley Historical Society