Maritime Voices: Seattle’s Historic South Downtown Oral History Project

By Vanessa Chin, Maritime Washington Storytelling Intern

Image above: Seattle waterfront, taken from the Space Needle, 1969. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives (63982).

Seattle’s waterfront. What feelings and memories do these two words conjure up for you? Perhaps you remember cautiously wandering through the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop or docking your boat to grab a quick lunch at Ivar’s before heading back out to fish. Maybe your family immigrated to the United States by ship into Elliot Bay or your grandparents worked at a cannery within walking distance from their home.

These are just a few of the experiences recalled by participants of a joint oral history project by Historic South Downtown and HistoryLink. Recorded in 2015, the nine interviews that make up the Historic South Downtown Oral Histories collection document some of the rich connections between the central waterfront and the Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods.

Postcard of bones and totem poles, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop entrance, Seattle, 1910s. Courtesy of
Seattle Harbor Department dock (Daniel R. Huntington, 1920), later Washington Street Boat Landing, March 24, 1921. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives (2705).

Several histories in this collection speak to the connection between land and sea, including businesses once found on the waterfront and how people accessed them. Lifelong fisherman Dennis Frair frequently moored his boat at the public Washington Street Boat Landing in the 1970s. Opened in 1972, the boat landing allowed folks to safely tie up their boats and patronize the waterfront stores and eateries.  

Dennis Frair fishing in Puget Sound in the 1970s. Interview by Dominic Black March 20, 2015.

In another account, Menache Israel recalled popular businesses on the central waterfront in the 1940s and 1950s. Israel, who spent his career in Pioneer Square working for his father’s dye works business before running his own office supply store, recalled several fish companies and the families who owned them. 

Menache Israel talks about fish companies on the Seattle waterfront. Interview by Dominic Black, March 20, 2015.
Solomon Calvo (left) in front of Waterfront Fish Market, ca. 1914.
Courtesy of UW Special Collections (UW1093).

The collection explores not only the physical relationship between water and land but also the practical and emotional connections between residents and Seattle’s waterfront over the past several decades. These emotional ties are front and center in many of the oral histories related to the immigrant experience of those who lived in the Chinatown-International District. 

Alaskan Seawall and Piers, 1963. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives (173715).

Tony Chinn grew up in the Chinatown-International District in the decades following World War II. As a kid, his friends and cousins would go fishing off the floating docks below one of the piers on the central waterfront. However, Tony was never allowed to go because his mother worried for his safety. Tony’s mother was familiar with the waterfront, as she used to work for a company there shelling crabs. This was a common job for Chinese immigrant women, as many spoke limited English and lived close to the waterfront.

Tony Chinn talks about his mother’s work in crab processing. Interview by Dominic Black, April 24, 2015.

Alongside personal stories, this oral history collection also includes tales of fascinating residents from Seattle’s past. Dr. Marie Wong, Professor Emerita at Seattle University’s Institute of Public Service, Asian Studies, and Public Affairs, recounts the story of hotel manager and “magical fisherman” Kunitaro Kawaguchi, who always seemed to know the perfect spot to fish in Elliot Bay. 

Marie Wong on Kunitaro Kawaguchi, a single-room occupancy hotel owner and magical fisherman. Interview by Dominic Black, October 30, 2015.
Cadillac Hotel, corner of S Jackson Street and 2nd Avenue S, Seattle, 1971. Photo by Dave Potts, Courtesy of MOHAI (1986.5.54389.1).

These excerpts are only a handful of snippets from the project collection. To learn more about the nine interviewees and their insightful stories, visit the Historic South Downtown Oral Histories collection on 

Throughout the year, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite oral histories about our state’s maritime heritage so you can experience Washington’s water-based stories directly from those who have lived them. If you have a maritime-themed oral history project or collection you would like featured, email us at [email protected].

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