Comparing places like Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle, one can see the major industries, transit, historical events, and follies of powerful men of each region that are still so apparent today. And, though each city's timeline is a bit different, and the railroad had a slightly different role from one city to the next, it is undeniable that the railroad was absolutely crucial to the economy and growth of all of these metropolitan areas. From the 1870s to 90s, when new railroads incorporated and started laying track into the frontier faster than towns could even be founded alongside them (hence the coining of the term "Hell on Wheels," used to describe me on more than one occasion) the fate of a colony lay in the hands of the railroad corporation. If some backwoods hamlet was left off the route, it was sure to collapse into obscurity as all commerce moved within easy reach of the railway.
For instance, when the Northern Pacific Railroad was working its way west from Minnesota, the chance to be the city selected to be its Western terminus was essentially priceless. In 1873 the city of Seattle offered the railroad $250 grand in cash and bonds, 7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres of undeveloped land, and half the waterfront. However, this deal wasn't sweet enough for the NPR, and Tacoma, WA became the last stop on its line. Surely dealings like this were the predecessors to our common contemporary practice of offering special incentives to big businesses for the chance to buy from them, a system which is probably one of the most negative legacies of the railroad. In 1893, the Great Northern Railway finally linked Seattle to the East; if it had not, perhaps Seattle would still be an unknown, uninteresting Northern outpost, like Port Townsend or, heaven forbid, Crescent City. After receiving railroad service, the population of Seattle quintupled within twenty years.
Anyway, so I arrived at King Street Station, and was greeted by an informative display explaining a $26.5 million restoration project to recreate its historic beauty, and promote sustainability in its design. Commendable efforts to rehabilitate a 104 year old station that still serves over 2.7 million passengers yearly.
The walk to the HI Seattle from the station was all of 3 blocks, taking me through the elaborate Chinatown gates and into what is known through the glories of politically correct civic rebranding as the International District. The hostel is huge, modern, and super clean, with more amenities than I could really comprehend. There was a room devoted to every activity that a backpacker could dream of: laundry room, TV room, computer room, library, lounge, dining room, kitchen... even their pantry was a walk-in room bigger than my bedroom in San Francisco. Finding nothing interesting in the Free Food section, I grabbed a cup of complimentary coffee, and perused their weekly, The Stranger, for something to entertain me. I settled on a concert at The Crocodile, to be preceded by a fabulous beverage called "The Bee's Knees" at a bar called Rendezvous, recommended to me by a classy lady at the front desk of the hostel. I can highly recommend both locales, and the bands that played (Concours d'Elegance, Kelley Stoltz, and The Hundred in the Hands, from Seattle, SF, and NYC respectively) as well.
I don't know what it is about being a lone traveler, but there is something magic about the independence you have as a stranger in an unknown city with no one and nothing to use as a security blanket to insulate yourself from the world around you. For instance, while at the concert, I noticed a respectable-looking gentleman also enjoying the music alone; We were able to strike up a conversation and become insta-friends, and because of our mutual love of jazz, made plans to seek out more musical entertainment the following evening. This kind of thing seems to happen very rarely when you travel with other people.
I think Seattle must have prepared itself for my arrival, because not only was it Restaurant Week, but the Earshot Jazz Festival was also underway. As I only had one full day in Seattle, I knew I had to take advantage of both within a 24-hour period,** and planned the next day accordingly. After spending the morning exploring Pioneer Square and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park,*** I was lavished with a three-course feast on a blue silk settee in the Fairmont Olympic Hotel's Restaurant, The Georgian, for the low, low price of $15. While in the hotel looking at paraphernalia from its history I found an old Union Pacific ad about the progress of American civilization that said "Sixty years ago a single track crossing the plains. Today the vast Union Pacific System to bring complete service to every part of the West. Sixty years ago a camp under the stars. Today the complete service of the new Olympic Hotel. That is Progress!" I then spent the afternoon up to my eyeballs in Scandinavian pride at the Nordic Heritage Museum, which featured myriad historical accounts of emigration from the region to the US, adorable Scandinavian folk arts of every persuasion, and an exhibition of the most aesthetically horrifying Finnish architecture that has ever accosted my eyeballs. My fellow musical fan and I then saw Seattle jazz-funk band The McTuff Trio play a dynamic free show at the Seamonster Lounge in one of Seattle's cooler outlying neighborhoods, Wallingford.
I suppose it is always better to be left wanting more, but it was not without a tinge of regret about the brevity of my stay that I boarded the Coast Starlight for the 20-hour trip south to the city of my birth, Sacramento.
*Named by David "Doc" Maynard to honor the famous last leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, Chief Seattle.
**Do you see how hard my life is? Sigh.
***Two awesome things about Seattle: John Nordstrom came here from Sweden as a 16 year-old with $5 to his name in 1887 and went on to found the famous shoe and clothing empire. Also, the first nightclub in Seattle was a fabulous gay bar/disco called Shelly's Leg, which opened in 1973. For the full story go here.