19th-century ‘Seattle Spirit’ still here, but in disguise
Jul 12, 2023, 5:52 PM
(Washington State Historical Society)
Editors’ note: Feliks Banel does occasional contract work for the Downtown Seattle Association as a moderator of public discussion panels.
As reported last week in a story about an upcoming history walking tour in Tacoma, something called the “Seattle Spirit” was first identified back in the 19th century when the city was snubbed by the Northern Pacific Railway and residents said they would build their own damn railroad, thank you.
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With the 150th anniversary of that snubbing this Friday, it’s worth wondering if the Seattle Spirit of overcoming adversity and seizing civic opportunity is still alive and, if it is, what it looks like today.
In addition to that railroad incident in 1873 – which inspired Seattleites of all ages to pick up shovels and start grading their own transcontinental rail line – the Seattle Spirit was also name-checked when, after the big fire in 1889, Seattleites sent donations – collected before the fire — to survivors of the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania. Some people said Seattle should keep the money for its own recovery, but a greater number said that money was raised for Johnstown, and to Johnstown it should go.
The Seattle Spirit gets mentioned in the history of the shipyards when an early form of crowdfunding (though it wasn’t called that) raised $100,000 in 1902 to make it possible for the Moran Brothers to secure a contract to build the battleship U.S.S. Nebraska in Seattle.
Those are some dramatic examples from earlier times, but those episodes are part of what makes the city’s character in the present day. Many historians and other observers agree that the Seattle of July 12, 2023 is built on the Seattle of July 11, 2023 – and it all goes back to the city’s roots in the 1850s. The basic premise is that a city’s character doesn’t just randomly manifest one day in the future. It emerges early on and changes gradually over time.
Thus, the Seattle Spirit of 1873 must still be here in 2023, in some shape or form.
For this decidedly unscientific look into the Seattle Spirit’s whereabouts and well-being, KIRO Newsradio spoke with former three-term Seattle Mayor Charley Royer. Royer is 83 and mostly retired, but he is still dabbling in the occasional civic project and still possessing the storytelling chops of a former TV commentator – which was his job for KING Broadcasting before being elected mayor in 1977 – and of a lifelong raconteur.
The #SEATTLE SPIRIT, that name for overcoming adversity, seizing opportunity or otherwise achieving some unexpected civic good – which was born of the 1873 decision by the Nor Pacific RR to choose Tacoma as terminus, and Seattleites’ attempt to build their OWN damn railroad – is:
— Feliks Banel (@FeliksBanel) July 10, 2023
Royer said the 19th-century Seattle Spirit, first articulated and extolled from bandstands in front of big cheering crowds, has evolved in more recent decades to become more of a metaphor for tolerance and caring, and for taking a certain amount of time before making a big decision.
Royer said Seattle’s population growth and larger political forces beyond Seattle’s boundaries spurred this change.
“Our spirit is not pep rally spirit,” Royer said. “It’s almost a ‘golden rule’ kind of spirit, and it’s something that I think still exists.
“But when you start growing as fast as we have been growing, you get a lot of people who don’t know the handshake,” Royer continued, using the metaphor of fraternal organizations with arcane traditions. “They don’t know that they’re supposed to not be angry about gay people. They don’t know that Republicans sometimes, like Dan Evans and a bunch of Republicans we had in office, are for the environment, they’re for people paying their fair share of taxes.”
As Royer tells it, it’s almost like that 19th-century Seattle Spirit morphed and evolved into the 20th-century Seattle Process, which is the sometimes – OK, often – pejorative name for a style of big-tent public engagement in decision-making which can seemingly go on for years or even decades, which can often frustrate citizens watching from outside the big tent.
Of course, the problems being tackled lately aren’t as dramatic as a wayward railroad terminus or a huge fire or even a new battleship – though Boeing’s various moves and Amazon’s “H2Q” searches certainly echo the malicious moves of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1873. And, while COVID-19 rolled out in slow motion, it likely felt as dramatic as a devastating fire to those who suffered from the illness or from economic setbacks along the way.
Modern problems (and opportunities) have been more policy-centric, such as cleaning up Lake Washington in the 1950s, pulling off a successful 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, securing funding for parks and other public facilities in the late 1960s with Forward Thrust, or voting for senior and other housing levies in the 1980s when the federal dollars for such necessities had dried up.
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Royer said the modern version of the Seattle Spirit is also about getting over old rivalries like the one with Tacoma – which dated to the railroad age but which continued until recently.
“I couldn’t believe it when the Port of Tacoma decided that it would partner up with the Port of Seattle,” Royer said. “They were fierce competitors. Tacoma and Seattle have always competed for business, and it’s been unhelpful to everybody.
“Our cities in the region have not collaborated and so those grudges and competitions have blinded us to some opportunities,” Royer added.
What does Jon Scholes, CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, think of the Seattle Spirit, circa 2023? Is it relevant to his job as chief cheerleader for downtown, as Seattle rebounds from the pandemic, struggles with crime and housing, and still manages to throw a decent party for the 2023 MLB All-Star Game?
Scholes, who grew up in Tacoma, told KIRO Newsradio he’s well aware of the impact of the 19th-century railroad decision on downtown Seattle and of other examples of the city’s grit. He says he mentioned several in his State of Downtown address earlier this year.
And when it comes to Seattle Process, Scholes said Seattle gets criticized for never getting anything done – which he said is not accurate. Scholes ticks off a number of recent successes and successes-in-progress: the waterfront, light rail expansion, and light rail on the I-90 floating bridge.
“And yeah, we have our fair share of processes that leads up to those decisions,” Scholes conceded. “But it’s not that we never make a decision.”
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“I do think there’s sort of an avoidance of conflict here, or a fear of some folks objecting and what that might mean … there’s a lot of deference given to loud but limited voices,” Scholes said. “I do think that maybe makes it take longer than it should otherwise, but we eventually do get pretty meaningful big things done.”
So, then, let me get this straight: Seattle Spirit disguised as Seattle Process is slowed up by Seattle Nice?
As intriguing as Royer’s Seattle Spirit thesis is, it will definitely require some additional work to substantiate or to disprove. This work will include archival research, interviews, and public meetings.
Lots and lots of public meetings.
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 or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.