Barrels on West Marginal Way S, revisited

Terminal 115 Viewpoint taught us to feel a certain trepidation when revisiting a favorite location. But as our route took us down to West Marginal Way, we had no choice but to pay another visit to the land of the barrel pyramids.

West Marginal Way barrels

Unlike the fisherman’s shack, the barrel pyramids still stood proudly in place. While noticeably smaller than a few months ago, their essentially artistic nature remained unchanged.

West Marginal Way barrels

A pattern that emerged was the highly dynamic nature of the pyramidal composition. While the yellow pyramid had merely lost a few barrels off the top – from erosion, theft, or perhaps even business – the multi-color pyramid had seen its coloration patterns significantly altered.

West Marginal Way barrel pyramid

There were more blacks and silver barrels, fewer blues and reds, but all the oranges were gone. Clearly orange barrels are a hot item on today’s barrel market.

West Marginal Way barrelsWest Marginal Way barrels

A little investigation reveals that the barrels are the property of Industrial Container Services, the self-described largest provider of reusable container solutions in the United States.

Their mission statement? An industrial container in every home. (Or perhaps not, but this writer wishes it were.)

West Marginal Way barrels

One of the values ICS provides its customers is freedom from environmental concerns. This perk is provided thanks to regular system flow analysis and a giant insurance policy.

As we pondered the environmental impact of reusable industrial containers, we found ourselves in a surprisingly appreciative mood. After all, somebody should have a standard process for handling the containers that transport toxic waste. Best to leave it to the professionals, to the guys who eat cyanide with their breakfast cereals instead of almonds. This was like returning our used milk bottles to the supermarket – although only if washing out milk bottles were illegal and required a hazmat suit to perform safely.

West Marginal Way barrels

Then we noticed the water carrier truck parked in front of the ICS offices. Not content to contemplate the barrel pyramids, it was busy flooding its contents into the street. A small river filled the deep potholes along West Marginal Way, splashing high into the air as bemused traffic swerved and dodged the flood.

We avoided the spray, took our pictures and left the area. We hoped we hadn’t become first-responders at a toxic waste spill. We wondered whether the insurance policy would cover us. And we began to question the utility of system flow analysis.

All told, we were glad the barrels were still there. To serve a higher purpose, perhaps, but mainly to look pretty.

West Marginal Way barrels

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Seattle Gear Works, emergency exit

Some days the soul requests not botanical gardens but industrial grit. Not perfection but broken things.

On those days, a drive down the Duwamish into South Park brings satisfaction like no other local road trip.

Our route extends along barely paved roads. We splash through puddles that are small lakes. We dodge potholes deep enough to drown a cyclist. We drive by mountains of barrels, piles of crates, and idle machinery left to rust by the side of the road. We breathe in the chaos of an unregulated economy.

The Duwamish waterfront is a land of enterprise. It has the vibrancy of a third world city. It is the American dream waking up on a Superfund site and stretching its legs.

Cain Bolt & Gasket front door

And while bolts and gaskets may be a nice change from cultivating the land, the broken pallets whisper that sacrifice isn’t always sufficient for success.

Across the street, another brotherly endeavor is doing quite a bit better.

Back door landscapingEmergency exit landscaping

In the black and white South Park landscape, even a spot of color and taste catches the eye. In the back alleys of S Portland St, we turned away from Cain and were surprised by something beautiful.

Emergency exit landscapingBack door landscaping

The emergency back door with the fantastic landscaping belongs to Seattle Gear Works. A family-owned gear manufacturing and repair company, the Gear Works was founded in 1946 by Ingwald Ramberg. It is currently owned and managed by his two sons Roland and Sterling.

What began as a small garage business has grown into an international enterprise with over $20M in annual revenue and over a hundred employees. Gear Works gears are used in virtually every kind of industrial endeavor on the planet, from wind energy to military machinery. The South Park location facing us is actually one of the largest gear manufacturing facilities in the country.


Seattle Gear works, we salute your attention to detail and your taste in landscaping. We’d love to see the inside of your plant.

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Terminal 115 Viewpoint, revisited

Consider the balance between the already seen and the unforeseen.

A place, once visited and photographed, is committed to memory; saved on disk; gently processed for public consumption; and ultimately presented to the internet for the entire planet to view, discuss, perhaps reference. It is caught in amber, stale data already seen and now forever misleading.

Naturally, reality moves on while the virtual stands still. Electrons move fast, but atoms faster still. As the ancients might have said, things change.

Consider Terminal 115 viewpoint, already seen. Its gritty post-war beauty came not from the stagnant river or the military overpass, but from the old fisherman’s shack with its sunken barrels and boarded windows. A surprise, a touch of the handmade in a manufactured world. Unforeseen.

Eight months later, the shack is gone. Taken by the river, or a victim of the messy, unpredictable real world? Perhaps both.

Derelict shack at Terminal 115 is gone

So a second visit converts a place that was, in a way, special into yet another rock pile next to the Duwamish.

Terminal 115 viewpointTerminal 115 viewpoint

To be sure, the 1st Ave S bridge still has its East Berlin chic.  It’s mostly the sniper towers.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

There are still random things lying on the banks of the Duwamish, particularly at low tide.  The river is a liquid steampunk landfill, and you never know what it’ll decide to wash up.  This time it was somebody’s metal pipe.

First Avenue South Bridge overpass

On closer inspection, more things had changed. As it turns out, the previous occupants of 100 SW Peninsula Pl weren’t a marine diving company, as the previous note might have suggested. Instead, behind the fence was an eponymous outfit called Commercial Fence. They demonstrated their business acumen through an inordinate fondness for razor wire.

Barbed wire

According to a sign onsite, Commercial Fence has now moved to greener pastures on W Marginal Way S. The vacant lot has presumably been purchased by the Port of Seattle. The Port of Seattle, of course, remains its usual charming self.

Our friendly Port of Seattle

Not only that, their first act upon taking over the property was to take down the fisherman’s shack. No doubt the space will be used for something eminently practical.

