Ferry and Stadiums, Seattle, October 22, 2020, HistoryLink photo by David Koch
Seattle waterfront, Elliot Bay, 1878, Courtesy Seattle Public Library (spl_shp_5064)

Seattle’s Central Waterfront

by Jennifer Ott
Listen (English Only)

Seattle’s waterfront is a place where people have been gathering, trading, and playing for centuries, even as the actual ground beneath it has changed from tidelands to dry land and the vessels plying the waters have grown from canoes to post-Panamax (and, soon, super-post-Panamax) cargo ships. The changing landscape at first reflected the changing needs of the shipping industry. Canoes could easily land anywhere along the beach, but sailing ships and then steamships needed piers to span the distance between the shoreline and deep water. To move cargo over land, railroads needed access to the piers, but downtown’s steep hills limited them routes running parallel to the shore. The tension between north-south cargo movement and east-west people movement, amplified by the addition of a seawall, the vehicular route, Alaskan Way, and the elevated highway, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, shaped the character of the waterfront. With the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and realignment of Alaskan Way underway, the waterfront is again transforming, this time incorporating recreation and care of the environment.

Tour Stops


Original shoreline southern point

Weller Street Bridge

At the end of the pedestrian bridge, just before the steps, turn and look south, toward the football stadium. All the flat lands that you can see — south past Lumen Field to Spokane Street and west to the Port...


Ballast Island/OIC dock

Alaskan Way and Main Street

The shoreline at this point was originally more than 200 feet inland. In about 1880, as more ships began coming to Elliott Bay to load lumber and coal for export, an island-like mound began to appear in the area where...


The Washington Street Boat Landing was built as the Naval Shore Station and opened for use on July 3, 1920. Built for use by small craft that carried sailors to shore from larger ships anchored in Elliott Bay and from...


Yesler’s Mill

Yesler Way and Firehouse Alley

When Seattle’s first settlers arrived in November 1851 and landed at what they named Alki Point, their first “jobs” were cutting trees. In less than a month, they cut and hauled 256 pilings of wood, each about 50 feet long....


The Windward

Columbia Street and Western Avenue

As Seattle grew, port facilities stretched to the north, along the bluff, resting on pilings that elevated the buildings and piers above the beach. To make space for railroads, essential for the movement of natural resources like coal and lumber...


Federal Office Building

909 1st Avenue

For a place that has only permanent structures on it for less than a century, this parcel of land has quite a story. Before the Great Fire of 1889, the Seattle Lumber and Commercial Company had a sawmill and lumber...

Western Avenue was once Seattle’s warehouse district. Much of the produce and other goods coming into the piers along Railroad Avenue (now Alaskan Way) from around Puget Sound passed through buildings like the Maritime Building on the northwest corner and...


Fire Station/Colman Dock

925 Alaskan Way

Seattle has had a fireboat since the Snoqualmie was launched in 1891. In addition to fighting fires on vessels or piers that fire engines could not reach, the Seattle Fire Department also expected the new boat could, “with a proper...


Bridging the Divide

Western Avenue and University Street

One of the challenges of Seattle’s waterfront is the steep hill between the central business district and the shoreline. In the early years, horse-drawn wagons and people on foot used Western Avenue to climb the hill, but that required crossing...


Waterfront Park

1401 Alaskan Way

Pier 58 served as the landing point for two significant ships that visited Seattle’s port. In 1896, the NYK Line’s Miike Maru inaugurated the first scheduled service between Asia and the United States from the pier. This trade relationship between...



Alaskan Way and Pike Street Hillclimb

As shipping and industry grew along the shoreline in the 1890s, it remained home to a small community on the slope below what would become Belltown. Maps of the waterfront from the 1890s show a small enclave of houses north...


Alaskan Way Seawall

1951 Alaskan Way

Though the early waterfront-on-pilings served its purpose, maintenance of the pilings and the planking on top of them proved difficult. Parts of the trestles sometimes collapsed under the weight of traffic, especially as trucks with more powerful engines could carry...


Bell Street Pier

2225 Alaskan Way

The Port of Seattle was one of the first public port districts in Washington when it was formed by King County voters in 1911. The port districts had the power to levy property taxes to fund infrastructure development on the...


Edgewater Hotel

2411 Alaskan Way

The Edgewater Hotel is the only hotel on a pier on the central waterfront. There have been vessels converted into temporary hotels and berthed at piers but no other permanent hotels. This is largely due to the fact that the...


Port of Seattle

2711 Alaskan Way

Pier 69 has been home to a number of companies. The Roslyn Coal & Coke Company built the pier in 1900. Coal had been one of Seattle’s first industries. Sold from bunkers on the waterfront at Pike Street and later...


The Waterfront of the Future

Start of Elliott Bay Trail

Union Oil of California, Unocal, opened a fuel depot at the northern end of the waterfront in 1910. Tanks on the uplands, extending inland to the far side of Elliott Avenue, held oil from California for oil-burning steamships serving the...

This tour made possible by generous support from

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