WRITTEN BY PAUL DORPAT
COURTESY OF LAWTON GOWEY
While the contemporary “repeat” photograph was recorded within feet of where the historical photographer stood, it pivots about 45 degrees to the north. The change was made to show both the historical plaque for Ballast Island and, beyond it, the Pergola at the foot of Washington Street. The “then” scene shows part of “Ballast Island,” a pile of rubble built, for the most part, during the early 1880s from the contributions of ships’ ballast.
THE HISTORICAL VIEW looks to the northeast from a timber trestle that, after the "Great Fire of 1889," was built into the bay along the south margin of Washington Street. The site is identified by the line of minimal white posts in the upper-left corner of the photograph. They are supports for the short-lived Harrington and Smith warehouse that was built to the west of the railroad track (upper right) that linked this end of the central waterfront with the Yesler wharf. Beyond it, the great swath of tracks and piers along Railroad Avenue was then under construction.
The Great Fire had destroyed everything on the waterfront south of University Street to the waterline. Everything except Ballast Island.
Stories of the so-called island's origins conflict. By one telling, captains were ordered to unload here the broken rocks and bricks they carried to give stability to otherwise empty ships. By another account, pioneer wharf owners John Webster and Robert Knipe asked that the ballast be dropped to the side of their pier to protect the piles from wood-eating worms. Whichever, a modern core sample taken near the plaque would bring up a cosmopolitan mix of rubble from San Francisco, the Hawaiian Islands, Australia and many other ports.
Ballast Island is most famous as the strange terra infirma on which the region's displaced natives camped during hop-picking time in September. This "foreign-native" irony seems to have been totally missed by the "Indian-watchers" of the time. They crowded around the imported dirt pile in the early 1890s for close-up looks (like this one) of the "exotic" Indians who came to barter to the locals the baskets and other curios they'd loaded into extra dugouts.
Paul Dorpat specializes in historical photography and has published several books on early Seattle.
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