Seattle Central Waterfront, Part 3: Yesler's Mill meets Elliott Bay: Foot of Yesler Way

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 5/24/2000
  • Essay 2473
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The waterfront at the foot of Yesler Way (piers 1 and 2 by pioneer arithmetic, later piers 50 and 51) serves as an auto staging area for the Washington State Ferries terminal. Yesler's Wharf (there is today a plaque but no pier to mark the spot) was the site of Seattle's first steam-powered sawmill, built by Henry Yesler in 1852 at the foot of Mill Street (now Yesler Way). This pier was the center of local maritime commerce until it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1889. Yesler's Wharf was replaced by piers 1 and 2 (later renamed 50 and 51) built by the Northern Pacific Railroad, and later operated by the Alaska Steamship Company. The piers were removed in the 1960s to accommodate the needs of the Washington State Ferry System.

Yesler's Wharf

The waterfront history of Seattle may be said to have begun in 1853 when the barely second wave industrialist Henry Yesler began operating the first steam-powered sawmill on Puget Sound at the foot of Mill Street (Yesler Way). A map of Seattle drawn by Lieut. Phelps in 1856 (corrected later by Clarence Bagley with modern street names) shows a short dock leading off shore from the mill, both in direct line with the street.

The first surviving photograph of Yesler’s Wharf was recorded by George Robinson, an itinerate photographer from Victoria B.C. during his visit in 1869. The detail includes dugout canoes near the foot of Washington Street and, most likely, the sidewheel steamer Wilson G. Hunt heading out from the wharf. Yesler built his third and last mill on his wharf in 1882 after his second mill burned down in 1879. In 1887 this mill was also destroyed by fire. Two years later the wharf itself burned to the tides during Seattle's “Great Fire,” which occurred in June 1889. Following the fire, the wharf Henry Yesler constructed on the stumps of his old dock was modest when compared to the grander wharves and pier sheds built by the Oregon Improvement Company directly south of Yesler’s pioneer site.

The Alaska Steamship Co. and the Seawall

For many years after its construction at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pier 2 at the foot of Yesler Way was home for the Alaska Steamship Company.

The construction of a seawall from Washington to Madison streets was the city’s first serious attempt to still the tide from below Railroad Avenue. This work began in 1911 and was completed five years later.

The World's Fair and After

Piers 50 and 51 were put to use during Seattle's World's Fair (Century 21) in 1962. The MS Dominion Monarch was docked here as a hotel ship during the fair. The police department's harbor patrol boats shared the slip between piers 49 and 50 with the hotel ship. A Polynesian restaurant was built at the far end of Pier 51.

Ultimately the two long Northern Pacific Piers at the foot of Yesler Way were removed to make way for an expansion of vehicle staging lots for the Washington State Ferries. Pier 51 is today the dock for the Seattle/Vashon ferry.

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Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916) and History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, Vols. 1, 2 & 3 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991, 1992 & 1999); Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, 1998); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now & Then, Vols. I, II & III (Seattle: Tartu Press, 1984, 1988 & 1989); Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan Company, Publishers, 1950); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: Viking, 1951); David J. Olson, et al., Port in a Storm: An Historical Review of the Founding of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1970); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past & Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City: Seattle (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1981).

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