Duwamish: The River Seattle Forgot


BJ Cumming’s 2020 book, The River that Made Seattle, might better have been titled, The River that Seattle Forgot. The book is a valuable history lesson that examines in fresh ways the Duwamish River and the north-south fault lines of Seattle’s history.

Seattle, unlike most American cities, is not a river-mouth city, located (like Portland and St. Louis) at the mouth of a major river that drains a resource hinterland. Seattle’s forgotten Duwamish River drains a short and forested land on this side of the Cascade Mountains. Many cities competed to be the major city on Puget Sound, usually building a sawmill at a river mouth. Seattle (like Boston) looked to international trade in lumber, coal, and fish, meanwhile turning the river into industrial land and dramatically cutting off its drainage.

The first settlers, arriving a few months before the famous Denny Party landed at Alki in 1851, settled upriver and developed orchards, hops, timbering, and coal. Those settlers (the Maples, van Assalts, and Luther Collins) quickly faded from local history, as did the river resources. The same story is told in this fine book about the Native Duwamish Tribe, who named the river and “Lake Duwamish” (as Lake Washington was once called), and who were cruelly treated by the white settlers the tribes invited in and whose chief became the name for the city. (When Chief Seattle died in 1866, no local paper carried the news.) 

The Duwamish Tribe, including Chief Seattle’s mother, gambled that the white settlers would mostly want to trade, not settle and displace them. Chief Seattle envisioned a cross-cultural society that soon was displaced by land hunger and the desire to build (and cash in on) a major city. The Duwamish, whose main village was at the south outlet of Lake Washington, were denied a reservation in their homeland, since the area was coveted by white settlers for its coal and farmland. That decision to stiff the Duwamish Tribe, which might be called Seattle’s original sin, is still unclear as to its rationale and perpetrators.

The Cummings book also explores a second aspect of the north-south dividing line that helps define local history. More than a century ago, two economic interests faced off over efforts to connect Puget Sound with Lake Washington. Heading the northern route (the ship canal of today) were railroad interests led by Judge Thomas Burke and Republicans. The advocate for the southerly canal, a 300-foot cut in Beacon Hill, was Democrat Eugene Semple, who had been appointed governor prior to statehood in 1889. That gash in the hillside was used to fill the flatland of the meandering delta of the Duwamish.

What defeated the Semple canal was a desire to reduce flooding of the Duwamish Valley. Elaborate geographic engineering did the trick. One river flowing into the Duwamish, the White (flowing from Mt. Rainier’s main glacier), was diverted south to Tacoma’s Puyallup River. Another, the Cedar, was diverted north to flow into Lake Washington. That lake used to drain at the south end into the (now defunct) Black River near Renton, flowing into the Duwamish and creating a very large drainage area. Instead, the whole drainage system was cut by three-quarters, rather than developing the large Duwamish basin. And the delta of the Duwamish was turned into a polluted industrial waterway, its meanders filled and its main stem dredged.

The result was to turn the Duwamish into a highly toxic river, whose pcb’s now spread via salmon to orcas to the entire Sound. That historic turn leads to the main narrative of the Cummings book (one in which the author played a leading activist role) of attempting to clean up the river, whose salmon had provided an economic mainstay for centuries. It’s an epic task. Among those fighting the cleanup were Boeing (now an ally of cleanup), various industries, Metro, King County, and business interests determined to create flat industrial land in the river delta. One key obstacle was discovering remains of a native village in one of the delta meanders. Another was the political alliance of Native organizations with the salmon issue and fishing interests. And there are unsung, unlikely heroes in the long effort: NOAA, Judge George Boldt, U.S. Attorney Stan Pitkin, and a stubborn South Park activist named John Beal.

The book, published by UW Press, is one long effort at paying attention to a side of Seattle history that is mostly forgotten or swept into oblivion. BJ Cummings writes: “Given [Gov.] Semple’s singular role in achieving these ends [securing Seattle’s industrial lands], it is curious that his name is not more prominently memorialized in Seattle today. Just as the influence of Collins, Maple, and Van Asselt as the city’s first settlers is often neglected, Semple’s role in transforming the Duwamish River into Seattle’s industrial powerhouse is commonly overlooked in our ‘founding stories.'”

And so, historic justice is accomplished by this book. A tougher question is whether the restoration of the neglected river is possible, and whether there could have been other paths taken. As is typical in Seattle’s idealistic crusades, many conflicting goals are layered on (and many independent voices are at the table) so the odds for success grow long. To be fair, many good things (such as Superfund designation) have happened. But the stubborn fact remains that, having created an industrial river, can that outcome be meshed with environmental justice, health, equity issues (such as avoiding displacement), and doing justice to tiny forgotten settlements such as South Park? It’s a tall order, which the author minimizes.

I ended up reading this illuminating book hoping for more pragmatism and broad-based benefits (as in the story of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal in D.C., an urban walker’s wonderland) in our neglected founding river. But it’s a familiar, frustrating Seattle story. Destroy a natural treasure and then try like Humpty Dumpty to put the political pieces back together again.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. Thanks David for introducing Ms. Cumming’s groundbreaking book to readers. She unravels the troubled and overlooked history of Seattle’s river and the daunting clean up now as well as efforts to assure equity and environmental Justice for the surrounding community. It’s heartening that the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition with the leadership of Paulina Lopez is making strides in improving the health and safety of South Park and environs. And Ms Cummings, in addition to her illuminating book, is an environmental activist in her own right who is a founder of the DRCC as well as Sustainable Seattle, among other achievements.

  2. During the pandemic, I rediscovered the joy of hiking by oneself.
    And found the Duwamish People’s Park. Hidden behind some little houses (wonderful places, with neighbors in their front yard talking together), and on the other side, a mass of Pure Industrial, this park provides hope that the river can be restored, that the Duwamish Tribe can regain the recognition they deserve. It’s a beautiful area, soaked in history.
    Visit this park!

  3. This is a book that we all should have on our bookshelves: A great historical account of the missteps taken in the river’s redevelopment and the attempts to mitigate. I well remember one blustery, snowy day when we were pulling nonnative blackberry vines from alongside the river and another when, as councilmembers, we kayaked the Duwamish from Tukwila to Harbor Island to survey the superfund and cleanup sites. A never ending but worthy exercise.


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