Seattle has always wanted to be San Francisco.
This historical contention explains much of the collective behavior — cultural, municipal, and political — of the citizenry of Seattle during the first century-and-a-half of its existence. Nevertheless, although Seattle depended heavily on San Francisco during the younger city’s formative years, there were in fact several strong municipal reciprocities between the two sibling cities during that crucial historical time.
These reciprocities began with the lumber trade. Many of San Francisco’s famous historic buildings were built with lumber sourced from trees harvested from the Duwamish land where Seattle was established during the 1850s — the decade of the California Gold Rush and the decade of Seattle’s first toddling municipal steps. In truly foundational reciprocity, many of the bricks now found in Pioneer Square’s historic buildings were made in San Francisco.
While the first reciprocity between the two cities was catalyzed by the lumber trade, it eventually expanded into other areas, from the sordid milieu of prostitution and gambling to the sublime milieu of the American West Coast counterculture. Several examples abound showing how the respective municipal evolutions of Seattle and San Francisco have been intertwined throughout many decades. Nevertheless, San Francisco has always been a municipal big sibling to Seattle. The older city, founded in 1776 as a Spanish colonial outpost, was until very recently an obvious role model for the younger city in many ways.
“San Francisco was a bustling multiethnic city long before the first settlers of Seattle cried in the rain off Alki Point,” was how the legendary Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson (1918-2001) once described the relationship.
The economic reciprocity between Seattle and San Francisco began less than a month after the Denny Party landed at Alki Point. On December 10, 1851, the brig Leonesa, commanded by Captain Daniel S. Howard, entered Puget Sound while searching for timber for harvesting. The ship sailed close enough to Alki Point to spot the small settlement there. The brig then anchored nearby the newly settled community, and Captain Howard came ashore to introduce himself.
Captain Howard told the settlers that San Francisco, long still a small shack town, was suddenly booming with gold from Alaska, and was therefore on the verge of becoming a permanent city. New piers were being built on the waterfront there, and he had been sent to Puget Sound for a cargo of lumber — specifically, 50-foot-long pilings for use in constructing docks at San Francisco. Howard and the settlers, led by John Low, wrote and signed a contract on the spot, and the seven men of the Denny Party then got out their axes and went to work.
The Puget Sound region was then an ideal source for such a cargo. Prior to 1851, the place now known as Seattle was a climax forest of trees, many more than a thousand years old and towering as tall as 400 feet. Today, no trees of that size remain anywhere in the world: the tallest California redwood, named Hyperion, is a mere 379.7 feet tall. The abundance of premium timber in the Puget Sound region was the main factor in Seattle’s eventual emergence as an early Pacific Northwest city. Although there were few other settlers in the region when the Denny Party arrived at Alki Point, there were already boats and ships traversing the Sound, searching for timber to take to San Francisco.
Along with the timber transaction, the settlers at Alki Point likely placed orders for provisions with the Leonesa crew before the brig returned to San Francisco. The Leonesa returned to Alki Point on February 10, 1852, likely loaded with San Francisco goods. Thus, the longtime economic reciprocity between Seattle and San Francisco was evidently born.
Lumber magnate Henry Leiter Yesler (c. 1810-1892), widely considered Seattle’s first genuine entrepreneur, came to Seattle in October 1852 because of advice he received in San Francisco. During his search for an ideal sawmill site on the West Coast, Yesler was alerted to the advantages of the Puget Sound region by a ship captain he met in San Francisco who told him that Elliott Bay was ideal for a sawmill because the land there was thick with trees nearly to the shore, and deep-water moorage was available close to the shore.
The ship captain Yesler met was one of many who were then transporting lumber from Puget Sound to San Francisco for pilings on the older city’s waterfront. Once he secured a site for his mill on Elliott Bay, Yesler sent an order to San Francisco for his equipment. He then founded the first steam-powered sawmill in the region in March 1853, thereby ensuring Seattle’s status as an early commercial and industrial center in the Pacific Northwest.
With Yesler as its local pioneer, the lumber trade soon came to define Seattle and its environs, and by the 1860s there were several lumber mills operating throughout the Puget Sound region, including town sites at Port Ludlow and Port Hadlock on the Quimper Peninsula, Port Gamble and Port Madison on the Kitsap Peninsula, Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island, and Port Discovery on the Olympic Peninsula. San Francisco-based companies owned many of those operations.
