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Between Two Pines

The Disappearing Ferns

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In the not-so-distant past, Seward Park’s peninsula became an island when the isthmus connecting the land would flood. Lushootseed-speaking Salish peoples lived on and around the peninsula since time immemorial before the first settlers arrived in the 1850s. The xachua’bsh people, or “lake people,” lived on the lake, where they set up winter villages to hunt, fish, and gather, with their neighbors living on the rivers inland, the txwduwa'bsh.

However, white settlers staked out the land in the mid-1800s, lumping both peoples into the “Duwamish,” an Anglicization of txwduwa'bsh. In 1855, Washington Territory Gov. Isaac Stevens signed the Treaty of Point Elliott with the Duwamish people, promising hunting and fishing rights and reservations to all represented signers in exchange for over 54,000 acres of land. White settlers soon broke the treaty; none of the treaty promises have been kept and the Duwamish are fighting to this day for federal recognition as a tribe.

This legacy is one that mars Seward Park, like many other lands in Seattle, because its legacy is built on the exploitation of the Indigenous peoples who lived and continue to live here and poses far-reaching consequences for the stewardship of the land today.

In 1861, the bay and surrounding peninsula would be renamed Andrews’ Bayand Bailey Peninsula after surveyor W. R. Andrews and investor William E. Bailey, whose family had bought the land rights to the peninsula.

Seward Blueprint

Seward Park Olmsted Preliminary Plan, January 30, 1912 - Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archive, Identifier # 2316

Planning for a park was not realized until 1903, when Seattle was invigorated by the prospect of gold. The famous park-designing Olmsted Brothers and Seattle City Council had to convince the Baileys to sell the land, with the city finally buying Bailey Peninsula for $322,000 in 1911. 

Almost immediately, Seward Park became a premier destination that rivaled Golden Gardens Park in popularity. 

Unlike other parks of the era that were built by altering the land to attract park goers, the Olmsted Brothers had a direct hand in designing Seward as a “Magnificent Forest.” The Olmsteds decided to name the park “Seward” as an homage to William H. Seward, who facilitated the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

The construction of the Montlake Cut meant that the isthmus would no longer flood, allowing park goers to access the island with cars for the first time. Boats were a common site by 1919, when the city allowed overnight mooring in Andrew Bay. A fish hatchery for sport fishing was constructed in 1935, and Seward Park was billed as a more “natural” park to visit.

Seward 1935

Seward Park Fish Hatchery Rearing Ponds, August 14, 1935 - Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archive, Identifier # 9854

Even hoteliers were itching to cash in on the park’s success. In 1927, Catherine C. Redfield and J. Frank Redfield built a two-story Tudor style inn to serve sandwiches and sodas. The Great Depression meant slowed business, and after a failed attempt to sell liquor alongside an eventual switch to more upscale chicken and steak dinners, the Redfields left the Seward Park Inn in 1943. The park foreman would take up residence there until 1968, but today, the Seward Park Inn has been converted into an education center by the Seward Park Audubon Center

Seward has remained a natural getaway that the Olmsteds tried to preserve. The old growth forests support thriving flora and fauna without much having been altered since the park’s inception. Yet, there is something more sinister going on in the undergrowth of the forest. 

Park goers first noticed sword ferns, a native species of the park, dying off in 2013. Around 15 acres of sword ferns — accounting for 10% of the old-growth forest — are now dead, which is alarming not only to park stewards, but citizen scientists. The citizens who work on these projects are not only aware of the park’s problems, but also the die-offs of sword ferns around the Pacific Northwest. They also come from a variety of backgrounds, which makes the tracking and understanding of the dying sword ferns a more comprehensive effort than if just a single team of botanists were searching for an explanation. 

Seward Modern

Seward Park, June 21, 2015 - Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archive, Identifier # 178359

What fascinates me is how ecological science differs from something that is done solely in a lab setting, yet both share fundamental similarities. Unknown variables and a lack of straightforward answers are characteristic of both, but so is the collaboration required for either to function. The ease of communication and ability for ordinary people to contribute to better understanding of both realms of science is simply astounding — something I doubt anyone would have considered possible when Seward Park was founded. Though answers to the disappearing sword ferns are yet unknown, hearing that people from all over the Pacific Northwest are contributing to this question makes me hopeful that someday we may know why the ferns disappear. 

Whether it be through science or advocacy, people are ultimately what make a society — or a park — function. While the Duwamish must grapple with exploitation of the environment, there are efforts to make sure that the land is healed once again. There are no straightforward answers here either, only efforts made by people to make sure that the land is hospitable. Efforts like the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition or volunteers with the Duwamish Tribe are analogs to the work done in Seward Park, and ones I hope thrive in the coming years with the community’s help.

The next time you set foot on the land that we borrow from others, it is my hope that you enjoy it. But, remember to leave it a little better than the way you found it.

Reach columnist Andy Chia at Twitter: @GreatBaconBaron

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