European settlers first discovered the Waterfront’s future site in May 1792, but did not start developing the muddy shores until sixty years later. The Waterfront of pioneer Seattle consisted of tidal flats edged by forests where Salish natives fished, hunted and gathered shellfish.
Seattle’s modern history began in 1852 when Henry Yesler developed piers along the Waterfront near Piner’s Point – today’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. The area soon became the center of the business district where merchants loaded coal, grain and timber into masted ships and steamers to be sent around the world – fueling maritime commerce and energizing the growth that would create present day Seattle.
Seattle’s population had risen to 40,000 when in June 1889, the “Great Fire” ravaged the Waterfront and 50 blocks of Downtown Seattle. Reconstruction was swift, however, and the piers were rebuilt and their number increased within one year.
In July of 1897, the steamship Portland arrived at Schwabacher’s Wharf – now Waterfront Park. The crew on board claimed they carried “more than a ton of solid gold” from the banks of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. This marked the two-year Klondike Gold Rush that made Seattle the “Gateway to Alaska” and established an era of prosperity in King County that lasted more than a decade.
King County voters created the Port of Seattle in 1911 to direct power away from growing railroad and shipping monopolies and instead guide harbor development in the public’s interest. In the 1960s, the Port of Seattle’s commitment to handling containerized cargo caused modern-day Seattle to rank as the West Coast’s second busiest port and the fourth most active in the nation.
The 1970s marked the Waterfront’s venture into recreational development. Many of the pier sheds were converted into shops and restaurants and many attractions were developed including Myrtle Edwards Park, Waterfront Park, and the Seattle Aquarium. In 1982, these attractions were linked together by transportation options like the Waterfront Streetcar.
Development continued to accelerate into the 1990s with the implementation of a new urban design for the Waterfront along with the construction of the Port of Seattle’s modern headquarters at Pier 69. By 2000, it began to serve Alaska-bound cruises with the opening of its Bell Street Pier cruise terminal.
In recent years, new condominiums, the Seattle Marriott Waterfront Hotel, World Trade Center, an expansion of the Seattle Aquarium and the development of the Olympic Sculpture Park have also been completed. The Downtown Seattle Waterfront has undergone a profound transition from frontier anchorage to international port in a mere century and a half – and the pace continues to accelerate.