Image: Aerial view of the Duwamish Waterway and Kellogg Island, showing the original river bend and straightened canal, with downtown Seattle in the background. Courtesy of Tom Reese. Back To All Blog Posts

Lost Waters

The Duwamish has been a vital waterway for Indigenous peoples for generations. Now it’s largely invisible, drastically reshaped, and among the most polluted rivers in the nation. Can it be saved?

  • September 16, 2022
  • |
  • Essay
  • |
  • By BJ Cummings

A bulldozer was churning up the ground where Cecile Maxwell’s ancestral village had once stood.  

Maxwell, the great-great grandniece of “Chief Seattle” and the new chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, had been visiting the site upriver of the West Seattle Bridge often. In the months leading up to this day in early July 1976, she had frequently talked with the archaeology students sifting through carefully excavated bores of black dirt specked with shell and bone fragments. She was eager to learn about their finds and how they might affect her tribe’s claims to land and fishing rights in the area. 

No students were working: their project had been wrapped up, the grids and tools they’d been using in their research removed. The site had been quiet for several weeks, but today a bulldozer was working the area where the students had meticulously documented fragments of bone, stone tools, and myriad seashell deposits. Alarmed, Maxwell hurried back to her office and dialed the number for the Army Corps of Engineers. 

The previous fall, Maxwell had received a letter notifying her that the Army Corps had found evidence of a tribal settlement on land owned by the Port of Seattle. The Corps’s district archaeologist, David Munsell, had been reviewing an application from the port for a permit to fill a river bend that was left behind when the Duwamish Waterway was constructed more than half a century earlier. The port moved to fill this last remaining river bend with an eye to adding more land along the Duwamish Waterway—land that could be used to build a new marine terminal. 

The port’s permit application was routine, but a new Washington State law, passed in 1975, declared a state interest in protecting archaeological resources for their historical and scientific value. The Corps of Engineers had never examined any Duwamish River sites for their archaeological value before, but the port’s Terminal 107 property, which sat along the remnant stretch of river, was right across the channel from Munsell’s office: he could see it from the windows of the Army Corps building.  

Munsell drove across the West Seattle Bridge to take a look. He parked his car and walked to a cluster of houses in the process of being demolished. To prepare for developing the property, the port was evicting the occupants of an entire neighborhood of modest homes that stretched along the river bend. Some of the houses had already been removed, their shallow foundation pits exposed. Peering down at the exposed layers of earth in one of the pits, Munsell immediately knew that he would not be approving the port’s application. A swath of exposed shell and bone fragments more than a foot deep cut across the face of the dirt—a classic midden, or disposal ground, of a type commonly associated with prehistoric villages. The Port of Seattle’s Terminal 107 had archaeological resources in abundance, lying bare for all to see. 

The day Cecile Maxwell came upon the bulldozer desecrating the remains of her ancestors’ village, the archaeologists—mostly brought in from the University of Washington—had just submitted their findings to the Port of Seattle. The shell midden that David Munsell had spotted on his visit had been confirmed as part of a site with great archaeological significance, and the university team called for further study before any development of the area. The report recommended that the site “be actively protected from any further disturbance.” Nevertheless, a few weeks later the port ordered the demolition of several condemned houses on the property, right in the middle of the study area. The incident destroyed much of the documented village site before Maxwell’s frantic call to the Army Corps could stop it. 

According to Tom Lorenz, the university’s lead archaeologist at the site, the remains had been destroyed. “I’m sort of overcome by how much is gone,” he told the Seattle Times. “This area has been so disturbed that there is very, very little left that’s of use.” The port insisted the demolition was accidental, but an irate letter from Washington State’s historic preservation officer, Art Skolnick, accused the port of having “willfully altered this significant archaeological site” and said the bulldozers had “irrevocably destroyed a prime source of scientific data.” The digging and compaction destroyed 80 to 90 percent of the known archaeological remains. 

By the time the valley filled with the noisy bustle of commerce and industry, less than two percent of the river’s original habitat remained, pushing local salmon runs and wildlife close to extinction. For the rest of the century, the river was used as a waste repository.

