The Duwamish tends to be somewhat invisible – only about half of Seattle’s residents are aware that there’s a river in the city. But if you have ever crossed the West Seattle bridge or gazed across at West Seattle from Beacon Hill, you’ve probably seen it.
About 100 years ago, the Duwamish was straightened and dredged, reducing 14 miles of winding river to 5 miles of industrial “waterway.” Nearly all of the native habitat – mudflats, marshes, and swamps surrounded by old growth Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Hemlock trees – was replaced by agriculture, then industry.
The Duwamish is home to three Native tribes: The Duwamish, the Muckleshoot, and the Suquamish, and has immense cultural importance to them. The word “Duwamish” is an Anglicized version of Dkhw’Duw’Absh, meaning “people of the inside” in Lushootseed, the language of the Coast Salish people.
The Seattle neighborhoods Georgetown and South Park sit along the east and west banks of the river. Before industry arrived, the area was an agricultural center – truck farms owned by largely Italian immigrants provided produce to Pike Place Market and other parts of the city. Today, residents of both neighborhoods live side by side with industry and suffer from decades of soil, water and air pollution. Asthma rates are significantly higher, and life expectancies significantly lower, in these parts of Seattle. Georgetown and South Park are both largely working class neighborhoods, and are still home to immigrants from countries all over the world – largely Central & South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.
Decades of industrial pollution led to the Duwamish’s designation as a Superfund site in 2001 by the Environmental Protection Agency – a designation reserved for some of the most contaminated places in the US. The EPA is overseeing the Superfund cleanup. Since 2001 some of the most polluted sites have been cleaned up, and the river has been subjected to intense study as to how to proceed with the rest of the cleanup. The EPA’s final recommendations for the extent of the cleanup will be released in late 2014.
The Transformation of a Watershed
In the late 1800s, the watershed around the Duwamish River looked quite different than it does today. Four rivers – the Green, the White, the Black, and the Cedar – drained into the Duwamish, which subsequently drained into Elliott Bay. After a large flood in 1906, the White River was diverted to drain into the south end of Puget Sound, near Tacoma. The construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered the water level of Lake Washington, causing the Black River to disappear altogether. The Cedar River was re-routed to drain into the south end of Lake Washington.
At this point, because the Green was the only river that continued to drain into the Duwamish, the two were actually one river. However, the portion that was dredged and straightened – the last 5 miles – continued to be known as the Duwamish.
Traces of the Old Duwamish Today
Although the path of the Duwamish was constantly changing as it made its way to Elliott Bay, vestiges of some of its meanders still remain, commemorating its shape at the time it was straightened. In Georgetown, Oxbow Park commemorates an early flow channel of the river, and the historic Georgetown Steam Plant that used to sit on the river’s east bank is now much further inland. On the South Park side of the river, Kellogg Island at Terminal 107 remains from before the Duwamish was straightened. The boat slips along both sides of the river are all slivers of meanders, echoing the river’s early days.
Links & Resources
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition is the official watchdog of the Superfund cleanup on the Duwamish, and is a great resource for information about the river, the status of the Superfund Cleanup, and how to get involved in cleanup and restoration efforts.
A tour of the Duwamish in pictures and extensive information about the Port of Seattle’s restoration efforts on the river.
“The Road Back.” Pacific Northwest Magazine feature on the Duwamish, from 2004
Culture and history of the Duwamish Tribe, from the Duwamish Tribe website. Extensive articles and beautiful photos in the “oral history” section.