Making ‘scents’ of how Seattle smelled a century ago
With the arrival of 90+ degree heat this week, downtown Seattle is getting that summer-in-the-city smell once again – part seaweed, part exhaust, with maybe a pinch of rotting garbage from an old brick alley, plus a generous amount of rain-free, dusty asphalt and concrete thrown in for good measure.
That same collection of smells, more or less, has been around for at least the past several decades. But what did Seattle smell like a hundred years ago or even two hundred years ago?
When I think of quintessential summer smells in the Northwest, I recall the hot, sweet perfume of cedar branches filtering down to the shady July sidewalk, or the ripe blackberries along the Burke Gilman Trail becoming as aromatic as little pies hanging on the August vine. And they’re even still warm when you put them in your mouth.
But I also think of my earliest memories of downtown Seattle, which would be about 50 years ago in the early 1970s.
I can recall riding a ferry or standing on the deck of the old steamship Princess Marguerite sometime around Richard Nixon’s first term in office. The sun heated up the seaweed and the barnacles and mussels, and the Elliott Bay breeze was mixing in diesel fumes from the big vessels along with creosote wafting from the pilings. It’s a not unpleasant smell that, in my memory, is all about the trip ahead, and the possibilities of summer fun.
But these olfactory aspects of Seattle history – or any city’s history – are tough to document, and impossible to capture. There are still photos of the waterfront in MOHAI’s collection going back to the 1860s. There’s even motion picture footage – silent of course – from around 1900. But there’s no official record of the smell, no samples corked in ornate bottles and tucked away on a special shelf in an esoteric archive.
To get a more contemporary look – or sniff – I met up on the waterfront with David B. Williams. Williams is the author or co-author of several great books about local history – including “Too High and Too Steep” about the regrades downtown, and “Homewaters” about Puget Sound – so he is the perfect guy to consult on matters of vintage Seattle odors.
Williams told KIRO Newsradio that 200 years ago – when only Indigenous people lived in what’s now Seattle and a few decades before Europeans began settling in great numbers on Puget Sound – what’s now downtown Seattle looked like Discovery Park. There was a rocky beach and a low berm, and a high bluff. South of downtown, around the mouth of the Duwamish River, acres and acres of muddy tide flats (which were later filled in) were teeming with life – and probably with odors, too.
“It must have just been incredibly aromatic with all the life that was there,” Williams said. “Whether it was things plants invertebrates, fish, birds and as it changed during the day from high tide to low tide, I’ll bet the aroma must have just wafted and waned across the landscape.”
“I’m sure people who lived here could have told you exactly what the tide was based on the aroma,” Williams said.
After settlers arrived in 1851, they saw to it that Seattle industrialized pretty quickly. Yesler’s Mill began operations in 1853, and steamboats rapidly became the dominant form of transportation for all of Puget Sound. Wooden pilings – treated with creosote – came into wide use right around the same time as Seattle was in its early stages of industrial development, and that Discovery Park-like shore started to be replace with docks and piers built on hundreds and then thousands of pilings.
Elliott Bay, perhaps not surprisingly, began functioning as a de facto sewer and landfill.
“Sanitation wasn’t as big a deal,” Williams sighed. “It makes sense. You toss everything into the water and it disappears. It’s ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
“But it’s not out of nose,” he joked.
In those bustling decades before electricity and combustion engines, Williams says it was fire that was being harnessed everywhere to power proto-industrial Seattle of the mid and late 19th century.
“That must have been a really strong aroma from the burning of the wood and then the burning of coal, because we have these incredibly rich coal reserves on the east side of Lake Washington,” Williams said. “So that coal would have fed the system here and that’s just not a pleasant odor.”
“And then also with the industry was the lumber mills and the strong smell,” Williams continued. “I mean, all of us know the smell of Everett and Tacoma with the pulp mills for decades. You find stories of people [in the 19th century where they] would know they were getting to a mill long before they got there by the smoke and the aromas that were spreading up and down the Sound.”
The wildfire smoke we’ve seen – and smelled, and seen, in form of ash accumulating like snow on outdoor surfaces – here in recent summers might give some idea of the odor of those 19th century smoky days in Seattle, but it’s hard to say for sure.
Also, the wood smoke from those 19th century lumber mills on the Seattle waterfront probably didn’t smell nearly as bad as more recent smelly memories of Everett and Tacoma – who doesn’t love a giant campfire? Those modern bad smells of Snohomish and Pierce Counties are usually associated with pulp mills and chemical processes that create, according to the State of Wisconsin, “reduced sulfides, ammonia, and other organic compounds” – which are easy to read about, but for which the words don’t seem to quite capture the “essence.”