The story of the Duwamish River and the experiences of its people—Native, immigrant, and industrialist—is largely missing from the popular history of Seattle. The river’s original watershed extended from Mount Rainier’s Emmons Glacier to the north King County suburb of Woodinville and included the White, Green, Black, and Cedar Rivers, Lakes Washington and Sammamish, and a spiderweb of interconnected creeks and lakes, from north Seattle’s Green Lake to Roaring Rock Creek in southwest King County. The entire watershed drained through the Duwamish River to the Puget Sound embayment we call Elliott Bay, on downtown Seattle’s waterfront. It was the land of the Dkhw’Duw’Absh or Doo-Ahbsh (“people of the inside”) and the closely related Hah-chu-Ahbsh (“lake people”), today collectively known as the Duwamish Tribe. 

The changes to the watershed did not begin with the arrival of the Denny Party, commonly believed to be the city’s first settlers, but with the very first white immigrants to the area now known as Seattle: Jacob and Samuel Maple, Henry van Asselt, and the Collins family. After a foray into California gold mining, Luther Collins abandoned his farm on the Nisqually River, near the British-owned Hudson Bay Company’s trading post. He joined a trio of other travelers to scout out a new destination a full day’s paddle north of the company post. Collins, who had visited this “unsettled” river before, stoked his new companions’ ambitions with descriptions of the fertile Duwamish Valley as an ideal homeland with friendly natives. 

The settlers of the 1850s named their new city Seattle, for the tribal leader who welcomed and supported them when they arrived. Since this pioneering party first settled on the Duwamish River, alliances and conflicts between and among Native peoples, immigrant residents, and local and global industrialists have transformed the watershed’s natural resources, its economy, and all of its communities. The City of Seattle grew from the rich resources of the river’s tide flats, from the monumental feats of its early industrial barons, and from the persistence of generations of Native and immigrant residents. But this growth came at a high cost. 

Only seventy years after the first colonists settled on the Duwamish River, its watershed had been reduced to less than one-quarter of its original size of more than two thousand square miles, and only the waters of the Green River still flowed to the Duwamish. The White, Black, and Cedar Rivers had been diverted to bypass the Duwamish or had dried up entirely. The waters of the freshwater lakes that these rivers fed and drained were forced through newly engineered routes. The Native people who lived by the changed rivers had been similarly “diverted” to reservations, relegated to shantytowns, integrated into settler society through marriage, or eliminated through disease and warfare. 

As an engineering feat, the transformation was remarkable. The dramatic alterations to the Duwamish watershed, and to the river itself, allowed for the birth of a thriving industrial city. Business boomed. Immigrants flocked to the growing metropolis from all corners of the world. From the banks of the Duwamish, a city was born. 

Today the Duwamish River is polluted, its neighborhoods in poor health, and its industrial base struggling. At the start of the twentieth century, the city’s boosters filled the mudflats at the mouth of the river to create one of the world’s largest artificial islands. In 1913, dredgers began to straighten the river’s bends and deepen its draft for easy access by ships. The land bordering this new channel was leveled and filled as a site for factories in an effort to create a modern industrial city. By the time the valley filled with the noisy bustle of commerce and industry, less than two percent of the river’s original habitat remained, pushing local salmon runs and wildlife close to extinction. For the rest of the century, the river was used as a waste repository.  

Image: Tribal canoes paddle up the industrialized Duwamish River during the Spirit Returns Paddle in 2002, signifying the Duwamish Tribe’s return to their ancestral land. A Port of Seattle shipping terminal is in the background. Courtesy of Paul Joseph Brown.

But in the closing decades of the 20th century, a growing effort to clean up the Duwamish began to form, led in part by an unlikely environmental champion.  

South Park’s John Beal was a hard-drinking chain smoker with Coke-bottle glasses and yellowed teeth, and could often be found smoking a cigarette on a streamside rock while local schoolchildren planted saplings nearby or released juvenile salmon into the bubbling waters of Hamm Creek.  

But that was after the children had adopted Beal as their grandfatherly eco-savior and inspirational hero, after they had surrounded Beal while he told them about the regenerative power of nature and of their own power to heal the world around them.  

“This right here,” Beal would say, using a stick to draw a circle in the dirt around their feet, “this is the environment. This is your environment. And what happens to it is up to you.”