Alas. Perhaps better to remember the already seen and avoid the location forever more, unless the unforeseen invalidate the memory.

Fisherman’s shack, you’ll be remembered. That is, if we can get ourselves disentangled from the razor wire.

Barbed wire

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Elliott Bay Marina

Heading north from where the Port of Seattle ends at Smith Cove, you find yourself among humans again.  The sound of conversation echoes over the water.  There is laughter, and there are flower beds and the scent of freshly mowed grass.  There are children on leashes and parents holding the hands of pet dogs.  There are ships, and the waves lap ever so softly against the dock.

This is the Elliott Bay marina.  It is a place of opulence, Manhattan to the South Park marina’s Bronx.  Located beneath the beautiful Magnolia bluffs, it enjoys a fantastic view of Seattle’s downtown.  It’s the high rent district.

And it is in every way perfect.

Seattle through Elliott Bay Marina

From the landlubber’s perspective, a marina is a symmetric jumble of impractical vessels.  From small pleasure boats to larger liveaboards, they lack the blue-collar ethic of the fishing boat, or the single-minded purpose of the cargo ship.  They are entirely optional, an indication of perhaps entirely too much wealth, or perhaps of a set of priorities and lifestyle choices that befuddle and confuse the poor landlubber.

In that light, you would be justified in asking ask why these ships are here.  Who pays the rent, and why?

Elliot Bay Marina

Interesting though these questions might be, this story is not about the luxury tax, the call of the waves, or the jet-setting lifestyle of the modern yacht mariner.

Nor is this story about the attempted poisoning of pesky but adorable otters, which prompted an indulgent but stern rebuke from the marina’s manager. This is a different story entirely.

As it turns out, the story of the Elliott Bay Marina is about fishing rights.

Elliott Bay Marina reflections

Like most stories, it’s but a simplification of a simplification.  The complexities of life evade simple description.  Everything but the bare essence is lost in the telling.

Pier 91 reflections

The story begins with the Treaty of Medicine Creek.  It’s December of 1854 in the remote territory of Washington.

Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens is a former military man, hell-bent on a land grab of historic proportions.  His title includes the honorific "Superintendent of Indian Affairs" and he is clearly living the dream.  When the tribes don’t respond to intimidation, he calls in the military.  When white citizens oppose him, he arrests or discredits them.  He is on a mission to civilize this heathen part of the god-given earth.

At Medicine Creek he gathers the leaders of the Nisqually, the Puyallup and the rest of the tribes of Western Washington.  For the princely sum of $32,500 and some reservation land, over two million acres of land are signed off to the United States government.  With a native population of just 6,000, resistance is futile and they know it.  It’s an offer they simply cannot refuse.

It’s a moment that will leave long scars on their future.  In their minds eye, the shining cities to come have already begun to cast a shadow.  Not theirs anymore, never again.

Seattle from Elliott Bay Marina

As an afterthought, the treaty grants the natives the right to fish.

The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.

For those of us who buy never-frozen wild salmon from behind the counters of large industrial organic establishments, the dirty business of catching the damn things is forever hidden.  Nevertheless, this is a generous grant indeed.  Perhaps Governor Stevens is after all a humanitarian.

It is worth recalling that in 1854, the Nisqually could throw a rock at water, and a grilled salmon would float to the bank.  Fish and game were effectively limitless at the time, in a way that neither we nor our descendants will ever understand.  The treaty could have granted the natives the right to breathe, and it would have been no more surprising.  The only surprise is that it was included at all.

It’s tempting to imagine an enterprising chief slipping this clause past the white man’s careless lawyers, with another seconding the motion and a third moving to commit.  We’ll never know.  The minutes of the meeting are lost, and the establishment of such rules of order were twenty two years in the future.  All there was at Medicine Creek was the order of the gun.

Elliot Bay Marina

So the Nisqually tribe packs up and leaves for the reservation.  It’s on rocky ground, and there’s no good way to grow food.  It’s also cut off from the river, so there’s no good way to fish.  The long starvation begins.

The next year, chief Leschi goes to Olympia to protest the terms of the treaty.  He claims his signature was forged and he had refused to sign.  The powers that be react violently and Leschi has no choice:  it’s time to think the unthinkable, and rebel against the state of Washington.

One thing leads to another, and we get the Puget Sound war of 1855-1856.  Unsurprisingly, the full force of the US military and local militias are brought to bear, and the revolt is suppressed.  While few actual deaths result from the war, the native uprising is a shock to the settlers.  One might argue that at this point, the natives were lucky they weren’t exterminated.

Meanwhile, chief Leschi is on the run and Governor Stevens is having paranoid fits. He suspects some settlers of helping Leschi, and he goes to the length of declaring martial law in Pierce County. Eventually he catches up with Leschi and tries him in various kangaroo court until it sticks. His half-brother and co-conspirator Quiemuth comes forward to try to save his brother, and he’s murdered in Steven’s own office while in custody of the state. Leschi’s conviction takes him to the gallows, and he’s hanged for murder he probably wasn’t present to commit.

Olympic Mountains sunset

By 1880, the Nisqually tribe has shrunk to 700 people, down from over 2,000 at the beginning of the century.  Their access to the salmon runs has became illegal banditry.  The state government is of the white extractive industries, for the white extractive industries.  Rivers are haphazardly closed, and various forms of fishing are banned, conveniently those used by the natives.

Meanwhile, civilization grows.  Rivers are dammed, forests are logged, and industrial-scale fishing is making a dent in limitless but fragile resources.  The salmon runs dwindle, and of course native poaching is blamed.

Two subsequent court cases illustrate the themes of the time.

In 1905, a federal court decides the US vs. Winans case in favor of the natives, reaffirming the rights of the Yakama tribe to fish in local rivers.  However, it allows the state of Washington to reasonably regulate this fishing in the interests of conversation.  The State of Washington, never one to miss a trick, makes a river of lemonade and interprets the ruling as carte blanche to continue to enforce its laws regarding licenses, fishing methodology restrictions, and river closures.

