Too High & Too Steep

I found a lot to remember from David Williams’ history of Seattle, and its interminable battle with topography, Too High & Too Steep. One thing is that the tideflats which used to make up all of Sodo and the South part of the city, including both stadia and Harbor Island, were not (as I’d always been told) made up of fill from dredging out the canal at the North end of Lake Washington, or even the Denny regrade. In fact, this area was created with material from a failed and scandalous attempt to cut a channel through Beacon hill, in order to unite South Lake Washington with Elliot Bay.

Although the value of made land in the former tideflats had increased at least tenfold since Semple’s project began, not everyone supported the South Canal. Opponents claimed that Semple actually had no plan to build his canal; instead, he was misleading the public and only blasting away at Beacon Hill to create material to fill the tideflats, which he intended to sell. Ironically, those who opposed the canal supported filling in the tideflats; what they didn’t approve of was that Semple used a public project to benefit himself. In addition, many of Semple’s opponents, including Burke, supported and owned property near where a north canal could be built (where the modern ship canal now exists).

Yielding to public opinion and the north-canal plan’s powerful supporters, the city council voted to turn off the supply of water that Semple needed to run his hydraulic cannons. By the end of 1904, notes Semple’s biographer, weeds were growing in the chasm on Beacon Hill. Semple’s decision to try to cut through Beacon Hill ultimately had been his downfall. IN may 1905, he was forced to resign as president of the Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, though the company continued to exist and, by 1917, had filled in 92 percent of the tideflats. No more work would be done ever again on the proposed South Canal through Beacon Hill, but if you look, you can still find two infrastructure elements from Semple’s misguided scheme.

To see the first, go to the spider’s web of ramps and overpasses that connect the Spoke Street Viaduct and Interstate 5 to Columbia Way and Beacon Hill. Engineers chose this spot to build the interchange because it is where Semple had started his canal, creating a large, unoccupied gap that eventually provided the easiest access up to the hill. The second is down on the flats. In contrast to the typical blocks measuring more than seven hundred feet long, South Hinds and South Horton Streets are just three hundred feet apart. They are so anomalously close because they mark the north and south boundaries of what was to be Semple’s Canal Waterway, which would have run from the East Waterway to his canal through Beacon Hill.