Book Review: Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle by Murray Morgan

I was born and raised in Seattle, but back in the 1950s and 60s when I grew up, Seattle was very different than it is now.  It was a backwater, in fact, compared with many of the rest of the big cities in the States.  There were no tech giants here to raise the cost of living through the roof; the only local company of any fame or economic consequence was Boeing, and although it was powerful, it was somewhat removed in its own sphere of influence.

Seattle was a cheap place to live back then.  Nowadays a one or two bedroom apartment in a fairly decent area – or even in some areas that are not so decent – runs a minimum of $1500 to $2000.  Back in the 70s, I once rented the two-bedroom top floor of a duplex in Wallingford for $100 a month, and on another occasion rented a three bedroom independent house in the University District for $200 a month.  Those were the days.  Sometimes I wax nostalgic for those times before Seattle got caught in the spotlight of the elite.  Ah, well, what’s done is done.

This book goes back much further.  It roughly covers the 100 years from about 1850 to 1950 when Seattle grew from being a settlement of a few hardy pioneers on Puget Sound to a major metropolis.  It’s broken into chapters to correspond to the various stages of its growth, including its selection as a site for a deepwater port, its dealings with Native Americans and its local Indian war, the rise of the gambling houses and brothels, the struggle its citizens waged to make it the western transcontinental railroad head, the devastating fire that wiped out the entire burgeoning downtown area in one fell swoop, its importance as a hub of supplies and banking for the Alaskan gold rush, the evolution of its politicians and newspapers, its notoriety as the first city in the nation to call a successful general strike, and its role in the consolidation of organized labor.  The author tells all these tales with a deft pen, focusing on the larger-than-life characters that played crucial parts in all these historical events.

In the midst of reading this fascinating look back into the local past, I thought it might complement the book to see some photos and artifacts from these eras.  Fortuitously enough, when I got the idea it was the Wednesday before the first Thursday of the month, when most Seattle museums allow free entry for the day.  So along with my fourteen-year-old son, I traipsed off to the Museum of History and Industry on the south shore of Lake Union.  The main feature of the museum, which wraps around the second floor balcony and fills numerous rooms, is the Seattle history display.  The various exhibits, starting with the Native American presence before Seattle was even an idea, follow the chapters of the book quite closely and greatly aided me in bringing the stories to life in my imagination.

This is an older book, first published in 1971.  I found it at a Seattle Friends of the Library book sale; it’s a paperback edition, and I picked it up for 50 cents.  It’s well worth the four bits, that’s for sure.  It stoked my imagination and made me think of what the Northwest was like before Seattle grew immense and powerful.  The area I live in today was once wild evergreen forest.  In a way, as few cities I’ve lived in, Seattle retains remnants of its wilderness, as interspersed among the rows of houses in the suburbs is an abundance of towering evergreen trees.  As you’re walking along the sidewalks, if you keep your eyes focused above the rooftops, you can almost imagine you’re hiking through a forest, or at least just a few steps away from one.  And this book gives a good overview of the background that made the city what it is.  It’s a good read even if you’ve never visited Seattle, let alone lived here.

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