In 1916, in the State vs. Towessnute case, State Supreme Court Justice Bausman effectively reverses Winans, writing the following words for the record:

The premise of Indian sovereignty we reject. The treaty is not to be interpreted in that light. At no time did our ancestors in getting title to this continent ever regard the aborigines as other than mere occupants, and incompetent occupants, of the soil. Any title that could be had from them was always disdained… Only that title was esteemed which came from white men… The Indian was a child, and dangerous child of nature, to be both protected and restrained. In his nomadic life, he was to be left , as long as civilization did not demand his region. When it did demand that region, he was to be allotted a more confined area with permanent subsistence… These arrangements were but the announcement of our benevolence which, notwithstanding our frequent frailties, has been continuously displayed. Neither Rome nor sagacious Britain ever dealt more liberally with their subject races than we with these savage tribes, whom it permitted to squander vast areas of fertile land before our eyes.

Two other state court cases that year went along the same lines.  Presumably demoralized, none of the tribes appeal to the US Supreme Court.  Native fishermen continue to ply their trade, but are increasingly subject to the whims of local law enforcement.  Most traditional means of fish harvesting are now illegal, including spearing and gaffing.

In effect, life and tradition itself is now illegal.

Seattle through Elliott Bay Marina

By the 1960s, native access to the salmon runs has become a civil rights issue, and a cause célèbre of Marlon Brando and others.  Civil disobedience is in the air, as is violence.  The state continues to enforce its laws.  In September 1970, Tacoma police arrest and beat 59 protestors on the Puyallup river, using tear gas, clubs and live ammunition to restore law and order.  Finally, the feds step in.  That same month, the US government files United States vs. Washington.

The honorable George Boldt presides.  He’s a conservative Eisenhower appointee in his late sixties, and a sports fisherman himself.  The smart money shorts the natives.

The case lasts three and a half years.  Boldt listens.  He hears state officials and tribal elders.  He reads the treaty.  Signed in haste and under duress, it’s the only thing that can protect the natives now.  Boldt consults his copy of the 1828 Webster’s American Dictionary.  He writes 203 pages worth of decision.

Flags at Elliott Bay Marina

The Boldt decision is a miracle or infamous, depending on your point of view.  It gives the tribes 50% of the harvestable salmon from their traditional waters, because that’s what that in common with would have meant in 1854.  In an instant, the natives are no longer bandits and thieves, but co-managers of the salmon industry.

Attorney General Slade Gorton appeals all the way up to the US Supreme Court, but to no avail.  His family’s fish stick fortune is no conflict of interest, and he later spends his golden years in the company of an even greater band of thieves, the US Senate.  Washington’s tribes and its fishing industry reach an uneasy equilibrium, which lasts to this day.

But what of our fair marina?

Elliot Bay Marina

As it turns out, the Elliott Bay marina was built in the accustomed fishing grounds of the Muckleshoot and Suquamish tribes.  When the initial development plans became public, the tribes sued.  Using Boldt as precedent, a US District Court granted a quick preliminary injunction against the marina’s development.

Furious settlement activities followed, and an agreement was reached that allowed the marina’s development to proceed while compensating for the lost fishing.  A percentage of the marina’s gross revenues are now paid directly to the tribes, which by my rough calculations might amount to over a quarter million dollars every year – a bit more than what the court document say was coming in from fishing.  This arrangement will last for 99 years, and everyone seems happy about it, including the salmon.

The marina itself opened in 1991, and it’s reasonably environmentally friendly as marinas go. It doesn’t use creosote pilings, and its rock breakwater channels allow kelp to grow and juvenile salmon to migrate.  If salmon runs are threatened in this area and all around the Puget Sound, it’s probably not because of this marina.  While it may be because of countless shoreline developments just like it, you can’t blame the knife for the thousand cuts.

And if a century later the tribes will be down one more natural resource, well, that’s not a problem for the present.  Maybe investing the money will pay off more than the fishing ever did.

One last detail:  every time a yacht pulls into the Elliott Bay marina, there’s a line item in its mooring charges named the "Indian Surcharge" – called out explicitly out of pique, out of honesty, or perhaps out of legal requirement.  It’s a living tribute to a vivid history that would otherwise have gone completely unnoticed by this storyteller.

Olympic Mountains sunset

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Smith Cove Park

North of the working-class bustle of Pier 90/91 and the hyperactivity of the Pier 86 grain terminal, we find Smith Cove Park.  A quiet park belonging to the Port of Seattle, it overlooks the high-end Elliott Bay Marina.

Smith Cove park anchorMarina sunset

The anchor marks a small but important piece of history.  The cove is named for Dr. Henry Smith of Wooster, Ohio, one of the first whites to settle in the Seattle area in 1853.

Industrial ivy

HistoryLink tells his story:

"Dr. Smith traveled in a wagon train to the Oregon Territory from Wooster, Ohio, with his wife, his mother and his sister. He picked the cove for his claim and built a cabin there in the spring of 1853. He thought the spot was a good location for docks and that the flat area was a natural for a transcontinental railroad terminus. He and his family planted potatoes. His mother, Abigail Teaff Smith (b. 1792) staked out the next claim north. Smith cut a trail through the woods, three miles to Seattle as an alternative to the canoe route. Another settler, Edmund Carr, laid claim to the south side of Salmon Bay, having explored the north side of Queen Anne Hill and The Outlet, the creek connecting Lake Union and the salt water.

Many newcomers felt that Smith’s Cove was the logical site for a city on Elliott Bay. The ground there was level and the hills to each side were ideal as residential districts. More settlers arrived and filed claims. They made their livings farming and logging.

During the Indian War of 1855-1856, the settlers fled their claims for the safety of block houses in Seattle. When they returned after hostilities, they found their homes burned and their stock gone. Dr. Smith’s first cabin was spared, apparently a tribute to his good relations with his Native American neighbors. Smith would later be the source for a widely circulated account of the speech of Chief Seattle during an 1854 visit of Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862)."

