Web site is indispensable link to Seattle-area history
Seattle Times staff reporter
Thursday afternoons, a motley crew of Seattleites - a resurfaced underground artist, a former cop, a Boeing software engineer, a computer-game designer and more - gathers there to nurse a few beers while brainstorming their obsession with the history of Seattle and environs.
"I'll take Ballard and Pioneer Square," says convener Walt Crowley at one recent session. "Who's taking Lake City?"
"What about May 14?" somebody asks. "Is it possible that nothing has ever happened in Seattle on May 14!"
"Did you realize that the Columbia Tower, at 910 feet, is less than one-third the height of the Vashon Glacier 14,000 years ago?"
What sounds like trivia is, in fact, history in the making. These are the writers and Webmasters at History Ink, the Seattle nonprofit which produces the Web site HistoryLink.org.
HistoryLink is to local history what eBay is to online auctions. With 700 or more visitors per day and 12.5 million "hits" in its brief, three-year existence, this burgeoning site has made itself an indispensable resource to users ranging from seventh-grade essayists to Ph.D. candidates and, yes, more than the occasional Northwest journalist.
Visitors who log on at www.historylink.org are greeted by a selection of 2,500 essays, nicely illustrated, on topics ranging from the Vashon Glacier to the Nisqually Earthquake. For the uninitiated, there is a 10-minute tour of Seattle history, or an interactive map that allows visitors to zoom in on their own block.
There are thumbnail histories of key people, towns, neighborhoods and institutions. You can read Chief Seattle's famous speech, along with an essay questioning its authenticity. You can browse through photos and maps and documents and more - all linked by an efficient, electronic search engine.
The site, which went online in 1998, gets rave reviews even from its more traditional competition. "They're telling history in a way that is more accessible than ever," says Leonard Garfield, director of Seattle's Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). "The Web provides an amazing ability to flip back and forth and connect the dots in a way that allows one to see the bigger picture."
The site is also uniquely Seattle's. There are countless historical Web sites, ranging from Historychannel.com to the Library of Congress site and more. But none approaches HistoryLink's focus on a single city and its environs.
From print to digital
While the brainstorming occurs at the pub, the Webmastering occurs a block away, in a tiny seventh-story office crammed with second-hand desks, computers, wall maps, an overflowing bookcase, a 1950s fallout-shelter sign, a folded scooter and, at any given time, at least a couple of self-styled historians.
Tucked in a corner closet is the server, the computer that actually stores the gigabytes of data that would fill a 15,000-page set of encyclopedias.
Which was the original idea behind HistoryLink, says founder Walt Crowley. "We were supposed to be a book."
Crowley is a veteran Seattle journalist and one-time bureaucrat perhaps best known for his seven years as a liberal sparring mate to conservative spokesman John Carlson on KIRO-TV News.
Crowley is an unlikely Webmaster. Until a few years ago, he resisted using a computer for anything.
Yet his personal biography reads like a synopsis of recent Seattle history. Crowley arrived here with his family in 1961 when his father took an engineering job at Boeing. "I thought I'd dropped off the edge of the Earth," he recalls.
Graduating from high school in 1965, he went on to the University of Washington, where he was "seduced into the underground press" - the weekly "Helix," founded by one Paul Dorpat. Instead of writing, Crowley drew the outrageous covers and cartoons that made Helix locally famous.
After three years, he decided "there was not going to be a revolution," and defected to the establishment: Seattle City Hall. As an adviser to then-Mayor Wes Uhlman, Crowley worked on neighborhood and employment programs, where "we revolutionized city government."
In 1979, he made an unsuccessful bid for City Council, then teamed up with his soon-to-be wife Marie McCaffrey to make a living from free-lance journalism and graphics. This, in turn, launched his journey into local history, when he agreed to write a history of the Seattle Municipal League "as a community service to pay off several years of unpaid parking tickets."
"I got the bug," Crowley says. "I thought I knew all about the Muny League. But then you learn: Everything is connected by history, and it's important to understand that hidden infrastructure of relationships and experiences and personalities."
