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 the Steam Plant!

In November, David and Mairead spent a day at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, meeting everyone and going over plans and contracts. We even ate lunch in an underground cafeteria!

After that, we toured the plant with wizards Michael Aronowitz, Rebecca Osso, Maija McKnight, and Laurie Geissinger. Here are some pictures from the day.


These pictures are outside of the Plant – it’s a historic concrete building, so when they were checking the structure for safety a person tapped a hammer, very carefully, all along the outside. If the noise changed it meant the concrete was weak there. That’s why there are mysterious black circles on the outside of the Plant!

This is one of the places where workers hung tools. The shapes were traced into the wall so folks knew once everything was put away. This reminded us of both art school classrooms and prison kitchens.

Do you remember the part in Ramona Quimby where her class is reading Mike Mulligan and she asks her teacher how Mike went to the bathroom when he was digging holes all day? Good news: the plant has a staff bathroom complete with sinks and lockers.

This is the second floor supervisor’s office. We resisted the urge to pick up the phone and ask the ghosts if their refrigerator was running.

This is the sign that now greets folks at the door! Shout-out left-handers. David Bowie was a left-hander.

(The Plant features free, open-to-the-public tours on the second Saturday of every month. You should go! The hours and information are here.)

There is still a stretcher, all ready, in case someone gets hurt. There was not a hospital very close by, when the plant was starting, but there was a brewery.

A green NO. What does it mean?!!

Hi! From L-R: Maija, David, Mairead, and Laurie. (Congratulations on your retirement from City Light, Laurie!)

The Georgetown Steam Plant shimmers – it really does! – with gorgeous handmade details, and pearly gray light on green paint, and concrete metal echo. Special thanks to Michael and Rebecca, and Laurie, for teaching us.