Inevitably, when speaking of early Seattle, one must speak of vice. After lumber made Seattle, prostitution sustained it. By 1861, ten years after the Denny Party landing, Seattle had become a rough logging town largely populated by young, virile men — with scarcely any women to potentially quench their primal desires. It was then a town of bachelors with an established payroll and no commercial entertainment available. Within such a scenario, prostitution was inevitable — and San Francisco also played a major role in this stage of Seattle’s early economic growth.
In the summer of 1861, John Pinnell (or Pennell, in some sources), the proprietor of several lucrative brothels in San Francisco, arrived in Seattle on a lumber schooner and quickly established the young town’s first brothel. Due to objections from the local mavens of morality, the brothel was built on land rejected by more respectable business tenants: an area of sawdust fill just south of Mill Street (now Yesler Way) at Second Avenue and South Washington Street. Pinnell got approval from the town authorities in return for paying a $1,200-per-year license fee and a promise to keep his business activity confined to the designated area. He named his new brothel Illahee — Chinook Jargon for “home away from home” — but locals would soon call it the Mad House and the Sawdust Pile. The surrounding neighborhood would quickly become Seattle’s first red-light district.
Since white women were few in the new town, Salish women staffed Illahee at first: few of them locals, many of them most likely from British Columbia. Pinnell lured these women to Illahee with promises of a better life for both the women he recruited and their families. He began by approaching the Salish tribes in the region and offering a trade: he would provide each tribe with provisions and trade goods, and in return the women would work in his brothel, bringing comfort and company to the many lonesome lumberjacks of the region. He also promised to educate and otherwise attend to the needs of the Salish women.
This local municipal arrangement apparently worked quite well for the first few years. Illahee soon became the most profitable business in Seattle and was thus tolerated by the local morality mavens due to the tax revenue it generated for the town’s more respectable endeavors. However, after Asa Shinn Mercer famously imported several marriageable maidens from Massachusetts to Seattle in May 1864, Pinnell responded by recruiting a dozen unemployed comfort women from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, all apparently minor-league prostitutes, over the age of 30 and thus past their nubile prime, who couldn’t quite make it in the red-light big leagues in the Bay Area — yet were evidently good enough for underdog Seattle.
Along with the San Francisco piers built with lumber from Seattle in the wake of the California Gold Rush, there also remain today several famous Victorian townhouses built in the late nineteenth century with lumber harvested in Seattle. Most notable among these are a row of buildings known appropriately as the Seattle Block. Located near Alamo Square Park at the intersection of Golden Gate Avenue and Steiner Street, the Seattle Block was commissioned by Oregon shipping magnate Daniel B. Jackson in 1892.
Jackson hired architect William H. Armitage to design his mansion at 1057 Steiner Street along with three adjacent apartment buildings going up Golden Gate Avenue. Armitage, born and educated in England, was one of San Francisco’s leading architects. When the buildings were all completed, Jackson had the entire block painted similarly, giving the appearance of one unified façade beginning on the corner and continuing up the block.
Another noteworthy San Francisco landmark, also located on Steiner Street and commonly known as Postcard Row, was also built beginning in 1892. Comprising six identical townhouses along with a similar adjacent mansion, this group of buildings has appeared on countless postcards representing San Francisco photographically, hence the nickname. It remains unconfirmed whether or not Postcard Row was also built with lumber from Seattle, but such is very likely so, since the younger city’s chief export remained lumber at the time of Postcard Row’s construction.
Yet another significant historical reciprocity between Seattle and San Francisco was countercultural. While San Francisco was clearly ground zero for the counterculture that bloomed on the American West Coast during the 1950s and 1960s, Seattle’s counterculture during that era emulated San Francisco’s closely, while still developing a strong regional character and identity of its own.
Most of Seattle’s countercultural activity during that time occurred in the University District (long known to locals as the U District), the residential neighborhood surrounding the main University of Washington campus. One key epicenter of such activity was the Blue Moon Tavern, which was founded in the U District in April 1934. Originating as a typical working-class tavern, the Blue Moon became a crucial West Coast countercultural mecca during the 1950s, frequently hosting many of the luminaries of the literary Beat movement that originated in San Francisco, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey. The Moon was also a favorite haunt of legendary poet and UW English professor Theodore Roethke (1908-1963), who often brought his students there for extracurricular scholarship.