Magnolia bridge sunset

We came for the history, but we ended up staying for the sunset.

As we searched the shoreline fruitlessly for a rumored otter family, the sun lit up the clouds behind the Magnolia Bridge.  We stood and watched as blue gave way to pinks, then purples, then reds.  And we thought about Dr. Smith.

Magnolia bridge sunsetMagnolia bridge sunset

As it turns out, the Smith Cove plaque doesn’t mention the war of 1855 at all.  You don’t hear a lot about the Pacific Northwest Indian Wars, even though just about everything in the area still bears some form of the native name.

A brief glance at Wikipedia reminds you.  First the explorers, a fascinating novelty.  Then the settlers arriving from the east, first in trickles, then in multitudes.  Claiming the land, like explorers on a distant planet.  Building fences, introducing strange new plants and animals, changing everything.  At first, uneasy coexistence and informal agreements.  Then, the burdens of formality, and treaties signed in the face of overwhelming force.  Might makes right.  Ink that imposes harsh restrictions, flowing in only one direction.  An ever-expanding settler population overflowing each boundary, invalidating each covenant.  Nobody wants war, but the treaties exist only to occupy and enclose.  And the gold lust is berserker fury, recognizing no authority but the gun.

The great father in Washington is powerful.  The US Army is always out there somewhere , ready to engage when white interests are threatened.  Citizen militias are well-armed, and suffer no restrictions.  Merciless, they defend their own.  There is no justice, because justice is a concept for the enfranchised.  The red are outside the circle, another tribe entirely.  Now they are aliens on their own soil, no more worthy of respect or survival then the bison, the wolves or the bears.  They are simply the other, the enemy.  Submit or die.

Magnolia bridge sunset

You read Chief Seattle‘s apocryphal speech and you wonder about the undercurrents.  Henry Smith of Wooster, Ohio, imbuing his poet’s voice, with god knows what intent, into a mistranslated paraphrase of words spoken by a defeated Indian chief in occupied Seattle.  Words that romanticize and absolve.  Words that resonate with meaning, but which may never have been spoken at all.

The speech is a heartbreaking suicide note, an embodiment of genocidal depression, an utter denial of the possibility of co-existence.  It is a handing-over-the-torch letter, a lie-down-and-die message, a resignation so pitiful it defies belief.  The speech is like a white settler’s guilty dream;  that great historical cycles explain what they did, instead of greed and manifest destiny;  that the blood be washed from their hands by their victims themselves;  that the populated land they came to conquer be somehow emptied before them;  that the green valleys and fisheries be deemed virginal, not taken by force;  that the history be a glorious account of heroes, not the victory of the more powerful and less scrupulous.

Chief Seattle’s people live on to this day.  What began as an uneasy truce may have evolved into defeatist resignation, but it has now become a triumph of capitalism through selective deregulation:  i.e. the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort.

And yet, the speech remains.  Or rather, the account of it.

One civilization conquered another.  A great nation was forged over the ashes of the old.  A beautiful city was built, a natural paradise destroyed.  This is war, as it always was, as it is today, as it will always be.

Ultimately, the past leaves us nothing but ideas, etched in stone and paper by someone with an axe to grind.  And so for the defeated, what greater humiliation than the words of the great chief, twisted and rewritten as forked tongue apology?  Thus is history ever written and rewritten.  The house always wins, even in Suquamish.

Smith Cove water at sunset

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Elliott Bay Park

There are many ways to get to Elliott Bay Park.  My favorite is the Helix Pedestrian Bridge.

Helix Pedestrian Bridge

Helix Pedestrian Bridge

On the other side of the bridge lies Amgen’s Research and Technology Center, next to pleasant Puget Sound vistas.

Amgen amino acid polePuget Sound sunset

Built by Amgen after its acquisition of local Seattle biotech darling Immunex, the Helix Bridge provides safe passage over a highly active train line.

Helix Pedestrian Bridge

Seattle downtown train tracks

The train line is a commercial artery into the heart of Elliott Bay Park:  the massive grain terminal operated by Louis Dreyfus Corp.

Pier 86 Grain Terminal

Located on the Port of Seattle’s Pier 86, the terminal was built in 1970 to efficiently move grain from incoming trains to outgoing ships.  The terminal boasts 68 massive silos, each 130 feet high.

If Terminal 18 is a perpetual motion machine, Pier 86 is a robotized line dance.

Pier 86 grain terminal and trains

BNSF and Union Pacific trains run day and night through this corridor, loaded with soybeans and corn from the American heartland – the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana and Nebraska.  Some token wheat from Washington and Oregon also passes through Pier 86.

Pier 86 Grain elevator

Most of the grain leaving Seattle will be used as feed for livestock in the far East, with Taiwan, China and Japan as primary destinations.  Central and South America also receive some portion of the grain.

Pier 86 Grain elevator

All told, over 6 million tons of grain move through Pier 86 every year.

Mass Glory loads up on grain

While most of the grain is buffered in the terminal’s 4 million bushels of storage capacity, some is transferred directly from train to ship.  This is apparently preferable, as it allows the grain to be loaded onto the ship in somewhat better condition.  It’s a rough life being a cereal.

Pier 86 grain terminal

The terminal is able to load 3,000 tons of grain per hour into a giant cargo ship.  It is also able to unload trucks at a rate of 250 tons per hour.  This throughput is only possible thanks to the facility being completely automated, with sophisticated mechanical devices and electronic controls.  Who needs humans when you have such infrastructure?

Helix Pedestrian Bridge over train tracks

During the day, the grain terminal is a spectacular sight.  At night, the facility expands and fills all other senses.

Pier 86 grain terminal

Freed from ambient noise, trains click and clack with wild abandon, advancing one car at a time to feed the grain elevator’s endless hunger.  Electric conveyor belts drone and hum.  The enormous ship sloshes and clanks.  In the distance, the city looks on proudly.