John Beal moved to South Park in 1976 with his wife and three young children. Born in Montana in 1950 and raised in Spokane, he never knew his father, who died of a heart attack a month after John was born. A learning disability and an inherently acerbic nature set Beal up for difficult teenage years. In 1967 he was expelled from high school, and according to his family, a local magistrate gave him the choice of going to jail or enlisting in the military. Despite his extreme near-sightedness and dyslexia, he shipped out to Vietnam as a marine rifleman to push back against the Tet Offensive in early 1968.

After months of direct combat and multiple battlefield injuries, Beal wrote a letter home to his wife, Lana, a high school sweetheart whom he had married just before shipping out: “The doc seems to feel that I might need some mental care,” he confided. “When I was hit, we were under mortar attack. He seems to think it might have done a little something to my mind.” After recovering from his physical injuries, Beal was sent back into the field, joining a regiment with orders to level a jungle island with bombs and Agent Orange. There he earned the nickname of Johnny the Terror for his hand-to-hand combat, until he was captured, beaten, and locked in a cage as a prisoner of war. With the help of a local woman, he escaped after thirteen days in captivity and was sent back home eight months after being shipped out. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life. By age twenty-nine, he had suffered three heart attacks that may, ironically, have saved his life. 

In 1976, Beal’s doctors diagnosed him with terminal heart disease, warning that he was likely to suffer another, potentially fatal, heart attack within months. “Get a hobby,” they advised, hoping to channel his anxieties and prolong his life by a few months. Beal turned for solace to a deep ravine behind his house—a murky tributary stream that flowed through discarded trash and blackberry brambles on its way to the Duwamish River. Thinking about the Vietnamese island of Go Noi where he had fought and denuded the riverbanks of their thick forest cover, Beal resolved to clean up the little
pocket of creek in the time that remained to him. 

Beal began to drag washing machines, abandoned cars, construction waste, and everyday trash out of the stream. Digging out the blackberry choking the slopes at the bottom of the ravine, Beal read up on what kinds of plants he could bring in to replace the invasive bushes. He planted watercress, duckweed, and other native plants. Slowly, his private refuge became a rare pocket of native plant and wildlife habitat along the south end stream. He next turned his attention to the oily water that continued to flow through his hard-earned ecotopia. 

After a series of hit-and-miss efforts to filter out the oil, Beal dragged a hay bale down the hill and laid it across the narrow channel of water flowing between the saplings he had planted on the stream banks. It worked. In the following days, Beal visited Hamm Creek and watched as water with an oily sheen flowed along the creek upstream of the half-submerged hay bale and clear water flowed away from it. Beal continued reading, refined his hay-bale water filter with an oil-absorbing boom of his own invention, and began reaching out to scientists and government employees who might be able to help him restore his creek. 

As the creek began to thrive, Beal followed its flows upstream and down, removing trash and planting saplings as he went. He could only go so far, though: Hamm Creek traveled underground for much of its length, having been channeled into pipes and stormwater drains designed to keep the creek out of the way of businesses, streets, and homes as the Duwamish Valley transitioned from farmland to urban and industrial use. 

In the 1980s, John Beal approached the Duwamish Tribe to ask for help restoring salmon runs in the Duwamish River and its tributary stream in South Park. James Rasmussen, a tribal council member, was particularly impressed with Beal’s work and his passion for the river. Rasmussen and Beal worked to focus attention on the river that had sustained Rasmussen’s family for generations and the creek that Beal credited with saving his life. They organized a broad constituency of public and private interests to support the restoration of Hamm Creek and the larger Duwamish watershed. In 1990, in partnership with the City of Seattle and King County, they created the Green-Duwamish Watershed Alliance. 

With the tribe and local governments now providing assistance, Beal redoubled his efforts to save the creek. In 1995, King County agreed to purchase a reach of the creek where Beal had spent years working to remove trash and debris. The project included a series of restored wetland ponds connected by fish ladders winding up the ravine where Beal had first discovered the creek. The project, named Point Rediscovery, was completed in 1998. 

Shortly afterward, the federal government declared the entirety of the Duwamish River a Superfund site—one of the nation’s most hazardous waste sites—and ordered a cleanup. News of this directive was published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on September 14, 2001—150 years to the day after the first settlers arrived. 

The studies that followed the cleanup order revealed a legacy of water, land, and air pollution with tragic health consequences for local residents and fishermen. Land and business values stagnated as more contamination was discovered, and the full cost of cleanup—and liability—skyrocketed. 