During the 1960s, the U District became a West Coast countercultural mecca second only to San Francisco’s fabled Haight-Ashbury district. Among other ways Seattle then emulated San Francisco was by creating its own “Hippie Hill.” The older city’s Hippie Hill was a countercultural gathering place in Golden Gate Park whose regular visitors included members of the celebrated San Francisco rock bands Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Seattle’s Hippie Hill was the stretch of lawn on the western edge of the UW campus between 15th Avenue Northeast and Denny Hall, near University Way Northeast (a.k.a. “The Ave“). Seattle’s counterculture circa 1967 thus emulated the Bay Area’s — yet it also once again contributed something in return to the older city. While Haight-Ashbury became the locus of the legendary San Francisco music scene of that decade, certain young musicians from Seattle and its environs played a crucial role in catalyzing that scene. Among these were Signe Toly Anderson and Don Stevenson.
Signe Toly Anderson (1941-2016), born in Seattle on September 15, 1941, and raised in Portland, Oregon, was one of the founding members of Jefferson Airplane. She first achieved local fame as a folk and jazz singer in Portland, then moved to San Francisco, where she was discovered by Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin while singing at the Drunken Gourd club. She then joined the nascent band in summer 1965 and sang on their debut album and early singles prior to leaving the band amicably and being replaced by Grace Slick in October 1966. Quite uncannily, Anderson passed away on January 28, 2016 — the same day as original Airplane member and San Francisco native Paul Kantner’s passage.
Don Stevenson, born in Seattle on October 15, 1942, was the drummer and a singer and songwriter for Moby Grape, which was formed in San Francisco in late 1966. Stevenson first obtained local recognition in Seattle as a member of the Frantics, an instrumental band that included Tacoma native Jerry Miller on guitar. Miller and Stevenson moved the Frantics from Seattle to San Francisco after a 1965 encounter with guitarist Jerry Garcia, who was then playing with the Warlocks at a bar in Belmont, California. Garcia encouraged them to move to San Francisco, due mainly to the older city’s then-superior music scene. The Frantics relocated to San Francisco in 1966 and formed the nucleus of what would become Moby Grape.
Miller and Stevenson brought the no-nonsense working-class garage rock sensibility so typical of Pacific Northwest bands of that time to mingle with the bohemian Bay Area sensibility of the other members of Moby Grape: namely, guitarist Peter Lewis, bassist Bob Mosley, and guitarist Skip Spence. Their debut album, released in June 1967, remains today by critical and popular consensus among the most perfect rock music albums ever made.
Among celebrated West Coast anthems of the psychedelic era, one stands out for its mutual birth between Seattle and San Francisco: namely, “White Bird.” Recorded by the San Francisco ensemble It’s a Beautiful Day and released on their eponymous debut album in June 1969, the song was conceived in Seattle in December 1967 by the band’s violinist and songwriter David LaFlamme and his keyboardist wife and bandmate Linda. Manager Matthew Katz had sent the fledgling band to live in Seattle in order to polish their act in a local club before committing them to the competitive San Francisco rock club circuit. While the band was there, the resulting isolation ironically inspired what would become their signature song, a poignant orchestral epic on an otherwise typical Frisco-circa-1969 acid rock album. LaFlamme would later describe the song’s uncanny origins like so:
“We were living in the attic of an old Victorian house in Seattle, and performing at the Encore Ballroom. It was a typical Seattle winter day, rainy and drizzly, and we were looking out from the attic window over the street in front of this old house. It was on Capitol Hill, the old section of town across from Volunteer Park. There was a statue of some famous general right across the street in the park.
“The song describes the picture Linda and I saw as we looked out this little window in this attic. We had a little Wurlitzer portable piano sitting right in the well of this window, and I’d sit and work on songs. When you hear lines like, ‘The leaves blow across the long black road to the darkened sky and its rage,’ it’s describing what I was seeing out the window.
“Where the ‘white bird’ thing came from . . . We were like caged birds in that attic. We had no money, no transportation, the weather was miserable. We were just barely getting by on a very small food allowance provided to us. It was quite an experience, but it was very creative in a way.”
Seattle’s countercultural media would also draw crucial inspiration from San Francisco’s, as best evidenced by Helix, the legendary underground newspaper whose debut issue was published on March 23, 1967. Helix was conceived in late 1966 during discussions at the Free University of Seattle, an alternative college and countercultural meeting place located in the U District. These discussions were inspired by the recent flowering of underground newspapers in other counterculturally rich American cities, such as San Francisco’s Berkeley Barb and Oracle, and New York City’s East Village Other. Helix‘s prime instigators included Paul Dorpat, then a wayward graduate student, and Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian minister. This minuscule circle quickly grew to include future famous novelist Tom Robbins, Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Ray Collins, and Jon Gallant, co-founder of Seattle’s legendary underground radio station KRAB-FM.