Seattle from Pier 86

Grain dust rises from the ships as seeds roll into the ship’s hold. The smell is pervasive and intoxicating. It is earth and sunlight, the deep smell of the harvest, the taste of late summer. It is carbohydrate and omega-6, the deep imbalance of our bodies. It is, above all, commodity.

Pier 86 grain terminal with flour cloud

The flour settles on the bay.  Algae blooms and metabolizes in the shallows, chaining together an entire ecosystem of micro-organisms, fish, and seagulls.  The breadbasket of the world also creates local food chains.

Pier 86 grain terminal

A nearby fishing pier invites the adventuresome, the foolhardy and the merely hungry to taste the results.

Pier 86 fishing pier

While probably not the world’s most unhealthy fish, Elliott Bay’s catch is surely somewhere high on the leaderboards.  This is why catch and release was invented.

The world's best liars

Nearby, the Amgen facility works until late into the light, glowing with science and artificial light.  Biotechnology meets corn.  Reason sleeps and spawns monsters.

Amgen facilities

Elliott Bay Park continues down to Pier 90 and 91, where moorage is provided for commercial workboats and fishing vessels.

Pier 90 lights

This is as far as the Port of Seattle reaches.  It is the end of the port, the northernmost tentacle of the monster.

Farther east, Smith Cove becomes the Elliott Bay Marina, an oasis of liveaboards and recreational vessels.  Children play on the piers and well-tended lawns.  Once again, the humans are unmistakably in control.

Pier 90 lights

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Port of Seattle

At first glance, the Port of Seattle is a hostile, inhuman place.  It is a police state on an artificial island, defended by barbed wire and an infinite number of checkpoints and security guards.

Barbed Wire

It is also a Superfund site, thanks to upstanding corporate citizens such as Shell Oil and their magnificent petroleum storage tanks.

Fuel storage at Port of Seattle

The port’s primary purpose is to transfer an oceanful of containers from enormous cargo ships to endless trains.  With over two million containers processed per year, it’s an unimaginably large operation.

Port of Seattle

The port’s most striking feature are its massive cranes.  Were we to encounter them in nature, we would say that like the hummingbird’s tongue, the crane is a fantastic adaptation – in this case, to a natural abundance of standard-sized containers.

Port of Seattle crane in actionPort of Seattle crane with container

Seen at this scale, the port is more Star Wars than Pacific Northwest.  In this version the droids took over and dedicated the energies of the universe to replication.

Port of Seattle

All this hardware is a throwback to an earlier time, before the lures of plastics, when men were men and every American delighted in designing enormous metal machines. When everyone had a hammer, and the the sky burned red from the ore, the smelters, and the sheer joy of manufacturing.

Port of SeattlePort of Seattle

But the cranes are but a means to an end, and that end is containers.

Inside the containers lie dormant the very seeds of the globalized economy.  Embodied ideas from every part of the globe, made real by the plastic alchemists of the far East.  Protected in their steel shells from wind and water, they float across the Pacific like coconuts on an ironclad tide.


Once unloaded, the mother ship but a memory, all individuality lost, the containers gather in droves on the shores of the promised land.  One by one, they are opened and inspected by the paranoia of Seattle’s finest in homeland security.  Papers cleared, passports stamped, Geiger counters in silence, the containers await the crab-like vehicles that gather them up in their pincers and deposit them on train lines etched silver on the asphalt docks.

Port of Seattle train linesTrain crossing

From there onwards, lifelines diverge.  Paths fork.  Train tracks curve and wind.  Cars rust and creak.  Steam rises at dawn.  In the distance are mountains, shining cities, dust bowls.  Transfer stations and miles of highway.  Midnight truck stops, fragrance of gasoline and bad coffee.  An entire continent awaits.

Port of Seattle trains

Eventually, entropy wins.  Everything is unloaded.  Outside its steel shell, uncertainty entangles and takes dramatic form.  Born into the world anew, now remembering only the limbo of the manufacturing floor, countless objects of consumption take flight.  Used briefly, most will spend the next millennia underground.  A lucky few will find their way back to the gyres of the Pacific, like salmon searching forever for the waters of their birth.

Train still life

Our creations, like ourselves.  Objects whose lives are a brief interlude between eternities of waiting.  We are what we make, and we make what we are.

Birdlife at the portTwin cranes

Back at the port, the machines tower over the frail human landscape.  Lines are drawn, but priorities are clear.

Harbor Island crane at sunset

This is monumental architecture, operating as intended.  Bereft of design, formless in the face of function, no frame of reference remains to humanize the grand automation of commerce.

Two cranes

The surrounding highways and bridges offer no respite.  They carry streams of motorized containers on wheels, protecting economically precious assets.  At sunset, the evening commute melts into the industrial landscape.  Until the weekend, we are but cargo.

West Seattle Bridge

Alas, there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine.  Left to its own devices, the port will eventually halt.  We can prove it.  Energy pools will exhaust themselves, iron will rust, and engines will run down.  The prime mover is elsewhere, outside the system.  It is something more ancient, something native.

Seattle under the overpass

Behind every industrial act lie scores of unscratched itches, pools of fermented need, desires never satisfied, multiplication with no divisor.  Unspeakably unjust, and yet utterly indistinguishable from legitimacy, from hungry mouths, unshod feet, unclothed limbs.

Naked we emerge from the womb, here to eat, drink and breathe the world, one twenty-foot equivalent unit at a time.  A fine line separates our appetites from our combustion engines, our bodies from the machines that do our bidding.  Flesh becomes steel and glass, neurons electrons.  We increase efficiency, and do more with less.

Crowley building window

To gaze at the port is to gaze into the abyss. We may see a monster, but we cannot deny its essential humanity.  It is a mirror we hold up to ourselves, a conjoined twin grown to obscene size, sprawled in its own effluence. It is beautiful, and so are we.  It is frightening, and so we fear ourselves.  More so than humans themselves, the splendid machines are the quintessence of humanity, writ large on the smokestack sky, the polluted water, and the endless freighters.

