You know about the Space Needle, Starbucks and its distinction as the birthplace of grunge. But did you know it’s built atop the ruins of a city center that burned down more than a hundred years ago? Or that it’s the hometown of Kenny G.? Here for your tasting pleasure: a cup of freshly brewed facts about Seattle.
1. The first European to visit the area, which had been inhabited by native tribes for more than 4,000 years, was a man named Vancouver. That’s George Vancouver, the renowned British explorer, who stopped by in 1792 during his voyage to chart the Pacific coast of North America.
2. It was originally called New York. Why, exactly, is unclear, though several members of the Denny party, a ragtag group that first settled Alki Point in 1851, in what’s today known as West Seattle, hailed from New York State. After the party moved across Elliott Bay, they renamed the territory “Seattle” after a Duwamish Indian chief who befriended them.
3. The entire central business district burned down in 1889, in what’s today known as The Great Seattle Fire. It started with a woodworker who mishandled hot glue, and resulted in 116 acres reduced to ash. City residents decided to rebuild atop the rubble rather than relocate, raising streets up to 22 feet in the process and using brick and steel to erect buildings instead of wood (smart move).
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Long before the likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Seattle’s first millionaire was a sawmill operator named Henry Yesler. A native of Hagerstown, Maryland, Yesler came to Seattle shortly after it was settled and built what became the country’s first steam-powered sawmill. He also, oddly, served as Seattle’s 7th and 15th mayor.
5. Seattle became a boomtown during the Yukon Gold Rush, outfitting the hordes of prospectors heading north to strike it rich. Merchants in Pioneer Square filled their stores and sidewalks with merchandise, and some even offered classes to wide-eyed greenhorns on panning and sluicing for gold.
6. It was the first major American city to have a female mayor. Bertha Knight Landes held the office from 1926 to 1928, and was notable for taking a hard line against corruption (she fired the chief of police, for starters). The city hasn’t had another female mayor since.
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Airplane manufacturer Boeing opened in 1916 [PDF] in a former shipyard on the shores of Lake Union. World War I kickstarted the business, but the following years were lean ones, and Boeing began turning out furniture, phonograph cases, and corset frames to offset the decline. The rise of commercial aviation, World War II, and the jet age would eventually propel the company into the stratosphere. And though it’s no longer is based in Seattle, Boeing still manufacturers several airplanes, including the 747, the 767 and the giant 787 Dreamliner, at the company’s Everett plant just north of Seattle.
9. The 600-foot-tall Space Needle was the brainchild of artist Edward E. Carlson, who sketched a design for the tower that would loom over the 1962 World's Fair on a cocktail napkin. The structure, which was built in just 400 days, can withstand winds of up to 200 mph and a 9.1 magnitude earthquake (more on that later), thanks in part to its foundation, which extends 30 feet underground.
10. The iconic Pike Place Market started because of overpriced onions. Between 1906 and 1907, the price of produce, and onions in particular, skyrocketed, and consumers as well as civic leaders believed price-gouging wholesalers were to blame. So the city proposed a public market where customers could buy directly from farmers. In August 1907, Pike Place Market opened for business. Today, it’s the oldest continually operating farmer’s market in America.
It’s one of the fastest growing big cities in the U.S.—number three, to be exact—with 15,000 residents added over the past year. Only Denver and Austin grew more.
12. Despite its rainy image, Seattle gets less annual rainfall than New York, Houston, Boston, and Atlanta. It does, however, have quite a few cloudy days and days with light precipitation, particularly in the wintertime.
13. It has the second most glass-blowing studios of any city in the world, behind Murano, Italy.
14. There are more dogs living there than children, according to Census data, and many of their owners (the dogs, that is) are sci-fi/fantasy geeks. There are numerous Frodos, a smattering of Xenas, and a pitbull in West Seattle named Daenarys. Cat lovers are pretty creative, too, like the owner of “Mr. Meowgi”.
15. It’s home to the country’s first gas station—a Standard Oil outpost that opened in 1907 at Holgate Street and Western Avenue.
16. Seattlites are a cultured bunch. Around 80 percent of adults hold Seattle Public Library cards, while the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet is said to have the highest per capita attendance of any ballet in America.
17. There’s an eerie Underground Tour that takes visitors along the sidewalks and storefronts that existed before the Great Fire. It begins and ends, thankfully, in a refurbished saloon.
18. The next big hipster trend currently on display there: pinball. There’s a museum, league play, and numerous bars stuffed with machines.
19. It has the largest houseboat population in the country, with plenty of folks willing to pay big bucks to live on the water. Last year, the houseboat from Sleepless in Seattle sold for more than $2 million.
Seattle City Light—a public-owned utility which powers 90 percent of Seattle via hydroelectricity—has a zero carbon footprint. The entire city has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050.
21. A real-life superhero named Phoenix Jones roams the streets of Seattle. And lest you think he’s an out-of-shape fanboy, think again. He’s mixed martial arts fighter Ben Fodor, and he’s been stabbed, shot, hit with a bat, and had his nose broken in the line of duty.
22. It’s due for a major earthquake. The Cascadia fault line, which runs along the entire northwest coast, last shook the area sometime around 1700. Seismologists say there’s an 80 percent chance of a 6.8-magnitude quake hitting in the next fifty years, and a 10 to 15% chance that a really big one—9.0 or higher—could hit in the same time frame.
23. In the meantime, any tremors you may feel could very well just mean there's a Seahawks game going on. Fans of Seattle's pro football team are known for their enthusiasm (read: volume), earning them a 2013 Guinness World Record for "loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium" (137.6 decibels!). The energy of their collective movement is enough to occasionally register on the Richter scale, most notably after Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard touchdown in a 2011 playoff game, which one seismologist said was "probably" the equivalent of a magnitude one earthquake.
23. It’s well known as the incubator for rock bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, but it’s also where Kenny G. and Sir Mix-A-Lot got their starts. And don’t forget Macklemore. And Heart. And Kenny Loggins.
24. There’s a giant drill named Bertha trying to dig its way under the city. It’s part of a controversial project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated section of State Highway 99 that runs along the west side of downtown Seattle. Digging on the new underground tunnel began in 2013, but then Bertha got stuck after completing only 10 percent of its 1.7-mile journey (and on a steel pipe, of all things). Crews recently removed Bertha’s enormous cutterhead—all 4 million pounds of it—for repairs, and plan to resume drilling this November.
25. A giant, Volkswagen-crushing troll lives under one of its bridges.