Armed with more than two hundred white plastic bags, neon-clad neighbors gather at the West Seattle Greenbelt trailhead on a cold, sunny morning in late February 2021. Their mission is to make a trail visible from more than five hundred feet above. At precisely 8:45 a.m., a helicopter will circle the greenbelt with Jean Sherrard’s camera peering out, photographing the bright white squares revealing the trail through the overhanging branches. Sherrard and Clay Eals are preparing a Now & Then column for the Seattle Times.
The bags are the brainchild of Paul West, a member of the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, who brings an ample supply from Puget Ridge Cohousing. (With only a few splotches of mud, the bags will be carefully collected and folded for reuse.) The volunteers start down the trail in small groups to drop their “bread crumbs” ten feet apart. As the temperature climbs above the mid-thirties, the white helicopter circles three times against a clear blue sky, above the waving Hansels and Gretels.
In the resulting aerials, the people are mostly invisible and the bag trail is faint, but the views of the ridge on the highlands between the Duwamish Waterway and Puget Sound are stunning. The green fields of South Seattle College and the Riverview playfields frame the greenbelt. Industrial companies hug the river, colorful containers park at port terminals, the First Avenue South Bridge spans the river, and a belt of late-winter brown separates commerce from neighborhoods.
Glacier action that left rocks resistant to erosion created the greenbelt ridge more than sixty thousand years ago. A conifer forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce grew on its slopes.
The Duwamish people lived below the greenbelt along the Duwamish River and its tributaries for centuries; the earliest archaeological record places a village on the river as early as AD 500. As settlers and land developers moved in, the Duwamish were dispossessed, but the spirits (and bodies) of their ancestors live on in the soil and the trees.
A 1920 aerial photo shows the same ridge but with fewer trees. Puget Mill Company extracted what they wanted from the ridge before donating twenty acres to the City of Seattle in 1912 for a park at the north end. The same photo shows Boeing Plant 1 sitting at the foot of Highland Park Way. The newly straightened and dredged river is visible below the tip of an airplane wing. A streetcar line, which ran from the tip of the Duwamish Peninsula south to new communities, shows faintly on the ridge. The green line indicates trails in the 2021 greenbelt.
In the decades after 1920, a brickyard dumped kiln dust on the hillside, neighbors dumped trash, a gravel company mined sand and gravel, and the Seattle Department of Engineering acquired property to build Soundway, a proposed freeway from the First Avenue South Bridge to suburban areas of Burien and southwest Seattle. The state located one of three Seattle community colleges at the top of the ridge in the late 1960s.
“There is no place in the city of Seattle where a buffer between industry and residences is more badly needed,” wrote the unnamed author of a 1970s report advocating the ridge’s preservation under the city’s Urban Greenbelt plan. “It should be left to the following generations as a gift of peace and quiet in our busy, noisy, polluted city.”
Through gradual property acquisitions and the activism of citizens, the greenbelt became that gift—at five hundred acres, it is the largest contiguous forest in the city. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and countless volunteers have replanted and restored the forest and created a few good trails and more than a few social trails pounded by hiking boots and running shoes.
One of those trails is featured in the expanded second edition of Hiking Washington’s History by Judy Bentley and Craig Romano. Although this trail was not in use as an indigenous trail for thousands of years, it crosses an ancient landscape in the industrial heart of the state’s largest city. That makes it historic.
Judy Bentley taught Pacific Northwest history at South Seattle College for more than twenty years and is an avid hiker and author of fifteen young adult books. Her latest book, co-authored with Craig Romano, is Hiking Washington’s History, Second Edition.