In Hiking Washington’s History, Judy Bentley details forty trail hikes and describes the historical significance of spots along those trails in vivid detail. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy the beauty of the region, while also learning something about its history. In today’s guest post, Bentley details an urban hike or bike ride that will take you through areas of historic and contemporary significance to the Duwamish tribe and Croatian immigrant communities.
The Duwamish Waterway is the industrial belt of Seattle; the shipping and manufacturing enterprises along its controlled banks drive jobs and trade. As such, the Duwamish River Trail is not the most bucolic hiking trail in Washington, but it is dense in history. It follows the “duw-ahbsh,” a name that means something like “going inside,” the way in to the Puget Sound lowlands. In Hiking Washington’s History, I described the southern end of the trail from the North Wind Fish Weir to Fort Dent. The northern end of the trail is an equally rich in Native, immigrant, and economic history. This is a biking trail but also suitable for walking if you don’t mind some long stretches between points of interest.
Getting there: Begin underneath the West Seattle bridges. You may park on the street on SW Marginal Place. The closest bus stop is at SW Spokane Street and Chelan Avenue SW. If you plan to stop in at the Duwamish Cultural Center, plan your hike around their business hours (Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.).
For an overview of the river’s mouth and Elliott Bay, walk up the sidewalk/bike trail on the low bridge, the swing bridge that opens for waterway traffic. What you see is an artificially straightened and dredged river, which replaced unruly tideflats in 1917. To the northeast is Harbor Island, created out of muck and fill from the aborted canal project through Beacon Hill and from the dredging of the tideflats. When the island was finished in 1909, it was the largest man-made island in the world. This was the Progressive era of Seattle history when wealth from the Yukon gold rush and Progressive ideals convinced engineers they could alter the landscape to profitable ends (see The Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle by Matthew Klingle).
Begin your walk on the Duwamish trail at a small triangular park at the intersection of SW Marginal Place and 17th Ave. This park was a work of love by the second and third generations of Croatian immigrants who came to the community of Riverside in the early 1900s from the Adriatic coast. They landed here where they could moor their boats, fish in the summer, and make wine in the winter. Their homes climbed the hillside, and many remain on 17th and 18th. The map of paving stones underfoot shows where each family lived.
Walk south from the park on the sidewalk along West Marginal Way (the bicycle path goes on 16th). Pass the Braseth Building, the site of the Morine store and pool hall where Riverside residents came to talk politics, vote, and play in a tamburitza band. You will pass a dilapidated cabin which is one of two remaining Riverside rentals, built between 1915 and 1920 in response to a housing shortage for workers during World War I.
Just south of SW Idaho Street is a lighted crosswalk; cross to the east side. Continue walking along railroad tracks (freight trains move very slowly and loudly through the area) to Herring’s House Park. Here an abundance of herring spawned where salt water meets fresh water. Duwamish peoples lived on the tideflats and uplifted terraces along the river for more than 2,000 years.
Herring’s House was the site of a longhouse that may date from 500 A.D. Along the Duwamish there were three long houses for winter use as well as camps with woven mats attached to a pole frame for spring, summer, and fall use. More than 100 Duwamish were camping here at the end of 1856 when American settlers were moving in.
Despite their essential role in the founding of Seattle, the Duwamish did not receive a reservation of their own in the Treaty of Point Elliott, which Chief Seattle signed in 1855. By 1865, the City of Seattle formally banned the Duwamish from living within the city limits; they were restricted to camps at the mouth of the Duwamish. A longhouse was burned along the west side of the river in 1893 when land developers were platting new additions to what became West Seattle. The remaining Duwamish dispersed throughout the city or eked out a subsistence on the river’s banks for a few years (see Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place).
Herring’s House connects to T-107 Park. In the 1970s when the Port of Seattle had already razed the community of Hersalora and was ready to build a new terminal, Duwamish chairperson Cecile Hansen called attention to the history of Duwamish villages, and work stopped. The park that would have been a terminal now features signage that interprets four layers of history—geologic, Native American, immigrant, and shipbuilding. The park sits on a channel of the river, the only remaining natural bend in the waterway, across from Kellogg Island, a much reduced version of Tsuh’-Kash, known for obvious reasons as the muddy island. Across the street is the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center at 4705 W Marginal Way, which the Duwamish built on purchased land. Return north, completing a loop of about two and a half miles.
You may continue several miles to the community of South Park and to the turning basin, following a combination of paved trail, sidewalks, neighborhood streets, and even one narrow stretch of dirt near the Machinists Union. You’ll pass the Hamm Creek restoration area and reach the turning basin where large ships must turn around. This is just north of the North Wind Fish Weir where the paved trail continues south to Fort Dent where the Duwamish River ends and the Green River begins.
Judy Bentley is the author of Hiking Washington’s History (2010) and a forthcoming guide to history hikes in Washington’s major cities. She is also the author of fifteen books for young adults including, Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master, which she coauthored with Lorraine McConaghy. She teaches at South Seattle College.
Attend a book talk and signing with Judy Bentley, Hiking Ancient Trails, Washington State Capital Museum, May 12 at 12:00 p.m.
To learn more about Duwamish history, contemporary presence in Seattle, and ongoing struggle for federal recognition, visit their website. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place (2007) by Coll Thrush is another great resource for those interested in learning about the city’s indigenous roots.