Meanwhile, he auditioned for the job of countering conservative Carlson on the KIRO evening news, a job that raised his profile while he attracted more history clients: the ultra-establishment Rainier Club, Seattle University, Metro Transit, Group Health and more.
"Contract history has never been a problem for me," he says. "I've found that each client, whether it's the Rainier Club or Group Health, truly wants to know its own story.
"All history is interpretation. The writer has to protect the factual integrity of the information. And I suppose the interpretation is always open to discussion, but that has never been a problem."
Meanwhile, he found time to deliver his own memoir of the 1960s, "Rites of Passage."
For that project, he worked closely with Dorpat, his old "Helix" friend who already had established himself as a popular historian with his weekly "Now and Then" feature in Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Times Sunday magazine.
"Seattle was just about to turn 150, and there was a need to lay down a new historical baseline," Crowley says. "The last comprehensive history of King County was written in the 1920s, so we kicked around the idea of a local encyclopedia."
It was McCaffrey, his wife, who suggested in 1997 that a book was a quaint and perhaps anachronistic idea, that they should be constructing a Web site instead.
So they did. The rest is, of course, history.
Yearning to go statewide
HistoryLink became a nonprofit conceived as a one-stop source for local history that would be all "original content, nothing scammed from other sources," Crowley recalls. And, as a longtime free-lancer himself, he was determined to pay his writers real money - $30 an hour for work accepted for the site.
They met with an experienced Web designer who assured them it would be feasible but very expensive, about $1 million for starters.
They lighted on a domain name, and got a critical start-up grant from local philanthropist Patsy Bullitt Collins, who told them, "I've never even seen a Web site, but I love history and I respect you guys."
In time this was followed by grants from the city of Seattle, King County and a long list of benefactors ranging from AT&T to the Gates Foundation. Ninety percent of History Ink's income is used to pay the staff writers, Crowley says.
That team is no ivory tower jammed with pointy-headed academics. In addition to Dorpat and McCaffrey, there is Chris Goodman, a twenty-something graphic artist who previously designed computer games; Cassandra Tate, another middle-aged baby-boomer who actually has a doctorate in history; and Alan Stein, a former Boeing software engineer with a passion for history and museums.
"After 13 years at Boeing, I was ready to make less money doing something I love to do," says Stein. "I've never looked back."
Meanwhile, Crowley has kept his liberal politics off his Web site, says Carlson, his former conservative counterpart. "For Walt, history is a greater passion than politics," he says.
But Crowley has been sucked into an occasional turf battle. A few weeks ago, he complained publicly that Mayor Paul Schell was favoring MOHAI over HistoryLink, and downplaying Seattle's upcoming birthday.
All this for a city which some believe is too young to have much of a history.
Not so, Crowley argues. "The history of any American city is not much more than 150 years, because they are all creatures of the Industrial Revolution," he says. "We don't have that pre-industrial substrata of colonial rule. As far as recorded history, events begin in 1851 with a group of people who came out here with the specific intention of building a city."
So what's next for HistoryLink?
Expansion, of course. Crowley and company yearn to go statewide, to become the unofficial online historical source for Spokane and Walla Walla and Centralia and more. They've reserved the domain name "WashingtonLink," and they muse over the prospect of the "Linkabego," a traveling Internet room to introduce their site to schools and towns across the region, and to collect the personal stories of its people.
To do that will cost an additional $1 million or so, Crowley says.
But then history suggests this is well within the realm of possibility.
Ross Anderson can be reached at 206-464-2061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
History on the Web
You'll find links to maps, photo galleries, documents and profiles of Seattle neighborhoods at www.historylink.org.
Other Web sites that have more information on Seattle's history include:
• Museum of History & Industry: www.seattlehistory.org.
• Washington State Historical Society: www.wshs.org.
• National Register of Historic Places: www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/seattle/seahome.htm.
• University of Washington Archives: www.lib.washington.edu/specialcoll/.
• Seattle by and by, a seattletimes.com special project: seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/local/seattle_history/