Skid Road and Pioneer Square were at the center of the young city of Seattle, in the 1850s. The early settlers built sawmills to harvest the timber, and they moved their logs by "skidding" them down the steep hills above the settlement, a practice that gave the main route its name.
The Pioneer Square-Skid Road Historic District is roughly bounded by Columbia Street, Elliot Bay, Second Avenue South, Fourth Avenue South and Fifth Avenue North. Today the area's appearance traces its roots to two major, life-altering events in Seattle history.
The first was The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, that roared through the tinderbox of the business district, devouring almost everything in its path, and turned Seattle into a black smudge on the east shore of Puget Sound.
That day, a pot of carpenter's glue boiled over on a stove and into a pile of turpentine-soaked wood shavings. Within half an hour, whole blocks of Seattle were ablaze. Smoke from the great conflagration could be spotted from Tacoma, 32 miles to the south.
Hydrant pressure was too low to combat the inferno, so Mayor Robert Moran took command, ordering the demolition of buildings in front of the fire, and marshalling 200-man bucket brigades. Brave efforts all, but not enough.
Alarm bells rang, church bells clamored, and prisoners shuffled anxiously through the streets, shackled together in flight from the old courthouse. Rickety offices of dentists, bootmakers, and chandlers vanished in the holocaust's maw.
Flames chased horses down cluttered alleyways and danced about the stilts supporting mudflat-anchored shacks. Sawmills smoldered, then burst into flame. Ships tethered to endangered docks cast off desperately into the sound.
A saloonkeeper, hoping to save his 100 barrels of whiskey, floated them out into nearby Elliott Bay (he later recovered only two), while burly dockworkers on the waterfront threw a wake for their town over another 50-gallon keg of spirits. Twenty tons of rifle cartridges at a hardware store exploded, sending spectators diving for cover. Other shots came from police, firing pistols at looters plundering vacated banks and stores.
Seattle's Great Fire of 1889 lasted 12 hours. By the time its fury was spent, 30 central city blocks—64 acres—were leveled. Amazingly, records show that not one person died in the disaster.
Afterwards, a massive rebuilding effort under new building codes began. The new building codes mandated the use of nonflammable material. The big blaze gave civic boosters and planners a chance to completely reinvent Seattle, this time in fireproof brick, stone, and iron. Architects, seeing a day when Seattle would be the jewel of the Northwest, created a new, broad-shouldered city. None was more energetic than Elmer H. Fisher.
Similar to Chicago 18 years before and San Francisco 17 years later, Seattle lifted itself phoenix-like from the ashes. It also hoisted itself above the waterline. Tons of dirt from slopes on the town's eastern edge were scraped down over the mudflats, raising the post-fire business district an entire story above its predecessor.
Comic inconveniences resulted. Streets were often raised before their sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to scale tall ladders whenever they wanted to cross an intersection. With streetlights rare, strolling downtown at night was a hazard. On the serious side, 17 people and unrecorded numbers of horses perished in Seattle by plunging from street to sidewalk during the rebuilding era.
On July 17, 1897, the second city-shaking event arrived, when the S.S. Portland moored with more than 2,000 pounds of gold from The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, in the Yukon. Seattle became America's premiere source for travel to and from the Klondike.
The needs of gold-hungry transients for hotels, equipment, and mining offices spurred a boom centered in Pioneer Square. The diversified economy and the confluence of different modes of transportation, allowed Seattle to expand rapidly during the first part of the 20th century.
Though the area continued to grow through the 1920s, Pioneer Square suffered once Seattle's business core began moving northward before World War II.
In the 1970s, the city aggressively began to reverse nearly two generations of decline when it designated the Pioneer Square area as a historic district that now includes about 88 acres in downtown Seattle. Residents and visitors began to appreciate its historic resources, and the area is again crowded and prosperous.
The Seattle of a century ago is now recalled in the district's skillfully restored examples of Second Renaissance-Revival, Beaux-Arts Classical, and Richardsonian-Romanesque architecture.
Every town has its special landmarks. Though most were not acquired by theft, the way Seattle secured its infamous totem pole.
It is a seedy little conspiracy, though no secret, that the often-photographed wood column anchoring the busiest intersection in the city's Pioneer Square Historic District, was stolen from Native Alaskans almost a century ago.
In 1899, when Seattle was booming as the gateway to the Yukon and Alaska gold rushes, a "goodwill" party, sent north by the local chamber of commerce and a local Seattle newspaper, stopped at a Tlingit Indian village on Alaska's Tongass Island. Its residents were away.
Envious of a row of magnificent totems fronting the beach, and with nobody to stop them, the visitors chopped one down and carted it home, like a well-earned trophy. The stolen booty was raised at Pioneer Place Park where it stood prisoner until rot and arson weakened it, in 1938. Then the stolen Totem was returned to Alaska where Tlingit artists, remarkably unimpressed by Seattle's earlier theft, made a replica.
On any blue-sky day, you will see tourists and shoppers browsing the businesses lining First Avenue, the main path through this brick-and-terra cotta neighborhood, Seattle's original downtown.
Located at First and Yesler Way, a tree-shaded cobblestone triangle offers the best place to watch people in the district and the finest perspective for studying Pioneer Square's Gilded Age architecture.
The park features a 1909 stone bust of Chief Seattle, the town stole his name too, and a cast-iron and glass pergola. However, its main attraction is still that 50-foot western red cedar totem pole.
Now, each year tens of thousands of visitors stare up at the pole, studying its muted hues and stylized raven at the top. What they see is an urban anachronism. What they probably do not see is the totem's broad symbolism — not just of extraordinary beings, but of extraordinary good fortune. Both the pole and Pioneer Square beat the odds, weathered decades of natural and man-made assaults, and still stand.