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Leveling Seattle’s Denny Hill. Asahel Curtis, 1910.

Leveling Seattle’s Denny Hill. Asahel Curtis, 1910.


Remaking and reclaiming the Seattle waterfront is a large-scale civic project. But it’s not the biggest project our city has undertaken.

Before his lecture at Friends of Waterfront Seattle on March 10, author and geologist David Williams talked with Friends Ambassador Rachel Gallaher about his book “Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography,” which examines the various innovative engineering projects that transformed Seattle over the past 125 years. We also discussed what the transformation of the city’s waterfront that is already underway will mean for Seattle.

What is it about natural history that first attracted you?
Well, I was very good at field trips in college. When I first went to college I was studying engineering, but I soon learned that my brain didn’t work the way it needed to for an engineering degree. As part of the requirements I had taken a geology class and I thoroughly enjoyed it, plus we went on a lot of field trips!

I also grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, so I’ve long had an interest in better understanding where I was hiking and biking. I wanted to make a connection between the natural world and the world I was interacting with.

Why did you choose Seattle as the subject of your latest book?
We live in a region where the people are very outdoor-oriented, so it seemed like a great story to delve into. Even though we think of the region as a very natural place there have been major changes in what we think of as “downtown Seattle” today and what it was at the turn of the 20th century. Once again, I’m interested in the intersection between people and the natural world and how they influence each other.

What will you be speaking about at this week’s lecture?
What they did in the past was crazy! When it comes down to it, each of the historical big changes to Seattle’s landscape that I plan to talk about is larger than anything happening in Seattle today. By a big margin. It’s fascinating because they used such basic tools: water, picks, shovels, dynamite and yet they altered the landscape in such a huge, impactful way.

What kind of impact do you see the waterfront project having on the surrounding environment?
I think there is this hope of reconnecting the waterfront to the urban landscape of downtown, but in a way that notion is ironic because historically the shoreline wasn’t ever very well connected with the city. Today’s “downtown corridor” used to be high bluffs, and beyond 1st Avenue (which was referred to as Front Street at the turn of the century) it was tidal flats.

Where is your favorite place in the region?
I’m quite taken with Mount St. Helens in part because I view the world through the lens of geology. I go down there and see the dramatic changes both from a geological and ecological point of view. The landscape has started to return to life. Where it was a bare and gray landscape for years after the eruption, now you can find areas of vegetation where animals are moving back in. It illustrates the exciting aspects of the natural world. We live in a very beautiful yet dynamic region.