Reginald Heber Thomson: The man who flattened Seattle
"Shaper of Seattle" traces the life of Reginald Heber Thomson, the man who literally remade the landscape and infrastructure of Seattle.
Seattle Times arts writer
William H. WilsonSeattle author discusses "Shaper of Seattle: Reginald Heber Thomson's Pacific Northwest," 2 p.m. Saturday, Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
"Shaper of Seattle: Reginald Heber Thomson's Pacific Northwest"
William H. Wilson
Washington State University Press, 231 pp., $29.95
BOOK REVIEW |
Picture a downtown Seattle where, after meeting a friend at the corner of Pine and Third, you climb several flights of stairs — or take the counterbalance if you're lazy — for a whiskey and a view of the city from the veranda of the Denny Hotel.
This five-story Victorian fantasy, with its turrets and steep mansard roof, crowns Denny Hill (elevation: 240 feet) the same way Paris' Sacré Coeur crowns Montmartre. With its 100-plus-foot advantage over its immediate surroundings, it offers panoramas of the whole city: downtown, Elliott Bay, Lake Union, Queen Anne.
And now try to picture the mindset of a man who would call this hill "an offense to the public," and then add: "Some people seemed to think that because there were hills in Seattle originally, some of them ought to be left there, no difference how injurious a heavy grade over a hill may be to the property beyond that hill."
That's R.H. Thomson (1856-1949) writing in his autobiography, "That Man Thomson": a title that teasingly acknowledges the controversies he stirred.
You may want to wring his neck after seeing vintage photographs of the urban landscape he flattened. But as William H. Wilson shows in his fine, informative biography, "Shaper of Seattle: Reginald Heber Thomson's Pacific Northwest, " the R.H. Thomson story isn't quite as simple as one man unilaterally imposing his will on a city.
"Shaper of Seattle" is a long overdue look at the life and career of the man who was our Robert Moses and William Mulholland rolled into one. He didn't just oversee the Denny Hill regrade but helped create the entire infrastructure of Seattle: its sewage system, water supply, rail connections, road network, garbage removal, electrification. He even, in his 80s, was involved in designing the city's first floating bridge across Lake Washington.
Thomson was born and raised in southern Indiana, moved to California with his family in 1877 and arrived in Seattle in 1881 at age 25. Here he took up work as a surveyor with his cousin's firm, where he soon became a partner.
Wilson reminds us that the Seattle of 1881 was "ragged, unkempt, and small," a town where utilities were "crude to nonexistent." Water drawn from Lake Washington and Lake Union had to be boiled before use. Raw sewage ran into Elliott Bay and, at high tide, sometimes backed up into such sewer pipes as there were.
"In some seasons," Wilson remarks, "people approaching Seattle smelled the town before they could see it."
Thomson moved quickly to become a key "reform" figure on the local scene. He was appointed city surveyor from 1884 to 1886 and city engineer, with one brief interruption, from 1892 through 1911.
"Reform" for Thomson meant a "radical reorganization of the city's sewage, water, and lighting" intended to bring "greater well-being, happiness, and prosperity" to a rapidly growing Seattle. It also meant whittling down hills and filling in tide flats to improve access between one part of the city and another.
"Shaper of Seattle" is meticulous in clarifying what existed and what changed in Seattle's infrastructure and topography from year to year.
With dizzying detail, Wilson traces the legal, political and real-estate legwork it took for the city to establish a clean, publicly owned water supply.
He offers similar specifics on all the projects Thomson had a hand in: the building of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the northward extension of Aurora Avenue through Woodland Park, the city's battle with Fort Lawton over the location of its sewer outfall at West Point, and many more.
Wilson's sharp character sketches evoke the power players involved: mayors, federal officials, gentlemen of the press. Thomson's feud with Seattle Times co-owner Alden J. Blethen is addressed in lively, fair-minded detail.
His friendships with Judge Thomas Burke (namesake of the Burke Museum and Burke-Gilman Trail) and engineer Hiram M. Chittenden (the Chittenden Locks) and other influential figures are also well covered.
While Wilson finds some misrecollection and exaggeration in "That Man Thomson" — Thomson was, after all, in his 90s when he wrote it — he generally deems Thomson to be honest, hard working, canny on engineering practicalities and aware of the occasional mistakes he made.
"He enjoyed power," Wilson concludes, "but he maintained it by using it judiciously, not by squandering it or by inviting conflict at every turn."
Thomson was a devoted family man, an active participant in his church (Presbyterian) and a "soft touch" when it came to making loans to friends in need. In a city that had its fair share of corruption, he had a reputation for probity and, to union leaders' dismay, tightfisted efficiency.
As for the regrades, Wilson makes clear that they resulted not just from Thomson's vision for the city but from citizens' petitions for relief from steep grades that made horse-drawn transportation prohibitively expensive. Real-estate speculation also played a role. Regrading lots, some landowners believed, increased their value.
The irony is that by the time the work was done, the automobile era had made steep hills less of a problem. Meanwhile, the Great Depression wrought havoc with anticipated real-estate gains. Thomson wasn't clairvoyant — but he wasn't alone, when it came to the regrades, in what he thought was for good for the city.
The might-have-been of a landmark hotel and gathering place on a hilltop in shouting distance of Westlake Park is gone forever. But the loss, Wilson persuasively argues, can't be laid solely at Thomson's door.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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