The Relocation of a River

The Georgetown Steam Plant was originally built right on the Duwamish River. It was designed to take in river water for cooling, and to expel used water back into the river. But if you visit the steam plant today, there is no river anywhere in sight; it’s almost a mile away. What happened?

Georgetown Steam Plant 1909
A photo of the steam plant beside the Duwamish River in 1909.

The Duwamish was originally a winding river with large curves called “oxbows.” The Duwamish people, who lived on the river for thousands of years (the river was named “Duwamish” in the 19th century as an English language approximation of the name of the indigenous people living there), made use of this winding landscape for (among other things) catching ducks in the air and salmon in the water. For ships in the early 20th century, the curves made traveling up the river slow and sometimes dangerous, with submerged logs becoming jammed in the river’s twists. Ocean-going vessels could not travel on the river.

The river was also prone to flooding. After a series of destructive floods in 1906, an investigative board headed by Hiram Chittenden convened to study the problem and concluded that the river should be straightened and controlled. The Army Corps of Engineers began a project to straighten the river in 1913. By 1920, the oxbows were filled with dirt, and the river, now reshaped into the ‘Duwamish Waterway,’ flowed in a straight path past Georgetown and South Park, and had a depth of 50 feet for four and a half miles.

This 1922 survey map shows how the oxbows have been filled in, with the waterway to the left. The steam plant location is roughly in the center.

The steam plant, originally built on an oxbow, now found itself landlocked, quite a distance from the river it was designed to make use of. In 1917 a pumping station was built along the waterway to provide water to the steam plant across the new distance. A massive new flume was also constructed to expel wastewater.

The next time you visit the plant, take a look south, toward Boeing Field, and imagine a winding river rolling past.

The straightening of the river affected the land animals, marine life, and people who had lived in harmony with the it for generations. It also cleared the way for industry that would pollute the river’s waters with chemical waste. For more extensive information on the history of the Duwamish River, and what is being done to clean up and reclaim the river, see the website

And for an extensive history of changes to the land and water of the Seattle area, do not miss the Burke Museum’s excellent Waterlines project.



The Gilbreth Family

When you tour the Steam Plant, two names that pop up almost immediately are Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. You might already know them as the adult stars of the semi-autobiographical novels Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles On Their Toes, written by their children Frank and Ernestine.

Frank and Lillian at work (self-portrait)

Frank was also an efficiency expert and industrial management pioneer, meaning he studied ways to build structures more quickly, safely, and durably. He identified eighteen actions – called “therbligs” (“Gilbreth” spelled backwards) – that could be combined to complete virtually any specific task with maximum efficiency. Frank and Lillian’s twelve children were often used as initial test subjects, and as the kids grew older they were even financially rewarded for incorporating these skills into their everyday chores. As Ernest wrote:

Dad took moving pictures of us children washing dishes, so that he could figure out how we could reduce our motions and thus hurry through the task. Irregular jobs, such as painting the back porch or removing a stump from the front lawn, were awarded on a low-bid basis. Each child who wanted extra pocket money submitted a sealed bid saying what he would do the job for. The lowest bidder got the contract.

The children were encouraged – some of them might say pressured – into 24/7 efficiency. They even listened to French language records while brushing their teeth!

Lilian with some of her children. (source: Gilbreth Archive, Purdue University)

Frank and Lillian were a particularly cool twentieth century couple because they both went to college (Lillian earned her doctorate too, in Industrial Psychology), and once they started a family they shared work both inside and outside the home. In the Gilbreth household, it wasn’t uncommon for Frank to stay home with the kids while Lillian travelled for a lecture.

When the Steam Plant commissioned Frank to help build the plant, he and Lillian were already married and had just started their family. (Their second-oldest, Mary, died at a young age, making the phrase “cheaper by the dozen” particularly poignant.) At first, Frank planned to build the plant out of brick, as that was his initial claim to fame, but after the San Francisco earthquake destroyed multiple steel-enforced brick buildings, they switched their plan to reinforced concrete. And now, over one hundred years later, the Plant stands.

A Visit to MOHAI

Hello, and welcome back to Steam Plant Graphic Novel HQ! This week’s snack of choice is dill pickle almonds and black coffee. That stuff really keeps you awake.

One of the places we visited for research is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), founded in 1952 and now located in Lake Union Park next to the Center for Wooden Boats. I remember visiting the museum when I was a kid and it was located in McCurdy Park. My friends and I liked watching the footage of the Ivars Dancing Clams because they were weird and irreverent, and we didn’t know those words yet. Today the museum displays treasures like replicas of the Post-Intelligencer globe (they own the original too, but right now it’s too heavy to be housed in the building), Lincoln Towing’s hot pink toe truck, and a musical history lesson about the Seattle Fire, staring a glue pot and plastic fire.

What I remember most about MOHAI, in the 1990s and now, is how directly it addresses both the racism, sexism, and classism in America’s roots and the incredible industrial advances we’ve made. Instead of abstracting or minimizing either topic, MOHAI uses each to illuminate the other. What kinds of jobs did Seattle’s Chinese population have at the end of the 20th century? Were there Black Riveters? What stories did the Duwamish tell their children? Even when an exhibit wasn’t directly chronologically related to the story David and I are telling, it’s all connected because it’s all Seattle.

Here are some images from our latest visit:

In 1907, Jim Casey and Claude Ryan (not pictured) got a $100 loan and started UPS in a Pioneer Square basement.


Here, a team of independently-owned steamrollers pave a neighborhood street in 1906.


When people started harassing Chinese-owned businesses after the Seattle Fire, this is what Mayor Henry Yesler had to say. We at Steam Plant HQ do not condone dynamite as a problem-solver, but we definitely support Mayor Yesler’s fierce refusal of racism.


The very first Nordstrom, founded by Carl Wallin, a shoemaker, and John Nordstrom, a Swedish man who came to Ellis Island as a sixteen-year-old with five dollars and no English. A few years after that, John and Carl met in Alaska, where they took gold to open the store at Fourth and Pike.

MOHAI is open seven days a week from 10a-5p.

Library Research

We are deep in research mode, and for me that means a lot of visits to the Seattle Public Library. I have been working toward learning more about the Georgetown Steam Plant and it’s environs in the early 20th century, as well as the Seattle-Tacoma interurban trains and neighborhood streetcars that the plant powered. Just look at all these sepia-photo-covered books that I have stacking up!

A selection of books on Seattle’s history from the Seattle Public Library

I wanted to share this lively photo of the Renton local electric train No.125, circa 1910-15, at its Seattle starting point at Occidental and Yesler in Pioneer Square (making all stops between here an Renton Junction).  The Interurban Building can’t be seen in this photo, but it’s just to the right. The light colored building in the background is the Seattle Hotel, a site which is today occupied by a structure we commonly know as the “sinking ship parking lot.”
(From the collection of the Washington State Historical Society, published in the lavishly illustrated book “To Tacoma by Trolley” by Warren W. Wing, 1995.)

photo from the Washington State Historical Society
The Renton Local waits in front of Seattle’s Interurban Building, circa 1910-15

For further reading on the Interurban and this Pioneer Square intersection, you can’t go wrong with Seattle Now and Then.