I’ve lived on a hill above the Duwamish River for most of my 25 years in Seattle–I can even see it when the trees are bare–and yet I never really knew much about it. I’d gleaned a bit here and there from the Duwamish Longhouse and the bulletins from the EPA (both entities featuring heavily in this history), and from volunteering for Nature Consortium and Duwamish Alive!, but that was about it.
What elicited my interest in learning more was a map of Seattle I found during a cleanup project at the library where I work. The map is from 1908 and shows the Duwamish River before it was straightened and dredged to make room for shipping and industrial operations. B.J. Cummings’s book details what happened to the river before and since, and how it’s inextricably woven into the shaping of the city of Seattle from its early years up to the present day–to say nothing of the effects of both of these things on the indigenous people of the region, to whom the river has been literally a source of life.
It’s also one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Seattle has made much of its environmental friendliness and commitment to sustainability, and the number of people I meet who are unaware that Seattle has a river, let alone that it’s hazardous to eat fish out of it, used to surprise me. (These kinds of things no longer surprise me, but that’s another post.) The River That Made Seattle is a history of the city through a particular lens, the lens of a river to which the city owes much of its prosperity–but at considerable human and environmental cost.
My own relationship with the river has been little more than that of most of the city’s residents for most of my time here: the indirect benefit of its shipping traffic and intersection with truck and rail cargo; an obstacle to be crossed when going in and out of West Seattle (which has been considerably more challenging this past year, for reasons I’ve already written about); something that I’ve felt vaguely bad about, especially when those EPA bulletins started arriving in my mailbox, detailing the pollution of the river and what would need to be done to clean it up.
That relationship began to change before Cummings’s book came out, in part due to other efforts she’s been involved in, but The River That Made Seattle shows how the entire city’s relationship to the river can–and arguably must–change. It’s a worthwhile start not only to understanding the importance of the Duwamish River to Seattle’s history, but why its cleanup is a matter not only of good stewardship, but of justice.