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Georgetown Steam Plant, part II of II

No, there’s really no need to attach those electrodes to my skull.

I’ll tell you everything that happened.  I wouldn’t lie to you.  Not to you.

Wait, this is a treason panel, isn’t it? But why…?

Gentlemen, nobody loves our city state more than I do.  I was born in Seattle.  I remember what this place was like.  Before the Martian war, the Scorching, the Emancipation…  Before the goddamn zeppelin pirates.  Before every other fishing boat had to become an ironclad.  Before the robots starting taking our…

Yes, sir.  Fine.  I’ll get to the point.

Interstellar radio

It all began with a wireless call.

5:00am is a bad time to call me.  Nobody does it unless it’s important.  So I pick up and it’s John.  My friend John, the night technician at the Plant.  You should talk to him too.  He’ll confirm my story, just…

Oh.  No, I didn’t know anything about that.  I was afraid that…  God, I wish I had…

Yes, I can continue.

So John wants me to come down to the plant.  He’s seeing things, he says.  He doesn’t want someone to think he’s crazy.  You and me go way back, he says.  And you’re good at these things.

What things?  But I can’t get a straight answer.

Not like John at all.  So I get my gun.  No sir, standard KP-12, got it at Wade’s.  Not jailbroken.  Legal.  I have the papers at my place.  Oh, you got them there?  Why’d you ask, then?

Steampunk weaponry

You know everything, huh?  Well, I owe John a favor from the war.  Back when we’re first starting to use those giant nitroglycerin bombs against the Martians, I get hit with some shrapnel from one of our zeppelin bombing runs.  Some bloody cowboy clown from Renton, trying to be a avenge his family, be a hero.  Just throwing ’em everywhere.

So I’m wounded, and everything is going a bit dark, but I’m this close to a Martian walker, and even though I’m losing blood like crazy, I really want to see what’s inside the damn things.  Always empty metal shells when we got ’em.  Nobody ever saw one-

Yessir, that was twenty five years ago.  No, it’s not relevant.

He saved my life then, see, and we’re still friends.  So when John asks for a favor, I drag myself out of bed, turn on the pipes, drink some coffee and gear up for war.  For free.

Steampunk seating

So I take a quick balloon to the plant.  Land over where that Boeing kid started making those new airship models last new.  I don’t know what he’s doing there, but the place smells bad.  Like something poisoned it.  We only have so much land left unscorched, and the last thing we need is shit in the Duwamish.  You people really should look into…

Yes sir, sorry.

So I walk towards the plant from the airstrip and there’s John.  Babbling about stars and lights or something like that. You have to see it, he says.  It wants the difference engine to help, and I don’t know what to do.

Yes, that’s what he said.

I realize that it doesn’t make any sense.  But John has tears in his eyes, and I’ve never seen that.

I’ve been under fire with this guy, see.  But I know what he looks like when we’re in an East Side foxhole and the Martians are firing those crazy sonics at us.  So I figure whatever it is, we don’t got ourselves an immediately hostile situation.  Know what I mean?  So I just walk past John, and go through the door into the plant.

Museum interiorWheel

No, except for John the plant was empty.  No guards.

I don’t know.  The other technicians sleep at night, I suppose.  You call ’em if you need ’em. And John’s there to keep the place running, he knows what to do.  But there were no guards.  Are there usually…?

Yeah, need to know, of course.

So I start walking around the plant.  I love seeing this place, it’s like every kid’s little dream of fire trucks and trains and steam engines and gaslights…

No sir, I’ll get to that in a minute.

John is walking with me, telling me he doesn’t know what to do, it’s just too far.  After a minute, I give up asking him questions, and eventually pull rank.  Sergeant, shut up!  And he shuts up.

You never really get the war out of your system.

DoorwaysSteam engine and bridge

So we walk around the ground floor.  Everything seems fine, the whole place humming along just like you’d expect.  I start poking at the gauges, even turning a faucet or two, and John just looks at me wordlessly – like there’s a bear in your tent, but it’s asleep so that’s okay because you know what to do.

And then I hear it.

I don’t know, sir.  I still don’t know.

It’s a vibration so deep, it’s like the air is going to shake us until we burst.  I can’t even stand, it’s like the ’33 earthquake in slow motion.  The plant is spinning around me, and I can just see the hot water bursting out of the turbines and drowning us all.  And I tell myself I should be afraid, but everything is moving really, really slowly and I’m just a little surprised is all.  I’m stretching my limbs out in every direction, looking for something, something very important.  But I can’t remember what it is, and all I can think about is how bad the fucking coffee tasted this morning.  And then, I’m looking at myself from the outside, and I feel so lost and separated from myself so deep that I want to cry.  There’s this vast void I want to leap across.  And then I think that maybe this is what John is feeling, and why he won’t talk to me.

No sir, I understand this is bullshit.

Then it just moves away from us.  I don’t know how to describe it, other than I feel it sliding away, droning its way across the plant and then it’s gone.

And John is just standing there, still staring at me, and the plant isn’t falling down on us after all.  There’s a rack full of old tools right next to me, and none of them are even shaking.

Clerical weaponry

No, sir, cocaine doesn’t agree with me at all.  Maybe it doesn’t give you a headache.

Yes, maybe I was hallucinating.  It was pretty early in the morning

No, sir, there was nothing special in the coffee.  You know how expensive sugar is these days.

Yes sir, you’d think that I’d do that.  But all that’s in my head right now is to follow that vibration.  I know how crazy that sounds.  It sounds that way to me too.  I haven’t done my job all these years without a sense of self-preservation.

But that’s the thing, see.  I don’t feel like I’m in danger.  I just know.  So I follow it around the plant.

Silver machineCiaroscuro

John’s still behind me, still walking like he’s in a trance.  I’m feeling weird, like I’m following someone who’s lost.  We stumble into the machine room on the second floor, and then suddenly John shouts something and starts running towards a control panel.  And I think I know what’s happening for a minute, wrong string to pull, and then I have no idea what that means.

