The Waterlines Project

The Waterlines Project

Seattle, Washington

Fels founded The Waterlines Project, with University of Washington archaeologist Peter Lape in 2004. The project looks at Seattle history from its shorelines: how departing glaciers carved the land, water flowed in and out, earthquakes shook things up, and in the last century and a half, city departments rearranged it.

Sources for the project are imbedded in the documentary record (maps, illustrations, photographs and written descriptions) of early Seattle Native and settler communities, oral histories, and archaeological and geological data from bores and excavations. Most of this raw data is in the public domain or with copyrights held by the Burke Museum or one of the project’s partner institutions. A considerable amount resides in rather obscure technical reports.

One of the primary goals of the project has been to make this information available to a wider audience. The project has collected extensive records, much of it compiled by Waterlines, primarily developed and managed by team member and mapping wizard Amir Sheikh, into a geographic information system (GIS) database and overlaid on contemporary maps, aerial photos and satellite images.

Much of Seattle’s current downtown, and almost all of its Pioneer Square was once covered by mudflats, that provided direct access to the open water and the digging of clams for the natives. Early non-native settlers filled the mudflats and then claimed the resulting ‘land’ along the city’s waterfront, which in the last years of the 19th century was then further ‘reconfigured’ by the city’s engineering department. Hills were flattened, lagoons filled, rivers rerouted, changed direction, or even dried up, lakes lowered, canals dug. The technology was available in Seattle, much of it in the form of returned outsized hydraulic equipment from the goldfields of Alaska. Remarkably to those walking, biking or driving in these areas today, these wholesale changes are nearly invisible. The Waterlines Project is an effort to make what happened on such a large scale visible, or at least imaginable, today.

In 2013, Waterlines created material for the Milepost 31 Exhibition, which is on view in Pioneer Square. Produced by the state’s transportation department, the exhibit provides background for the big tunnel project on the waterfront. Fels fashioned a 12’ diameter history wheel that depicts thousands of years of history of Pioneer Square as it revolves.

In 2014, Waterlines published a fold-out paper map of the shorelines that shows what the area would have looked like in 1840 (pre-European settlement) along with its current configuration. 10,000 copies of the map were distributed free of charge, thanks to the Burke Museum and grants from 4Culture.