Book Review:
Shaper of Seattle: Reginald Heber Thomson's Pacific Northwest

  • Posted 7/07/2011
  • Essay 9856

By William H. Wilson
Paperback, 231 pages
Photographs, notes, index
ISBN 978-0-87422-301-9 

This book is both a biography of Reginald Heber Thomson and a historical biography of much of the actual physical entity, seen and unseen, of the city of Seattle. The title refers to the Pacific Northwest but Wilson makes it clear in the opening pages that Thomson was looking for an emergent metropolis upon which he could make his mark as an engineer. Seattle would be that metropolis, although he did not begin to truly make his mark until about 10 years after his arrival in 1881. His mark, visible -- if taken for granted -- in the major regrades and boulevards and invisible in the sewer system, the Cedar River gravity feed water system, and Seattle City Light and Power, are essential aspects of the Seattle we live in today. This book provides us with the details and context within which these lasting achievements took place.

Thomson was born in Madison, Indiana, in 1856. His father was chair of several departments at nearby Hanover College, a Presbyterian institution. Thomson was an exceptional student and graduated at the age of 21. Wilson makes it clear that besides his strong education (a rarity at the time) the most important influence in Thomson’s life was his strong belief in Presbyterianism. Although he does not dwell on this, a thread of reminder runs throughout the biography. Family and a lifelong commitment to the Republican Party rounded out his character. In the meantime, Madison had become somewhat of a backwater and in 1877 Thomson left for California where he was to spend four years and meet his future wife. Initially, he hoped to find a “suitable city and a career ... preferably in mining engineering.” San Francisco was ruled out as it was too well established for a newcomer to make his mark. After four years of various jobs Thomson headed north to Seattle to join a cousin’s surveying firm. This was to lay the ground for the reshaping of Seattle.

The chapter covering Thomson’s first 10 years in Seattle paints a portrait of Seattle and surroundings in words and pictures that will be familiar to many readers. It also establishes the contextual background against which his achievements as city engineer can be judged. Seattle was a potential metropolis that lacked a remotely adequate sewage system, was facing problems with drinking water, and presented significant barriers to transportation in an era of horsepower and rail. During his first 10 years he was involved in a fair number of ventures involving surveying, mining, and engineering operations, as well as investigating the possibilities of other Pacific Northwest towns in which he might settle. In 1884 he was appointed City Surveyor -- while still conducting other surveying operations on the side -- and held the post until his removal in 1894. In this day, civil engineering was nearly synonymous with surveying and the state of the art was fairly primitive. A busy 10 years helped prepare him for his appointment as City Engineer in 1892.   

Of the four signal achievements in Thomson’s long career, Wilson regards the first, sewers, to be more difficult and significant than have most historians, who emphasize the more obviously dramatic regrades and the water system. Chapter five is devoted to the sewers in all their complexity, context, and importance. Considering clean water essential to urban civilization, Thomson recognized at the same time that an adequate supply encouraged its use and also produced wastewater. City Fathers, however, were more keen on water systems.

Thomson’s contribution to Seattle’s sewage system was not from scratch. Although less than adequate, there had been sewage construction in the 1880s that had improved the city’s situation. Several pages are devoted to establishing the political, economic, and engineering factors that influenced the state of Seattle’s sewer system when Thomson was offered the City Engineer's job (others had turned it down) on the understanding that he could finish the North Trunk sewer.

He did finish it, where others had pronounced it impossible (although, for political reasons, he was removed from his job for a month in 1894 before being reappointed). In doing so he established his tenacity, his engineering sense, his ability to appoint the right subordinates, and his dedication to cost effectiveness in spending taxpayer funds. The chapter is well illustrated and rich in details regarding these accomplishments.

Nearly every glass of water from a faucet in Seattle owes a debt to the Cedar River gravity-feed water system. Thomson’s “greatest goal” for Seattle was to increase population, business, and trade and for this he believed that the universal availability of clean water was essential. Chapter six examines the Cedar River water system in detail. The water system did not spring full-blown from his term as City Engineer. The chapter includes a great deal of background on the Cedar River itself as well as the political, economic, legal, land, and engineering assessments that preceded Thomson’s hands at the reins. But then a considerable portion of the chapter delves into his difficulties getting everything in place. At one significant point he crossed swords with the formidable Gifford Pinchot over land acquisition. Once again Thomson revealed his talent for picking the right subordinates, maintaining active supervision -- technical and political -- and seeing that public funds were well spent. It was a significant achievement, one marked every time you turn on a faucet.   

The Regrades -- the famous Denny Regrade was hardly the only one -- are the most visible aspect of Thomson’s (re)shaping of Seattle. They were even more visible, and highly controversial, in Thomson’s time. Unlike sewers and water -- which for Thomson were the vital necessities for a prosperous metropolis -- they were highly obtrusive, involved disputes over property values in the way that the other projects did not, and conferred no immediate, obvious benefits. In fact, one of the major arguments in favor of the regrades would be rendered moot when the automobile supplanted horsepower. Once again Thomson demonstrated his talent for choosing the right people, the right technologies and ensuring the judicious spending of public funds.  

Thomson’s other lasting contribution to present day Seattle was his involvement with Seattle City Light and Power and picking James D. Ross to head construction and production. Although the two clashed in later years, Thomson had come to the belief held by Ross from the start that municipal power must be in city and not private hands.

Other contributions involved canals, the locks, railroads and bridges. It was an incredibly full two decades.  The remainder of the book covers Thomson’s post-city-engineer career including a stint on the city council, his involvement with The Seattle Sun, a rival to the Times, consulting work, and his private and family life.

Thomson died in January 1949 and truly left his mark. It is somewhat ironic that to many his name may only be associated with a stretch of freeway that was long uncompleted and over budget. The casual student of Seattle history will find much of interest in this book. The serious student will probably want a copy on the bookshelf.

--David Jensen, July 7, 2011

Submitted: 7/07/2011

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You