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Regrading in Seattle

The topography of central Seattle was radically altered by a series of regrades in the city's first century of urban settlement, in what might have been the largest such alteration of urban terrain at the time1

The heart of Seattle, largest city in the state of Washington, is on an isthmus between the city's chief harbor—the saltwater Elliott Bay an inlet of Puget Sound—and the fresh water of Lake Washington Capitol Hill, First Hill, and Beacon Hill collectively constitute a ridge along this isthmus In addition, at the time the city was founded, the steep Denny Hill stood in the area now known as Belltown or the Denny Regrade

When white settlers first came to Seattle in the early 1850s, the tides of Elliott Bay lapped at the base of Beacon Hill2 The original location of the settlement that became Seattle—today's Pioneer Square—was a low-lying island A series of regrades leveled paths for roads, demolished Denny Hill, and turned much of Jackson Hill a remnant of which remains along Main Street in the International District into a near-canyon between First and Beacon Hills The roughly 50,000,000 short tons 45,400,000 t of earth from these 60 regrades1 provided landfill for the city's waterfront and the industrial/commercial neighborhood now known as SoDo, and built Harbor Island, at the time the largest man-made island in the world


  • 1 The early years
  • 2 Cutting through Beacon Hill
  • 3 The Denny Regrade
  • 4 Notes
  • 5 References
  • 6 Further reading

The early yearsedit

Railroad Avenue, today's Alaskan Way, depicted here in 1900, was built on fill from the early regrades To the right in this picture, casting shadows, are the wharves of the Central Waterfront

Seattle's first 58 regrades "consisted largely of cutting the tops off high places and dumping the dirt into low places and onto the beach"3 The most dramatic result of this was along that former beach, filling the land that constitutes today's Central Waterfront Today's Western Avenue and Alaskan Way lie on this landfill3

These informal regrades came to an end around 1900; later regrades typically required changes to areas that had already undergone some development City engineer RH Thomson established his prestige in 1900 He successfully provided the city with ample fresh water by running a pipeline from the Cedar River He then undertook to level the extreme hills that rose south and north of the bustling city center

Cutting through Beacon Hilledit

Looking south from Pine Street on the south slope of Denny Hill, 1880 The wide bay at the foot of Beacon Hill is now the location of the SoDo neighborhood The Dearborn Regrade in progress, 1912 Looking west, towards the 12th Avenue South Bridge / Jose P Rizal Bridge, constructed the previous year

The first, unsuccessful, attempt to pierce the Capitol Hill – First Hill – Beacon Hill ridge came at the end of this era of informal regrades In 1895, former territorial governor Eugene Semple 1840–1908 proposed several ambitious plans to reengineer Seattle One of these, which he undertook in 1901, was to dig a canal from Elliott Bay to Lake Washington by cutting through Beacon Hill4 in roughly the area of Spokane Street,2 sluicing earth into the tide flats His effort was defeated by unstable soils, which caused several cave-ins, and by the legal and political maneuvering of Judge Thomas Burke and others aligned with the Great Northern Railway The Lake Washington Ship Canal ultimately followed the route north of downtown favored by Burke,5 utilizing existing lakes and bays4 Semple left behind a canyon that is now used by the Spokane Street interchange on Interstate 52

Thomson resumed the work of cutting through Beacon Hill to connect central Seattle to the Rainier Valley, the first of his major regrades,4 but he made his cut farther north The Jackson Regrade between 1907 and 1910 slashed 85 feet 259 m from the hill,3 requiring the demolition of the public South School and the original Holy Names Academy2 but providing fill for the tide flats below Beacon Hill that stretched south from King Street, filling in today's SoDo Jackson Street became a slow slope upward from Elliott Bay in the west to the Central District east of the Capitol Hill – First Hill – Beacon Hill ridge3

Shortly afterward, just south of the Jackson Regrade, the Dearborn Street Regrade made an even deeper cut through the ridge In one place, the level of the land was lowered by 108 feet 329 m; 1,600,000 cubic yards 1,223,288 m3 of earth were moved6 As with Semple's abandoned canal, there were several landslides, and many homes were destroyed that were not originally planned to be removed2

The resulting gap at Dearborn Street was deep enough to require a bridge running roughly north-south Originally known as the 12th Avenue South Bridge and now known as the Jose P Rizal Bridge, it is now on the National Register of Historic Places