But the room tries to tell us.  It lights up in red, like the reddest red alert you ever saw, and there’s this panicked, lurching drone of a bass scream from deep from within the turbines.

Red alert

Yes, sir, that might have been when Seattle blacked out.

No, I have no idea what did it.  It just happened.

But I hear John screaming something about cavorite overheating. I don’t know what that means;  I thought cavorite really didn’t heat up at all.  But it doesn’t sound like something good.  And there’s this moment when I look up and all I see is the quicksilver line creeping up in this thermometer on the wall, like it’s going to burst out the top and just keep going towards the ceiling.

Then John hits the button.

Mercury risingToo many choices

Yes sir, I know that when the plant goes down, it means our air defenses are down.  No cannons.  At the time, and please don’t take this the wrong way, that didn’t seem so important.

John was running around the room, opening emergency supply pipes to get some extra cooling.  Yes, he did seem to know what he was doing.

Pipes, chains and ladders

No, John was worried about the plant melting down.  The plant’s his life.  Yes, I know it’s everyone else’s lives, too.  But John always loved his machines, and this is the best machine he’s ever had.

And what he did makes sense, doesn’t it?  Take the plant down.  Restart it carefully.  Then figure out what happened.

No, I don’t know if there was anything else going on.  What do I know?

I don’t know that he was in a right state of mind.  Neither was I.

Gauge art

So the red light goes off and the plant just stops.  All the pressure gauges are at zero.  There’s this eerie silence, and I don’t know if we’re heroes or something else entirely.

John just keeps going.  He fiddles with some more controls and I can feel the the plant turning back on again.  Then he tells me to go talk to the difference engine.

Yes, talk.

Sir, I’m aware that a difference engine can’t talk.  I don’t know what to tell you now, but it made some kind of crazy sense at the time.

Heat pipesKeeping the balance

The plant is beginning to train up again, and it’s humming like crazy.  The heat-pipes that cool the difference engine are beginning to glow. The analog heart is ticking again. And I don’t really know what I’m doing here, except it’s important.

Then I look into the engine’s core and I see it.

Gazing into the abyss

Yes sir, I’ll get to that.  That was a few minutes later.

I see a vast darkness between lights.  I feel hopelessly lost, just like I did before.  I see streaks of light reaching out across the darkness, and being extinguished.  I feel like death.  But I have to keep going.

Then something is telling me something that really matters, and I have to repeat it before I forget.  And I’m pushing buttons and turning knobs and spelling out words in some weird alphabet, like it’s Japanese or something.

Yeah, an island out west.  You’re probably too young.

No sir, I know a difference engine isn’t a typewriter.  But this was as real to me as you are now, sir.

The last thing I see is this hangar.  It’s just like the steam plant boiler room, but it’s also where the airships were launched from.

I don’t know which airships, sir.  I’m trying to tell you what I saw.  What I knew at the time.

I’m rushing towards this bright light, and the walls are vibrating yellow and green, and then a color I don’t even have a name for.  Then I’m hurtling out into the darkness, crushed by acceleration, but I’m not afraid because my sisters are with me.

Did I say sisters?  I don’t know…  Only child, sir.

And then I’m just staring into a corrugated iron sheet.  Made in Georgetown, just like everything else.  But I know the difference engine is happy, and the vibration around us like a purr.

Furnace roomFurnace room

The purr tells me to run.

Furnace room

So I run into the boiler room.  That’s where I need to hide, I just know.

From what?  I don’t know.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

All I can think about is the coal stains on the walls, and that I don’t want to end up another one. I run down a side aisle, where it’s going to be safe, and I’m grabbing at the chains hanging from the ceiling and pushing them aside.

Sir, I don’t know what I did to the difference engine. I don’t think I did anything, really.  What could I do?  I don’t know any of the codes.

No, I don’t know how I knew I would be safe.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

So I sit down in a nice isolated spot and wait.  I can feel the plant heating up again, and this time for some reason it feels right, like everything is going to be fine.  There’s a rhythm to it, like a mother giving birth.  The boiler room is ablaze with light, pulsating from yellow to white.

Every time it climaxes I have to close my eyes.

Furnace room corridorFurnace room corridor

Yes, sir, this was probably about the time when Seattle went down again.  And no, I don’t know what the plant was doing.  I’m not an engineer.

I don’t know where John was during all this.  He wasn’t with me.

No, sir, that’s right, you don’t leave a man behind.  But it’s like he was on his own mission, see.  I guess if I could say what was going through my head, it’s that I knew he was doing something important and I didn’t want to stop him.

I don’t know what that means.  It’s hard for me to understand too.

Furnace room corridor

Was there anyone else there?

No, sir, there was not.

Phantom of the furnace roomTrapped in a Faraday cage

I guess eventually I blacked out.  The light just kept getting brighter, that’s all I remember.

When I woke up, the stormtroopers were-

I am the fire

Sorry, the firemen were pointing their guns at me.  No, I don’t know how I got outside the plant.

Or what happened to all the cavorite that was powering the plant.  I know it’s irreplaceable.  I guess we get to reopen Newcastle now.

Or why the boiler room suddenly grew a giant hole on the south side.

Or what really happened to John.

How did I feel when I woke up?  To be honest, sir I felt really happy, and I don’t know why.  Joyful, almost.  Like when I was a kid, and it was Friday and school was finally out and I was free again.  Or like when I once helped a little kid find his mother, and she just looked at me and said thanks, without words.  That’s what was going through my mind.

Oh, that’s a leading question…  Was John a traitor…   You said you never found a body, right?  Well, I could say yes, and then we’d all have a good story to tell.

No, I’m not going to say that.  I think John made a decision, and that’s why you didn’t find him.  John is…  was…  a gentleman.  The kind of guy who always tried to help people when they were in trouble.  I told you he saved my life, that one time.  Maybe this time there was something more important than sticking around here.  Like he found a better machine or something…

May I go now, sir?  I’ve told you everything I know.