Serendipitously named after Watson and Crick’s famous description of DNA during a particularly productive session of beer-drinking and brainstorming at the Blue Moon Tavern in February 1967, Helix emerged from its fertile countercultural cocoon to immediate success. The debut issue’s cover announced the new paper’s mission in an editorial that began as follows:
“You have in your hand the first issue of a fortnightly newspaper. It is dedicated to no cause, no interests, no point of view; it is dedicated to you.”
The first 1,500 copies of the 12-page, vividly-colored, wildly-illustrated tabloid were quickly snapped up off the streets of the U District, and its initial success would eventually become a three-year-long reign of weekly publication. During that time, Helix would sponsor a number of important countercultural events in the Puget Sound region before finally folding in June 1970.
Among such events was the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, a three-day concert series held near Sultan (50 miles north of Seattle) from August 31 to September 2, 1968 — a full year before the more famous Woodstock festival — featuring such now-legendary San Francisco musical luminaries as Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, and Santana. Helix also played an important role in promoting local political activism, serving as both catalyst and chronicler of many local protest events organized by the antiwar, black liberation, and environmental movements.
Among other positive impacts Helix brought for Seattle’s countercultural community, it provided a decent (albeit modest) living for a number of the hippies who served as the paper’s street vendors. It also launched the media career of Walt Crowley (1947-2007), the locally-venerated writer, historian, and rabble-rouser, who joined the paper’s staff, first as an illustrator and later as an editor, in May 1967.
Crowley would later attribute the paper’s demise to the splintering of the American Left, both in Seattle and nationwide, in the wake of the May 4, 1970, Kent State Massacre — as well as other dark turns the American counterculture had taken by mid-1970. “After Kent State, the left had gone totally wiggy,” Crowley told Seattle Weekly in 1989. “And the drug scene was brutal.” In the wake of Helix, the media needs of Seattle’s counterculture would be served — if only temporarily — by the more overtly political and militant Sabot and Puget Sound Partisan.
Today, Paul Dorpat has made a name for himself as a celebrated Pacific Northwest photographer-historian, mainly as author of the long-running Seattle Times weekly pictorial feature “Seattle Now & Then.” Crowley would also ascend to broader local fame as a KIRO-TV news commentator in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Helix‘s heady brew of radical politics and groundbreaking graphic design has rarely, if ever, been surpassed locally, its closest competition arguably being The Rocket, Seattle’s greatest music-centric monthly to date. An ongoing digital archive of complete issues of Helix can be viewed online in PDF form at Paul Dorpat’s blog.
During the 1970s, as a positive consequence of the gay liberation movement that emerged in the wake of the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, San Francisco became a crucial haven for openly gay people, eventually becoming known as the most gay-friendly city in the United States. Seattle would soon compete for that honor, as the younger city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, formerly a strictly straight working-class bastion, became a national gay mecca second only to San Francisco’s Castro District. While gay residential settlement of Capitol Hill began discreetly in the early 1960s, the neighborhood became openly gay in the mid-1970s, helped by new anti-discrimination laws enabled by the gay liberation movement. Capitol Hill was also then becoming a gathering locus for Seattle’s counterculture and the politically progressive, a trend that would reach full fruition in the late 1980s.
Before Capitol Hill’s transformation into Seattle’s residential mecca for openly gay persons and couples, Pioneer Square was the city’s de facto epicenter of gay nightlife, led by the legendary Shelly’s Leg, which opened there in November 1973. Shelly’s Leg — discussed here in detail in the chapter Seattle’s Flaming Telepaths — was both Seattle’s first discotheque and its first openly gay nightclub. A huge, hand-painted sign above the bar declared, “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.” That brave and brazen declaration would play a decisive role in catalyzing Seattle’s challenge to San Francisco as a leading city in the American gay liberation movement.
Most recently, in May 2014, Seattle finally bested its big-sibling city for the title of America’s most gay-friendly city, according to an annual survey conducted by the progressive financial website NerdWallet. The survey was based on the metrics of the percentage of households with same-sex partners, the number of LGBT-friendly laws and opportunities, and the degree of LGBT safety and tolerance. Seattle was followed closely, of course, by San Francisco — which reclaimed the honor the following year.
Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.