skip navigation
Support KUOW
Men Pulling B & W into Boeing Seaplane Hangar on Lake Union, Seattle, 1916.  Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights Reserved.

Men Pulling B & W into Boeing Seaplane Hangar on Lake Union, Seattle, 1916. Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights Reserved.


Changing The Sound: The Jet City

Marcie Sillman

From the start, Seattle has been a gritty port city.

Twenty years ago, on September 24, 1991, the band Nirvana released a recording called "Nevermind." The album was an instant hit. It cemented Seattle's reputation as a hotbed of independent rock music; the home of Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Sub Pop Records. Tens of thousands of cultural tourists flocked to the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle's new hipster status was a novelty. For more than half a century, Boeing airplanes had been Seattle's main claim to fame. Now, rock musicians and computer programmers were replacing factory machinists.

So how did Seattle morph from a blue collar port city into a high tech mecca? Today we start a three–part series that explores Seattle's transformation from a frontier bastion of logging and fishing to a 21st century biotech hub. It's called "Changing the Sound."

Today, Boeing's town.


I'm Marcie Sillman.

In the 1950s and 60s, people called Washington senators Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Warren Magnuson the "Senators from Boeing." The company was the major economic player in this state.

Thousands of Washingtonians still work for Boeing. But these days, it's far from the only game in town.

Dawson: "If I'm travelling somewhere, Europe, and we'll meet somebody — Where are you from, Seattle? I say Microsoft, Amazon. com, Starbucks [laughs]. I don't say Boeing anymore."

Gary Dawson spent almost 40 years at Boeing. He started right out of a high school.

Dawson: "I got a job right away in manufacturing at the old Plant 2, which was full of B–52 bombers. I'd look down on rows and rows of bomber sections being built. Thousands and thousands of people in there."

That was the fall of 1956. Boeing wasn't Seattle's only employer, but a lot of the city's bread was buttered there. Writer Knute Berger was just a kid then.

Berger: "I grew up in Southeast Seattle, so just about everybody's dad worked for Boeing. I mean, Boeing was just a large presence that you kind of took for granted. It was personalized, I mean, we called it Boeing's company. You related to the guy who owned it."

That would be Bill Boeing. William E. Boeing came to Seattle from the Midwest in 1908. He had planned to work in the timber industry. But historian Lorraine McGonaghy of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry says Bill Boeing was never going to be satisfied with logging.

McGonaghy: "But he was very interested in flight. And at the 1909 Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition, it is said that is the first time he saw a flight. So he thought he could build better planes, so they built a seaplane there, at the foot of Roanoke Street, and launched it onto Lake Union and up, off into the sky in 1916."

On a recent walk to the corner of Roanoke and East Fairview, there's nothing to commemorate this momentous event.

Sillman: "There's a sign that says this is a heritage tree grove, and that improvements are coming, but there's not even a plaque to say this is where Bill Boeing made his first airplane."

Despite this civic oversight, for most of the last century the name Boeing was almost synonymous with Seattle. Maybe Bill Boeing would have made airplanes wherever he lived, but the Pacific Northwest was particularly hospitable to a guy like him, somebody with a vision and the ambition to carry it out. Seattle was a hardworking town, a center for shipbuilding and fishing, timber and coal. Historian Lorraine McGonaghy says Seattle was destined to be an industrial hub, almost from the moment David Denny and the first white settlers arrived at Alki Point in 1851.

McGonaghy: "David Denny, who was only 29 when he got here, came with a young man's drive and a young man's dream. He didn't want to plant an orchard, he wanted a city of smokestacks at the intersection of a transcontinental railroad and a transoceanic fleet of steamships."

McGonaghy says Denny envisioned a brawny port city, the kind of place where people rolled up their sleeves to build steamships, fell timber, or reel in fish. If he could have imagined airplanes in 1851, Denny might have added building them to his list. A hundred years after the Denny Party arrived here, airplanes were king. Retired Boeing mechanic Gary Dawson:

Dawson: "I don't think there's any doubt about it; it was, um, Boeing's town. Obviously other industry, steel mills, fishing — the port was very busy."

Between 1960 and 1970, Boeing rolled out three commercial airplane models. Seattle–based writer Knute Berger says it was an era of growth for the airplane maker and for the city. Boeing's success helped lay the foundation for 21st century Seattle.

Berger: "They continued to innovate — developed the 707, 727, 737 — they had a whole succession that helped to build the infrastructure that then later made it possible for Bill Gates and others to feel at home here, to feel they could hire the people they needed to hire."

But Boeing's crowning jet–age achievement was going to be a supersonic airplane. In 1966, Boeing won a federal contract to build the SST, the nation's first commercial supersonic jets.

McGonaghy: "When my husband and I first moved here in 1969, he was hired to work on the SST. That's why we were here."

Historian Lorraine McGonaghy's husband joined a Boeing workforce of more than 100,000 people.

But the go–go mid–sixties euphoria didn't last long. By the end of the decade, rising fuel prices hit commercial air travel hard. Cash strapped consumers stayed home and airlines were skittish about adding jets to their fleets. Boeing mechanic Gary Dawson:

Dawson: "We had new airplanes parked all over Renton Field, we called 'em white tails."

White tails, because there were no colorful airline logos painted on the unsold jets. Boeing had so much surplus stock they almost didn't know what to do with it all.

Dawson: "They were all over Boeing Field, all over Everett, flew to Wichita — places to park airplanes that were cancelled or put on hold."

In March 1971, Congress cancelled the SST program. The next day, Boeing laid off 7,000 workers, including Lorraine McGonaghy's husband. The Puget Sound region's biggest employer was knocked to its knees. The impact was catastrophic.

Dawson: "And all of a sudden, there was unemployment up and down the street, the block. People were leaving the city, moving back to wherever they could find a job, or originated from in the first place."

The city was devastated, according to Lorraine McGonaghy.

McGonaghy: "I think Seattle was such a one–industry town, when Boeing employment fell from 100,000 to 30,000 over the course of a year and a half — it isn't just Boeing, but all the little shops, the paint shops, machine shops — it was really something, you couldn't buy a job, it felt like the Great Depression."

You may have heard of that infamous billboard, "Will the last person to leave Seattle turn off the lights?" A lot of people didn't find it very funny. Regional unemployment hovered around 17 percent. Butchers sold horsemeat. Suicide hotlines counseled the unemployed. Thousands of lives were turned upside down.

But the Boeing Bust also struck at Seattle's heart, its identity. What was the Jet City, when the jets were no longer rolling off the Boeing assembly lines?

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

Music credit: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," by Bill Frisell.

Related Links

KUOW does not endorse or control the content viewed on these links as they appear now or in the future.