The wall that ate people

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Georgetown Steam Plant, part I of II

Behind a pair of unremarkable doors, a remarkable bit of history is preserved.

Georgetown Steam Plant back doorDecrepit door

The Georgetown Steam Plant was built in 1906, with the initial goal of powering a train line between Seattle and Tacoma.

Stream engineA very large conduit

The steam plant was built almost twenty-five years after Thomas Edison introduced electricity as a consumer product.  Electricity was rapidly going from modern marvel to commodity on the East coast, and demand for a steady supply had reached the Pacific Northwest.


In addition to the Interurban Railway, the plant also powered Seattle streetcars and provided residential and industrial AC power to Georgetown, at the time an independent city.

Steering wheelMuseum interior

The steam plant was built for the Seattle Electric Company by the engineering firm Stone & Webster, who were later key participants in the Manhattan Project.

Pipe mazeSmall engine

The plant used a pair of first-generation Curtis Vertical Steam Turbo-generator turbines, manufactured by General Electric.  The iPhone of its day, the Curtis was the first large-scale steam turbine developed by GE.

Looking up from below

In 1917, a third turbine generator was installed.  The steam needed to operate the plant was supplied by 16 boilers, fired using fuel oil or coal.

Steampunk pipesSteampunk pipes

The plant remained in operation until 1964.  It was kept on standby from 1971 through 1977, as part of a emergency power reserve plan for the region.  In 1977 the plant was officially decommissioned.  Three years later it became a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.  In 1984, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Steam engineForbidden ladder

The Georgetown Steam Plant now operates as the Georgetown PowerPlant Museum, open to the public on the second Saturday of each month.  The plant’s turbines remain operational, thanks to the tireless work of Lilly Tellefson and the late Paul Carosino.  According to the museum’s literature, these are the world’s last operable examples of early vertical steam generating turbines.

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Newcastle Historic Coal Miner’s Cemetery

The poet tells us that death is the great leveler.  Nowhere does that ring more true than a cemetery.

And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.

So it was for the miners and their kindred, brought to live, work and die in Newcastle after coal was discovered in 1863.  The Newcastle Historic Coal Miner’s Cemetery is where many of them were buried.


The cemetery is ghostly before dawn. The tombstones are irregularly placed, evidence of organic expansion overcoming any attempt at planning.  It is a world of shadows and dull colors.

Cemetery sunrise

Towards the north corner and up the hill are the graves of two black men, placed at the edge of the plot in an unsuccessful attempt at segregation.  For the time, it was remarkable even that the races even shared a graveyard.  Death levels all.

Long graveWife of...

Some plots are large and expansive, the legacy of multiple burials inside broad family plots.

Swordfern graves

Other graves are solitary, almost forlorn.


Swordfern grave

Here the book of life fades and nature reclaims its very words.

Nature reclaims the book

Some gravestones are rich and ornate, almost exuberant.  Most of these are from a more modern time, with names etched in granite or marble.  Which would have been an extreme luxury a hundred years earlier.

Norse or Jewish?Giacomo's marble headstone

Other gravestones have failed to withstand the elements, leaving only trace hints at the identities of the fallen.

Lie in our graves

Gravestone technology has come a long way in the last century.



In 1921, a fire ravaged the graveyard and destroyed all the wooden grave markers.  Any remaining wooden crosses are of recent construction.

Tilted gravestoneTilted gravestone

Many of the gravestones are showing their age.  Some lean at lopsided positions.  Some are being buried in turn by years of rain and slope erosion.  Some are chipped, cracked, even broken in two.

Dueling headstonesDueling headstones

And in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t push up the daisies.  You feed the moss.

Moss never sleepsCasket stone

Of particular interest are the gravestones whose three-link chain symbols signify membership of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.  This Christian altruistic service organization was the original founder and organizer of the Newcastle cemetery.

William J Lewis, remembered... for I was quickly called away

Odd Fellows are asked to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.  The three links in their chain represent Friendship, Love and Truth.

Chain links

This stone lies at the foot of one of the Odd Fellow gravestones.  Once there may have been two other stones accompanying it.

Love rock

The Newcastle cemetery combines peaceful anonymity with stunning intimacy.  Baby Fee Swanson’s brother was interviewed by the Seattle Times in 1997.  Nobody remembers the cause of her death.

Baby, 1909

In many cases, nobody remembers the names at all.  They are lost forever.

Good vibrations

When sunrise comes, the gravestones cast a long shadow and any lingering ghosts slowly dissipate into the ground.  The air is alive with contrast.  For a crisp, fleeting moment, it feels unusually good to be alive.

Sunrise shadowsSunrise shadows

As the light floods in, the cemetery is exposed as a lawn with chipped stones.  It struggles mightily to hold together the ancestral memory of a hundred and sixty lives, lived in a harsher world than ours with great dignity, joy and sorrow.

The mines that summoned them here are long-abandoned, their legacy felt only in place names and in the abandoned train line that once fed the hungry city to the west.  As generations pass, the descendants of the pioneers grow fewer.  Before long, all living memory of that time will fade.

Sunrise shadowsSunrise shadows

A reflection.  We build cemeteries to remember:  to keep alive and bring meaning to that burning, wordless pain.  We build them to forget:  to capture errant spirits and enclose them safely.  Under lock and key, hardwood coffin and heavy stone.

To the cemeteries we bring offerings, as our ancestors did before us, without knowing why.  We are children burying our parents, gods whose vital energy we receive and pass on in turn.  We visit the cemetery without a reason, only knowing that it is to be done.  We leave parts of ourselves as nourishment, and bring back with us something from outside the world.

Here, underneath it all, lies coal;  dark energy from a buried netherworld.  Here, miners live fleeting lives, dig up ancient graves to give civilization its lifeblood, then return to rest in shallow seams of their own making.

Maybe we really build cemeteries to lie to ourselves.  To ward off our own inevitable transience, to deny this cycle for the briefest of moments.  And for a moment it works, so long as the stones endure and the names are remembered.

In honor of...

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