Williams says that along with the smoke-belching mills and the smoke-belching steam ships, there were a full nine sets of railroad tracks along the waterfront, replete with smoke-belching locomotives. Add to this the fact that gasoline engines had not yet replaced literal horsepower for the vehicles moving freight along the streets.
“You don’t yet have a really strong sea wall, so the trains are going on trestles and water is washing up underneath,” Williams said. “So all of that would be exposed at low tide, so you’d have that aroma just wafting up from underneath the trestle system, and you still had horses and probably tons of manure being generated every single day.”
In 2022, the steamships are gone, replaced by diesel-electric ferries decades ago and joined more recently by giant cruise ships. Electricity took over from wood and coal to fuel industry – now mostly retail – along the waterfront. Gone, too, since roughly the World War II era, are 99% of the horses and the delivery wagons they pulled, replaced by gas and diesel, which are now being replaced by electric trucks.
It’s an understatement to say that the waterfront has undergone dramatic change recently. With the Alaskan Way Viaduct going away and a newly imagined waterfront under construction, it really is already radically transformed and still radically transforming. But even before the recent past and its generational changes, if you read Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Seattle waterfront from the 1950s, in those post-war decades it was not a place for tourists. With a few exceptions, the waterfront was a loading dock, and an “all-business” kind of place.
Compared to 1900 or even to the early 1970s, it’s now a much cleaner and quieter scene, and it seems like the scents have changed, too.
David Williams and I stood on Pier 62 late Tuesday morning. We faced south toward the Seattle Aquarium and the Great Wheel, and took several deep whiffs. The air was fresh, and smelled almost too clean – there was a saltiness and what seemed like living seaweed – which was also visible at the street-end of the pier, revealed by the low tide – but there was no decay, no combustion fumes, not even any creosote. It was all a little unsettling.
Interview over, off went the digital recorder and we headed for the sidewalk. But then, on the north edge of Pier 62, right by the road, I caught a whiff of what smelled like the good old-fashioned Seattle waterfront that I remember from decades ago.
David Williams took a few investigative sniffs.
“I’m smelling a much stronger smell,” Williams said, now going full CSI. “Yeah, we’re definitely getting the decay. I mean, you can see everything down there,” he continued, pointing to creosote-soaked pilings encrusted with barnacles and mussels, entangled with seaweed.
“This is the smell of the sea,” Williams went on. “There’s a little bit of chemical-ness to it. I think you’re getting some of the creosote that’s coming off here. You’re getting some of the wood aromas. There’s a there’s a little hint of sweetness to it – not a lot.”
To be honest, I couldn’t detect any “hint of sweetness.” To me, looking at the barnacles – which seemed to outnumber everything else in view – the whole invisible olfactory cloud rising from the murky edge of Elliott Bay smelled like barnacles and only barnacles. Is that what we could smell?
“To be honest,” Williams replied, unknowingly borrowing a phrase I had thought moments earlier but had not spoken, “I’ve never gone up and smelled a barnacle.”
TO GET A “SCENTS” OF SEATTLE’S HISTORIC WATERFRONT ODOR
Pier 62 – along the sidewalk on the north side is the best place to smell the old Seattle waterfront smell (minus the wood smoke, coal exhaust and horse manure – and Elliott Bay serving as a sewer and garbage dump)
OTHER SMELLS LOST TO THE NOSTRILS OF TIME
The long-gone Hostess Bakery along Aurora Avenue North, just north of Denny Way and the old Battery Street Tunnel was a once-reliable spot to inhale a kind of a sickly sweet, oily smell of Hostess treats being baked, and probably a combination of corn syrup and palm oil.
The industrial-strength hoppy smell of the old Rainier Brewery along I-5 in Georgetown south of the I-90 interchange was once a place to get frequent whiffs of a great old local “macrobrew.”
Various big commercial bakeries – most that are gone (Wonder Bread on Capitol Hill, Best Pies on Westlake Avenue, Hansen’s on Lower Queen Anne, Oroweat (née Buchan) and Grandma’s Cookies in Wallingford) and at least one that remains (Franz, née Gai’s, on Capitol Hill) – used to be exciting sources of bread, doughnut, pie and other fragrances of carbo-laden comestibles, especially in the wee hours.
If you remember any other local smells, please get in touch using the contact information below.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.