Historical Novel Idea: a Rural Urban River

This is the story of a river in Seattle. This, like many, or perhaps all, of American rivers is a working river. From its source on the slopes of Mt Rainier (to the Salishan tribe: Talol or Tahoma) to the Puget Sound, it’s got two names, it’s highly controlled by levies, it once served multiple farms and now supports fleets of container ships from China.

This river underwent intense modification. In this photo, you can see its original oxbow course compared with its present ramrod vector. In the years running up to 1895, settlers in Washington Territory were eyeing, through dollar-sign glasses, the money-making potential of this major river around which the city of Seattle was growing. By 1913 the work began.

Once they got the Dkhw‘Duw’Absh long houses out of the way (burned down by the settlers, mostly—assisted by the Hudson Bay Company, Catholic priests, and wealthy shop merchants), the work could begin. Essentially, this process involved peeling away great portions of nearby hillsides and shoveling the fill into the tidal wetlands. While this was going on, a dredger fondly named by the chief engineer as Duwamish 1, was purchased and began to gouge out the lower waterway.

Meandering streets in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle remain, showing where the river moved several blocks away.

Today the Duwamish/Green River is a barely noticed channel snaking its course between a giant mall and the Burlington Northern railroad tracks. We notice it every day because we live on a nearly one-acre lot fronting the river, and from our bank we look across to the Green River Bike Trail and a thirty-foot concrete wall shielding from view the I-5 Interstate.

I’ve been fascinated by this river’s storied changes. It flows backward twice a day at high tide, holding on to its estuary properties. We used to see otters and beavers, but not so much nowadays. Last year I saw a sea lion feasting on migrating salmon. Osprey, eagles and king fisher still use the river, as do fishermen in September, when fishing for specific species—coho, chinook, silver—is legal.In one of my urban fantasy novels, Finding the Eye, writing as Hunter Morrison, I used the trope of someone throwing a precious object into the wetland mud in 1898 and recovering it 100 years later (this is urban fantasy, remember; anything can happen) in a deep shaft underneath an abandoned gas station bathroom in Georgetown, built to look like cowboy boots. These same bathroom boots and the hat that housed the gas station pay station can now be found here: the aptly-named Oxbow Park.

Somewhere in this tragi-fascinating history is a novel, waiting to be written. One of my sources for this blog mentioned that the river-straightening project began at the County Poor Farm in Georgetown. Right there is rich hunting ground for characters. Who goes to the Poor Farm? Can they ever get off the ranch? What do they do there? And when they see the dredger coming down the river, what do they think, and can they do anything about it?

The destruction of the river and those who previously used it was instigated by the wealthy entrepeneurs who, frustrated by the chaos of California gold fields, fed their lust for wealth by going north. An Indian, to them, was no more important than a bear or a beaver—you couldn’t sell the pelt, so what good are they? The settlers’ stories, good and bad, are preserved in the history books, local city-lore and street names. But who writes about the poor? People who, seeking the same golden pot, don’t quite make it?

Hmmmm. Sounds like a great scene for conflict. Like the Duwamish itself, throughout the seasons.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

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