A Northern Digression: The Seattle Museum of History and Industry

On my recent trip to Seattle, I went to the Museum of History and Industry (called MOHAI by locals). And I realized how little I knew about the history of my native state.

I took the requisite Washington State history class in the ninth grade—it was a quarter or a semester long, I forget which. I learned the basics—Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, Fort Vancouver, the Whitman Mission, the importance of logging and railroads and salmon, Native American treaties made and broken and reinstated by the courts, the development of plutonium at the Hanford Reservation, and Boeing.

The state has not remained static since I was in the ninth grade. I’ve followed the progress of new commercial giants, such as Microsoft and Amazon, and the clean-up of Hanford. And disasters like the Mount St. Helens eruption and the recent Oso mudslide.

Arthur Denny, from Wikipedia

Arthur Denny, from Wikipedia

But I’d never really focused on the stories of people in Washington State. My recent research has been targeted on what I needed to know to write my novels. I can tell you a lot about Oregon City in 1847 and about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, but not much about early pioneers in Washington, other than Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.

I’ve read about some of the founding families in Oregon City, but I knew nothing of similar families who settled the Seattle area until I went to MOHAI.

Denny Way? I knew it was a well-traveled street in Seattle. But I never learned about the Denny family that founded Seattle.  I found out at MOHAI that the Dennys first emigrated to Oregon in 1851, but Arthur Denny and his brother David Denny moved on to the Seattle area and ultimately settled near what is now Pioneer Square.

Henry Yesler, from Wikipedia

Henry Yesler, from Wikipedia

Similarly, Yesler Way was named after another early settler, Henry Yesler, who arrived in Seattle in 1852. Yesler was a prominent businessman, and later became mayor of Seattle.

Yesler Way began as Skid Road, because logs were skidded down its slope to Yesler’s mill. It was from this name that “skid row” became synonymous with urban slum areas, though the term “skid road” dates back to log roads in Europe centuries earlier.

And I learned of later gold rushes in the West, well after the rush that caused the Forty-niners to travel to California. The Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 brought tremendous commercial and transportation growth to Seattle.

All miners really needed, according to the exhibit at MOHAI, were

a pan to wash gold, scales to weigh it, a ‘poke’ bag to hold it. And mittens.

Much the same gear as I gave my miners in my California Gold Rush novel, though I’ll have to go back and add in the mittens.

And advice given in Seattle at the time was to “mine the miners, not the mines.” Just as I learned in my research about the rise of businesses feeding off the California miners. Unlike many museums, MOHAI focuses on commercial development—the industries and businesses that made Seattle what it is today.

During my MOHAI visit, I marveled most at the engineering feats that shaped Seattle. Denny Hill (named after the same Denny family) was lopped off to change the Seattle skyline.

In Seattle’s early days, the only way to move by water from Puget Sound to Lake Union and then to Lake Washington was to portage along the creeks that led from one body of water to the next. Lake Union still has an arm called Portage Bay, where boats had to stop to be unloaded and carried up to Lake Washington.

Now, one can sail from Puget Sound through the Chittenden Locks to Lake Union and through the Montlake Cut to Lake Washington—all part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The ship canal between Lake Union and Lake Washington wasn’t completed until 1916, and after it opened Lake Washington dropped nine feet to be level with Lake Union.

Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, with Mout Rainier in the background, from Wikipedia

Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, with Mount Rainier in the background, from Wikipedia

The first World’s Fair I was aware of was the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. My parents thought my brother and I were too young to attend, so we had to stay with a great-aunt and uncle while my parents went. I thought that was “unfair,” but had sense enough not to say so.

But it turns out there was an earlier fair held in Seattle in 1909, known formally as the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition. The fairgrounds became the campus of the University of Washington, with its beautiful rose garden that points toward Mount Rainier (when the sun is out).

Exhibit from Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

Exhibit from Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

At every turn, I learned something new about my native state. While I soaked up new information about Washington history, I also gleaned tidbits to help my novels. Some of the women in my novels are pregnant, and MOHAI had a model in a maternity gown from the 1850s. I’ve researched early 1850 fires in Sacramento for my Gold Rush novel, but discovered that all of downtown Seattle was also destroyed by fire in 1889.

This post has digressed from my focus on stories about Oregon and California to capture some facts I learned on my visit to MOHAI about Washington. The museum gave me an opportunity to reflect both on how myopic I had become in pursuit of particularized knowledge for my novels, and also on how helpful it was to step back and see the connections between places and times throughout the West.

Pioneers in many places faced similar challenges throughout the 19th century—weather, water, fire—and developed in similar ways. They used their environment as it was and they changed and developed the land when they could. My novels tell just one small piece of the story of western expansion. There are many other stories to tell.

When have you had to step back from a narrow focus to expand your horizons?

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  1. Wonderful post. Although I’ve never been to that museum, I home schooled my (now adult) children and we all loved local history. We used to volunteer at the Borst Home and School House in Centralia and give tours. Loved it.

  2. Thanks for introducing us to the MOHAI, Theresa. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, so we were surrounded by museums. One of my favorites was the Museum of Natural History, it was full of stories.

  3. Theresa, isn’t it amazing to find the rich history rich in your own backyard? I am constantly amazed by it. Once I started researching I found amazing stories about my ancestors right in the old newspapers (which are now online btw).

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