 * * *

In just seven generations the changes brought by Euro-American explorers and colonists in the Northwest have transformed the Duwamish River and its communities nearly beyond recognition. Yet some of the river’s Native people and their kin in the natural world hang on. The salmon, the cedar, and the great blue heron can still be found in and near the river if you know where to look. And Duwamish tribal members today frequently echo their chairwoman’s mantra when they remind us, “We are still here.” 

In 2019, the Duwamish Tribe celebrated the tenth anniversary of their longhouse and cultural center, built on the waterway’s sole surviving river bend. Erected more than a century after their last ancestral longhouse was burned down, the center serves as a reminder that Native places and people survive in Seattle. The Muckleshoot Tribe, which absorbed many of the Duwamish people, also remind us of this each fall when they lay their nets out on the river, catching salmon for the tribe and for trading, as they have always done, in the commercial market. Despite all the changes, the Duwamish River, its people, and its salmon are inextricably linked. 

Recently, government, industry, and community representatives working to clean up the Duwamish River are struggling to find common ground, overcome past divisions, and build trust as they move forward together to address the river’s challenges. None of this work is easy, and its success is not guaranteed. But most consider the rewards of creating a new model of collaboration to be well worth the trouble. Ridding the city of the stigma of having one of the nation’s most contaminated rivers is a powerful incentive to succeed. For this to happen, everyone will need to be at the table—listening, problem-solving, and lifting their share of the burden—in order to provide for the needs of the city’s diverse Native and immigrant communities in the complex urban and industrial waterscape of Seattle’s only river. 

The Duwamish story is one case study in the national effort to express our values in the way we treat our rivers and their people. The Standing Rock battle cry—“Mni wiconi,” or “Water is life”—captures the threat many communities perceive in sacrificing our rivers for national “progress” and financial gain. As we begin to restore riverbank habitat and to scrub decades of chemical waste from our river bottoms, we have the opportunity to act in accordance with our values. If we do enough to create a result pleasing to the eye, but insufficient to protect the health of our river-dependent communities, that decision will speak volumes about the classism and racism that underpin it. And if we demand a pristine restoration of a romanticized past, we may disenfranchise exactly those people from whom our rivers were appropriated in the first place. 

Collaboration, respect, and justice are core values that we may or may not choose to guide our efforts at environmental restitution, but they are most certainly the only path forward if we want to ensure that our actions make the Duwamish into a river that serves all the people who live, work, fish, play, and pray in and along its waters. 

* * *

After David Munsell’s refusal to approve the application to build a new terminal at the site of Cecile Maxwell’s ancestral village, the Port of Seattle was not pleased. Munsell and Art Skolnick became so concerned about the port’s actions and the political pressure it might exert to get its permits approved that they took the highly unusual step of alerting the news media about their findings. Public support for preserving the site erupted. 

The Army Corps demanded a new study to examine the rest of the port property in order to determine whether any more artifacts remained outside the disturbed area. The new study revealed that while the demolition had destroyed the half acre that made up the original research area, an additional two and a half acres of archaeologically important resources were found dating back 1,400 years. They included shell, bone, and stone tool fragments, along with the remains of an “aboriginal house structure”—possibly one of the Duwamish Tribe’s ancestral longhouses or perhaps a fish-drying shelter used during the winter salmon runs. The new study recommended that the site be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places and that immediate steps be taken to ensure its protection. 

By the end of the 1980s, the port had cut its losses and laid a layer of protective soil over the historic village to preserve its contents, opening up the river-bend property to public recreational access. The Duwamish Tribe’s village would not be erased to make way for a new shipping terminal. 

Today, public art installations and interpretive history signs dot a pedestrian walking trail along the riverbank where the Duwamish Tribe’s longhouse stood at the center of the village called Yuliqwad—Lushootseed for “basketry hat,” a traditional cedar headpiece. Adjoining the site is a city park, Herring’s House, named after another tribal village once located about a mile away, on the shore of Elliott Bay. Today, everything up- and downriver of the historic village has been altered by the construction of the Duwamish Waterway, but the river bend itself—the last remnant of the original river within the Seattle city limits—remains the same. 

Check out Cummings’s Speakers Bureau talk “The River that Made Seattle,” online and in-person around the state. Find an event on our calendar.

Find more essays and interviews on Humanities Washington’s blog.