A casual exploration of downtown Seattle
by Mary Vermillion
In 1851, when the 22 members of the Denny Party arrived at Elliott Bay on the shores of the future city of Seattle, they set in motion a series of booms and busts that continue today. And while current changes may seem overwhelming, a Seattle city tour from the seat of a bicycle or on foot is the perfect way to keep it all in perspective.
“One of the aspects of Seattle history that makes it nice is that it’s relatively short. Post-settlement, the story is only 170 years old,” says writer David B. Williams. Because the city has preserved landmarks, “We can still see and feel our early history,” Williams adds.
One of the aspects of Seattle history that makes it nice is that it’s relatively short. Post-settlement, the story is only 170 years old." David B. Williams
Bicycle tours provide a great overview
As guests on his small group tours pedal comfortable city commuter bikes, Scheak shares tales of Seattle’s past, including its arguably oldest skyscraper Smith Tower (built in 1914), which today has historical exhibitions in its lobby and an observatory and speakeasy-style bar on the 35th floor; transportation hub King Street Station. (built between 1904 and 1906) – its soaring clock tower provided a standard of time for early Seattleites; and more contemporary landmarks such as the Space Needle., which was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and is currently undergoing a $100 million remodel.
“On a bike tour, you can see a lot of stuff in a short period of time and talk to someone who knows the city,” he says. And, he adds with a knowing grin, “in Pioneer Square, chances are people on the street will start talking to us and sharing their perspectives, too.”
Scheak loves sharing the history of his city with visitors and new
residents. “I look forward every season to the surprises that will
unfold … and that there are always new variables that I could never
imagine happening, happening.” Sort of like Seattle itself.
Walking tours are also a great way to see the sights
Walking is also a great way to see the city. “… you’re moving at a slow pace that allows you to stop and look and observe things that you just can’t otherwise see,” Williams says.
Walking or pedaling through Pioneer Square, near where the Denny Party arrived and home of the city’s first “downtown,” may be the best way to sense Seattle’s past. Pioneer Square includes a tribute to Chief Seattle, the Suquamish tribal leader for whom the city is named.
The smaller scale of the terracotta and brick Romanesque revival buildings provide a gracious contrast to the soaring heights of downtown’s modern office towers. Once again, it’s helpful to know the history. “Up until 1911, the earliest buildings had no steel infrastructure,” Williams says. “The big stones are holding up buildings. These substantial buildings also conveyed a message to people in the late 1890s that they were building a city to make it into a bigger place. It gave people encouragement to move here, to invest here.”
If you go: Check schedules and book Seattle Cycling Tours in advance at their online site. Custom tours are also available. Cyclists need moderate experience and fitness levels. Riders must be 12 or older. Tours depart from Pike Street near the Washington State Convention Center. David B. Williams leads occasional group walking tours. Learn more at his website.