The Denny Regradeedit

A postcard shows the Washington Hotel atop Denny Hill before Denny Regrade No 1 and the New Washington Hotel the dark building in the lower picture, now the Josephinum built on the newly leveled land The 1884 Denny School depicted here in 1900 on Battery Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues was demolished in 1928, one of many major buildings demolished as part of Denny Regrade No 2

The Denny Regrade began before the Jackson and Dearborn Regrades, but the last stage was not completed until decades later Before regrading, the much-admired Denny School7 and the upmarket Washington Hotel stood atop the hill,8 along with numerous residential buildings9

Although in retrospect it is referred to as the Denny Regrade and the name has become the name of a neighborhood, there were, in fact, several separate regrades of the former Denny Hill, beginning with private-sector efforts Around 1900, property owners along relatively low-lying First Avenue took it upon themselves to cut through from Pike Street to Cedar Street A similar cut but initiated by the City lowered Second Avenue in 1904; around the same time, the south part of the hill was shaved off as Pike and Pine Streets were regraded between Second and Fifth Avenues6

The more dramatic Denny Regrade No 1 1908–1911 sluiced away the entire half of the hill closest to the waterfront, about 27 city blocks extending from Pine Street to Cedar Street and from Second to Fifth Avenues 20,000,000 US gallons 75,708 kl of water a day were pumped from Lake Union, to be aimed at the hill as jets of water, then run through tunnels to Elliott Bay6

Much of the motivation for the regrade had been to increase land values, but the area opened up—the heart of today's Belltown—was left as a strip cut off from much of the rest of the city by the remaining eastern half of the hill, whose western face offered no route of approach Meanwhile, property-owners and investors hesitated to build on the remaining portion of the hill, because they considered it likely that their buildings would eventually be destroyed in the next phase of the regrading process, which was now well under way6

The result was Denny Regrade No 2, begun in February 1929 and lasting 22 months This time, the technology was power shovels rather than sluicing, with earth carried to the waterfront by conveyor belts, then placed on specially designed scows and dumped in deep water6 The scows were intentionally designed to capsize in a controlled manner They were symmetrical top-to-bottom and side to side; a seacock could be opened to fill one side with water In three minutes it would capsize, dump its load, bob up, empty the tank, and right itself10

One of the buildings demolished in Denny Regrade No 2 was the Denny School on Battery Street between 5th and 6th Avenues Opened in 1884, it had been described as "an architectural jewel the finest schoolhouse on the West Coast"7

While the 38 blocks were being regraded, the country entered the Great Depression, radically reducing the demand for land Most of the new lots sat vacant into the 1940s;1 the area especially east of Sixth Avenue remained a "gray zone" into the early 21st century, when it finally began to gain an urban or suburban identity as the west edge of the new growth of South Lake Union


  1. ^ a b c Peterson & Davenport 1950, p 44
  2. ^ a b c d e Merrell & Latoszek 2003, p 15
  3. ^ a b c d Peterson & Davenport 1950, p 41
  4. ^ a b c David Wilma, Seattle Neighborhoods: Beacon Hill – Thumbnail History, HistoryLink, February 21, 2001 Accessed 8 December 2007
  5. ^ Berner 1991, pp 17–18
  6. ^ a b c d e Peterson & Davenport 1950, p 42
  7. ^ a b Denny in Nile Thompson and Carolyn Marr 2002, Building for learning – Seattle Public Schools Histories, 1862–2000, Seattle: Seattle Public Schools Accessed online 9 December 2007 Apparently no ISBN Available online as a series of PDFs
  8. ^ Paul Dorpat, Seattle's Denny/Washington Hotel, HistoryLink, February 20, 2001 Accessed online 7 October 2007
  9. ^ See, for example, the blocks between Virginia and Lenora Streets and between Second and Fourth Avenues on Map 209, Insurance Maps of Seattle, Volume Two 1905, Sanborn Map Company, 11 Broadway, New York Reproduced in the "Digital Sanborn Maps 1867–1970" online subscription database; a JPEG of the map is at File:Sanborn Seattle 1905 - map 209jpg
  10. ^ Peterson & Davenport 1950, pp 42–43


  • Berner, Richard C 1991 Seattle 1900–1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration Seattle: Charles Press ISBN 978-0-9629889-0-5 
  • Merrell, Frederica; Latoszek, Mira 2003 Seattle's Beacon Hill Arcadia Publishing ISBN 978-0-7385-2861-8 
  • Peterson, Lorin; Davenport, Noah C 1950 Living in Seattle Seattle: Seattle Public Schools 

Further readingedit

  • Emerald City: an environmental history of Seattle, Klingle, Matthew W, Yale University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-300-11641-0

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