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

Seattle is growing 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 is also a field agent for the new Seattle chapter of the Atlas Obscura Society, a community that highlights interesting, hidden things about the city for its roughly 1,000 members.

On Saturday, Eric is leading a walking tour of the city to dig up an old chapter in the city’s history that has a lot to say to the Seattle of today: the years between the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expedition of 1909, when the city more than doubled in size and about 3.7 million people (!) came to check it out, but then left.

What can the Seattle of more than a hundred years ago teach the Seattle of today? 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.”

Eric’s walking tour kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday from the Central Library in downtown Seattle. It’s a three-hour tour, and the cost is $55. Curious about Seattle’s Atlas Obscura Society? You can learn more and join their mailing list here.

By Mónica Guzmán
Mónica is the cofounder and editor of The Evergrey. She's been a Seattle journalist for a decade and adores this city.