Port of call

Recently, both of the Seattle daily newspapers carried articles stating that the Port of Seattle has pushed its timetable back a year on construction of its new cruise-ship terminal.

As scheduled now, the cruise ships won't move until spring 2009 from south of downtown to the new facility planned at Smith Cove at Terminal 91, between Magnolia and Queen Anne.

Every day I seem to make two or three trips past piers 90 and 91, and all the activity going on there never fails to draw at least a glance. As a relative newcomer to the Northwest (I've only lived here 32 years), one of the first things to capture and hold my interest is the relative "newness" of this area's history.

Seattle is a young city, and everywhere one brushes up against reminders that the pioneers who founded and developed her were here only yesterday.

With the help of Aleua Frare's "Magnolia Yesterday and Today" and Paul Dorpat's "Seattle Now & Then," I was able to find out that Smith Cove has had many uses besides being a major Nissan entry port, as it previously was.

In 1853, Dr. Henry A. Smith built a cabin on the shore of the cove that would eventually be known by his name. Today, he is best remembered as an anthropologist and the linguist who translated Chief Sealth's treaty speech.

Smith was also a surgeon who allegedly successfully used hypnotism as anaesthesia, a psychotherapist who encouraged dream analysis, a botanist who grafted the area's first fruit trees and a poet who published in Sunset magazine under the pen name Paul Garland. He was a universally loved gentleman farmer.

When Smith died in 1915 at the age of 85, it was from a chill he caught while setting out tomato plants in the garden in his Interbay home.

At the time of Smith's death, the tideflats of Smith Cove were being filled to build the half-mile-long piers 90 and 91, which were the longest earth-filled piers in the world. James Jerome Hill, the Great Northern Railroad's "empire builder," had discovered in 1893 that "one acre of Washington timber will furnish as many carloads of freight as 120 years of wheat from a Dakota farm"-so he was turning his trains around and sending them east with loads of lumber.

In 1905, J.J. Hill expanded his influence to an even greater degree. For 300 years most trade with the Orient had passed through India and Africa. Now, with the encouragement of Great Northern steam on both land and sea, he taught some of the trade to follow the shorter Great Circle route through Alaska.

Hill had built the two largest steamers in the world, the Minnesota and the Dakota; they would ply the transpacific route delivering raw cotton to the Orient and returning with raw silk. In 1909, the first of the Great Northern silk trains left Smith Cove headed east.

The trains were made up entirely of express cars under heavy guard with their schedules kept secret to prevent hijacking of the valuable cargo. Each car carried 28 tons of raw silk, all carefully baled in Japan, China or Korea.

Traveling at top speeds, the "silks," as they were known, went streaking along the rails with the right-of-way over all other rolling stock, including passenger trains. It took tough crews to "work the silks," and the competition was keen to be included with the highballing operation.

The local customs district processed $150 million in raw silk in 1929. The lucrative silk trade that was originally channeled through Smith Cove came to an end in 1940, with the invention of a filament made from coal that possessed both the strength and elasticity of silk; it was called nylon.

Two years later, Smith Cove was separated from the Port of Seattle by the Navy for a condemnation fee of $3 million; the Port bought it back in the mid-1970s for about $15 million and added another $4 million in improvements.

For a while during the late 1980s it looked as if the Navy was once again interested in the cove and would again take it over; they changed their minds, however, and moved on to Everett.

Now it appears that there will once again be action a-plenty on the historic pier that originally had so much to do with opening of international sea trade with the Orient. But instead of receiving ship loads of raw silk or departing loads of cotton, cruise ships full of excited tourists will be using Pier 91 as an arrival and departure port of call.

Gary McDaniel is a freelance columnist living in Magnolia. He can be reached at rtjameson@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]