The ridge and steep slopes that make up the West Duwamish Greenbelt were likely created more than 60,000 years ago, before the last ice age, according to natural historian David Williams. As the glacier crossed the ridge, it compressed and consolidated layers of land so that the rocks were more resistant to erosion, leaving the steep sides of the ridge. After the glacier melted, plant life took hold and the ridge was covered by a forest of tall conifers such as Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce.
Duwamish ancestors were the first to live around the Duwamish Peninsula. They built winter longhouses on benches above the Duwamish River, the “way in” to the Puget Sound Lowlands. As early as 500 A.D. the village of Tu?elal?tx or “where herrings live” hunkered on the east side of what is now Pigeon Point. Along the river they strung aerial duck nets and established seasonal fishing camps and sweat houses on its banks. More than 100 Duwamish were still camping near the mouth of the Duwamish River at the end of 1856, but they had been decimated by disease and were estimated to number less than 400 by the mid-1800s. After the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, many of the Duwamish moved temporarily to the Suquamish reservation or to the Tulalip Reservation. A proposed reservation along the Black River, which fed into the Duwamish River, was opposed by settlers and never ratified. Many stayed on the peninsula, intermarrying with the incoming residents.
In 2008 the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center opened at 4705 W. Marginal Way SW, downhill from South Seattle College, not far from another Duwamish village, hah-AH-poos. Many neighbors would like to see a trail connection to the longhouse from the top of the ridge.
Housing on the Ridge
In the late 1800s Puget Mill Company owned and logged much of the land on the Duwamish Peninsula. When the native conifers were logged out, big-leaf maple, black cottonwood, and red alder grew in their place, making up much of the forest today. Several of the Duwamish who had stayed on the river’s shoreline were burned out of their homes in 1893, making way for residential development on the logged land.
In 1905 a steel mill in the valley to the west of Puget Ridge brought many workers and residents whose houses began climbing the hill. By 1916, the lower five miles of the Duwamish River had been straightened, dredged and renamed the Lower Duwamish Watery. As industry claimed the waterway’s shores, the neighborhood of Riverside grew at the eastern foot of the ridge. Steep slopes and risk of landslides kept housing off the steepest parts.
In 1912, soon after West Seattle was annexed to Seattle in 1907, Puget Mill Company donated 20 acres on the ridge to the city as Puget Park (since the company had already logged the land and taken value, taxes were a factor in the donation). Scouts built bridges, cleared trails, and camped in the park.
In 1964 the Seattle Park Board gave permission to Yates Stables to establish a horseback riding facility and bridle trails in Puget Park. John Yates lived on top of Cooper Hill (22nd Ave. SW) just a short walk from his stables. In 1969 Yates allowed the Ideal Cement Company (currently Lafarge) to fill the ravine with cement dust waste to further develop the property for horseback riding. However, the fill dust invoked numerous complaints by nearby residents and businesses, which caused the city to revoke the filling permit. The cement kiln dust (CKD) remains and is a source of pollution to the Duwamish Waterway although much has been covered by leaf litter and vegetation.
Roads and Streetcars
Puget Mill Company also offered a 160-foot-wide right of way from the Duwamish River up and over the ridges to 35th and Genesee. The Seattle Parks Department accepted the offer and made plans to build the road but little more was done. Puget Boulevard is shown in a 1928 map created by the Olmsted Brothers, but it was never built.
As access roads were planned and sometimes built, the ridge attracted more attention from real estate developers. Streetcar lines were built to reach residential communities such as Highland Park, White Center, and Burien. In 1912, the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railroad began service from Seattle to Burien, about nine miles along the west side of the Duwamish River. Passengers would transfer to Puget Sound, Traction, Light & Power Company cars at Riverside Avenue and Iowa Street. The Hillside Station may have been near the Riverview Pee-Wee fields. (Read Searching for a Streetcar line for more information.)
Sand and Gravel
The land on the southern end of the greenbelt, the Riverview community, was the site of sand and gravel operations from 1922 through the 1960s. It had been owned by Klinker Sand and Gravel which was mining the property with an eye for ending up with large flat areas for housing developments. The Seattle Department of Engineering bought some of the land, then traded its own sand and gravel operations, located where South Seattle College is now, for the remainder. They used it as a sand and gravel pit for construction of the First Avenue South bridge and built a service road from the base of Highland Park Way, a road that can still be walked today.
In the late 1960s, South Seattle College and Riverview Playfields were built on some of this property. The Riverview Neighborhood Council opposed multi-family housing development on the site.
In Fall of 2000, a small group of neighbors were encouraged by the City of Seattle to plan bicycle paths in the neighborhood. They formed rTrip and developed a plan that started from the South end of the Riverview Playfield, traveled north through the greenbelt and the SSC campus and down the hill to connect with the Duwamish trail. The plan ran into obstacles of slope, property rights, and the uncertainty of travel through the greenbelt. See Alan Robertson’s description of this project.
The Sound Way and Housing Attempts in the Greenbelt
In the 1950s, when a new 1st Ave S. bridge was being planned in South Park, there was a desire to build freeways into what were then the suburban areas of Burien and Southwest Seattle. The “Sound Way” would travel up through the hill just south of SSCC through a deep cut. It would then wrap southwest through 17th Ave SW and SW Myrtle Street, continuing down Orchard and cutting through the hill to Delridge. This never happened.
Alan Robertson describes an attempt in the early 2000’s to build more housing in the greenbelt:
“Shortly after we moved here in 1988, I remember signs going up at 14th & Holly to announce this property to be part of the Duwamish Greenbelt and listing all of the activities that were not allowed. The property had been designated as greenbelt by a City Council that intended that the property remain green. This included Councilwoman Jeanette Williams with her legislative aide Tom Rasmussen.
But in 2003, the Mayor [Greg Nickels] was looking for money and ways to advance affordable housing. He found the old Soundway property and decided it was perfect.
The City of Seattle Fleets and Facilities Department recommended that 7 acres of greenbelt north of SW Holly, between 15th Ave SW and 12th Ave SW, be sold to developers. The City estimated that 39 houses could be built within the environmentally critical areas.
The neighborhood disagreed. The result was both exhilarating and tragic at the same time. Neighbors that had been spending their time and effort to improve the neighborhood were now forced to place all of their effort into stopping the development of the greenbelt.
After much negotiation, the Mayor’s office announced in 2005 that the property would be saved for green space. It was not official until 2011, when the city council formally voted on legislation to transfer the property to Seattle Parks for greenbelt.”
Nature Consortium and students in the landscape horticulture program at South Seattle College worked for several years to restore native trees and shrubs in the greenbelt. Because of disturbances such as logging, gravel mining, and the proposed highway, the habitat of the greenbelt has been degraded. Groups have worked to remove invasive weeds, amend soil, address erosion issues, and plant new native trees and shrubs. Nature Consortium planted more than 10,000 trees and 13,000 shrubs and understory plants. The greenbelt also serves as a buffer between the industrial pollution along the Duwamish Waterway and neighborhoods.
West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group
In 2014 the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group formed to promote walking trails in the Greenbelt, forest restoration, and a cultural connection to the Duwamish Longhouse.