Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Seattle’s original downtown was located in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. It was not, however, the first white settlement in the area. The original settlers moved their homes from Alki, across Elliott Bay in what is now West Seattle, to the more sheltered Pioneer Square after their first winter in the Seattle area. The area has transformed again and again since that first settlement, into what it is now, which is a slightly technology focused business area during the day with art galleries and restaurants around, and a bustling nightlife mecca in the evenings. It was named for the plaza with which it shares its name, at the corner of 1st Avenue and Yesler Way. Here you can find a statue in honor of Chief Sealth, inscribed with his words, the man for whom Seattle is named. Pioneer Square is greatly shaped by its history. The area came to be significant with the building of a sawmill on Elliott Bay, at the foot of what is now Yesler Way in 1852. The city came to grow around that major mill. Most of the original buildings in the area were built with wood, though, and thus burnt down in the disastrous Great Fire of 1889. It was then that the buildings that now dominate the neighborhood were built, great brick and stone structures that give Pioneer Square architectural intrigue in addition to historic.

With the mill at the bottom of the hill, lumber was slid down Yesler Way (then Mill Street), earning it the nickname Skid Road. It was from the activities of the time in Pioneer Square that we get the origin of the current phrase ‘skid row.’ Known for the multitude of brothels, saloons and gambling houses that peppered the neighborhood, Pioneer Square retained its reputation for unsavory characters clear through the following century.

Pioneer Square was a central part of the economic boom surrounding the Klondike Gold Rush. The hopeful gold miners would pass through the city on their way to Alaska pausing to be clothed by local tailors and de-clothed by Pioneer Square’s less savory residents. Following the boom of the gold rush, Pioneer Square saw the building of Smith Tower in its confines, the tallest building west of the Mississippi at the time (which was 1914).

The area continued to live up to its reputation for illegal or vaguely illegal activity well into the late 20th century, at which point it became a prime suspect for the urban renewal movements of the time. By the mid 1990s, it had begun to take the shape it now has.

Currently Pioneer Square only mildly retains its bad reputation, with a large population of homeless people and the occasional spat of bad drunks. The worst example of this was the Mardi Gras Riots resulting in the beating death of one person. In general, however, it is thought of as a nightlife center to the city, with its many bars helping it live up to this title. Additionally, the streets are peppered with art galleries and showrooms, adding value to the area. Few people live in Pioneer Square, other than the occasional artists’ lofts, but many come to work here daily, where remnants of the dot com era and its technology followers have set up shop.