The Rust Belt gets a unfair rep. Especially with all of the contributions it’s made to this great country. This one in particular piqued my interest as I was reading through a great book on Seattle’s History Sons of Profits.
Canton, Ohio is responsible for a lot more than just creating the National Football League and displaying busts of it’s champions in the heart of downtown. It’s the birthplace and launchpad of many of those who continued their journey west.
Remember, it’s not been more than a few generations ago that the “Ohio territory” was considered the great Western frontier. It was largely unexplored and uninhabited by settlers. The successfuly risk takers made a fortune risking it all and staking a claim in this fertile place.
This story begins in 1851. To give some perspective on what was going on, here were the major historical events:
- The U.S. government was in talks to purchase a plot of territory which would eventually become Arizona and New Mexico
- A flip of a coin decided that a new town in Oregon would be called Portland, Oregon instead of Boston, Oregon (true story, maybe for another post)
- California was in the middle of it’s gold rush that started in 1849; which is also why we call the San Francisco NFL team the 49ers
- The sect of land we know call Colorado received it’s first settlers from Mexico
Most notably, the first ship of settlers landed in Alkai Beach, which is now part of West Seattle.
For those who aren’t so familiar with Washington, Seattle sits in the direct center of waterway called the Puget Sound. This body of water causes that opening you see in the Northwest corner of Washington.
Creating a city on this location was ideal for at least few reasons:
- It allowed for easy transportation, we didn’t even have a railway across the United States yet. Ships were the most effecient way to transport goods in the 1850’s.
- The Pacific Northwest was a literal rainforest that was abundantly rich in timber.
- At this point in time, portions of San Francisco burned down constantly. This balloning city of prospectors and gold rushers needed a constant supply of raw wood to rebuild docks and buildings.
The original settlers of Alkai Beach chose the location because; quite frankly, it was the flattest area they could find all along the eastern shoreline of the Puget Sound.
So while Henry Yinsler just started his 6 week journey from Ohio to Washington, the first settlers of Alkai Beach were breaking their backs cutting down the first “old growth” on the beach with hand tools.
To give some perspective the original Douglas Firs, Western Red Cedars, and Big Leave Maples grew for hundreds of years largely undisturbed. When the first Americans settled in this area, these trees were tremendously large - up to 20 ft wide and 400 ft tall.
The Alkai Beach Mistake
Henry Yinsler’s success didn’t sprout from being the first to the party in the Puget Sound. Instead Alkai failed commercially because of a set of nasty southbound winds during winter.
Despite having the flatest area in the region, surrounded by an almost unbelievable amount of lumber, and nearby sea to ship it - Alkai was destined to fail as the center of the logging industry in the Northwest.
That winter of 1859, a strong wind made it’s way down from Canada and swept away the towns wooden docks. Turns out, those strong of waves are an annual thing. In the mid-1850’s Nature was much stronger than Man’s creations at Alkai.
Henry recognized this mistake by the time he landed in the Puget Sound.
Instead, he decided he would take his bet building a saw mill on the far east shore. In a place we now call Seattle.
Yesler’s Mill, Seattle’s first
Henry wisely spent his $30,000 Canton, Ohio originated dollars to build a steam powered saw mill at the bottom of a hill smack dab in the middle of today’s downtown in Pioneer Square.
As a result, lumber produced by Yesler’s sawmill could operate year round without any delays. The Port of Seattle granted Yesler the competitive edge because his product didn’t have to wait for docks to be rebuilt frequently.
The road going down the hill to the saw mill was originally name “Skid Road”. This was due to the skidding of these giant trees as they rolled down the hill to the sawmill for processing. Years later, when the the Yesler Mill closed causing the dilapidation of the area around the road would give the connotation of what we call “Skid Row” today.
If you are visiting Seattle, Skid Road is now Yeslers Way.
Yesler’s choice of location for his saw mill paid off in dividends. For time, Yesler’s Mill was the only saw mill operating in the Seattle area. Paired with this and his sizable property investments, his inital $30,000 would eventually grow his fortunes into millons.
It doesn’t sound like a lot a lot, but keep in mind that $100 in 1860’s is the same purchasing power as $3,000 today. The millionares of the 19th century were fantastically weathly.
In 1865 Seattle incorporated as a town, Yesler is listed as one of the 5 incorporators.
He later on became the Mayor.
Oh and he built the first water supply system.
Yesler was also a Dick
Remember that $30,000 dollar investment that started this whole chain of good fortune for Henry Yesler? Well, he never paid it back to his friend back in Canton. Apparently legal contracts don’t hold as much power when you’re located a good 6 weeks journey from the plaintiff and in the middle of the lawless West.
Sources if you care
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1851_in_the_United_States https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Gold_Rush https://www.officialdata.org/1859-dollars-in-2017 https://www.historylink.org/File/286