Did you know the hills of Seattle used to be steeper than the hills of San Francisco? During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immense projects using water cannons washed dirt down from the tops of the hills. More earth was moved in these projects than in the digging of the Panama Canal.
Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams chronicles these projects in fascinating detail. Of course, the houses and other buildings on these hills had to be moved. The cover shows the “spite hills.” These were what were left partway through the project, when people were refusing to leave.
This is one of a number of real photos of the hills
The height of those leftover hills show the original height of that part of Seattle. For you locals, if you’ve ever puzzled over the term “Denny Regrade,” that’s where the term came from: Denny Hill in Seattle was regraded more than once. From the tallest point of the original Denny Hill, over one hundred feet has been removed.
Where did the dirt go? It was dumped into Elliott Bay, part of Puget Sound. Part of it makes up the land between Seattle and West Seattle. As you can imagine, geologists are concerned about that land slumping into Elliott Bay during an earthquake.
If you’re not familiar with Lake Union, it’s a sizable lake inside Seattle. It used to be landlocked. Canals were dug connecting it to Lake Washington to the east and Puget Sound to the west. When that happened, Lake Washington lowered dramatically. If you’ve ever shopped in University Village, it used to be underwater. Sand Point, which had a Naval base for a long time, roughly doubled in size. And people realized there was a nice beach on the Eastside suburbs of the lake, named it Juanita Beach, and tourists flocked there (though it is now part of Kirkland).
Back to flushing dirt off the Seattle hills. Was it worth it, to force those people out of their homes, to have this massive government project to lower the hills, and to dump the dirt into Elliott Bay? David B. Williams says no. Private enterprise, in the form of the motorcar becoming more common, would have made transportation on the hills fairly easy.
So it was a huge government boondoggle. We have something similar going on now, with massive tunnels being dug beneath Seattle for commuter trains, a project that is way behind time and massively over budget, though the private enterprise solutions of Uber and driverless cars are rendering that project obsolete. But that is another story.