Gold, growth, and a party: 5 things to know about Seattle’s first boom

Seattle  so fast, it’s tempting to think it’s never seen a boom like this before. But it has. In 1897, Seattle was a city of 40,000 people on the verge of a huge gold rush and a massive celebration that would bring millions — yes, millions — of new people to the city. Not all, of course, would stay.

Eric Magnuson calls it Seattle’s first boom.

Eric is a Seattle history buff  who runs the Seattle Grunge Redux tours (their tagline being, “The Walk That Rocks Through Seattle’s Music History.” Before that, he was a field agent for the new Seattle chapter of the Atlas Obscura Society, a community that highlighted interesting, hidden things about the city for its members. So he knows his Seattle history. The Evergrey met with him to ask, “What can the Seattle of more than a hundred years ago teach the Seattle of today?”

His answer. That big booms lead to busts, Eric says, leaving less behind than you might think.

“They were just going to build it, see if the world shows up,” said Eric of the massive construction Seattle’s civic leaders led before the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expedition. “Amazon will build it, see if the world buys everything they have to offer.”

Via Eric, here are five things to know about Seattle’s first boom:

  • When a shipload of gold from the Klondike got to Seattle on July 17, 1897, then-Seattle Mayor W. D. Wood resigned and headed straight to Alaska from San Francisco to beat the rush. “On some level, you gotta admire that sort of pluck,” Eric said.
  • Of the 100,000 people who went to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, 70,000 left from Seattle. Of those, 50 found their fortunes there. “Not 50,000,” says Eric. “Fifty. Total.”
  • To commemorate the gold rush and the profiteers who came to call Seattle home, Seattle’s civic leaders planned the 1909 “Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.” Similar massive gatherings had been boozy, schmoozy affairs in places like Chicago, Buffalo, Portland and Jamestown, Virginia. But Seattle’s party was “dry,” due to the University of Washington’s standing rule against the sale of alcohol on campus.
  • President Howard Taft was among the 3.7 million visitors to the AYP. “He didn’t get shot,” Eric points out. That was a relief, because President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, at that city’s “Pan-American Exposition” in 1901.
  • When buildings for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expedition were constructed on the University of Washington’s campus, people called them “wedding cake buildings.” “They looked amazing,” Eric explained. “But in the weather, it was no time before stuff started breaking down.”

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(Originally published in 2017; updated 2021)