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Originally published January 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 12, 2006 at 1:26 PM

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Guest columnist

The sea in Seattle: Celebrate the city's maritime heritage

Seattle needs a comprehensive maritime-heritage center at South Lake Union Park that gives stimulating, educational experiences every day...

Special to The Times

Seattle needs a comprehensive maritime-heritage center at South Lake Union Park that gives stimulating, educational experiences every day, year round, on land, in the water and under roofs.

On a cold drippy day, with clouds clinging to the water of Puget Sound, the schooner Exact dropped anchor and discharged a disillusioned band of passengers on a lonely beach at what is now Alki Point.

These people were the founders of Seattle. They were disillusioned but still dedicated. One month later, they had cut 50-foot pilings, shipped them to San Francisco and made more than a thousand dollars. At that moment, Seattle was born, and so began its everlasting bond with the great inland sea and boats.

Boats are of the highest historical significance to Seattle. Pioneer Square, our most historic site, would not have occurred without the ships, brigs, barques and schooners that carried away Yesler Mill's fresh-cut timbers. Boats and ships have played key roles in shaping the sources of employment, layout and character of this city, and yet, this city has no place celebrating our maritime legacy.

Those who don't know our maritime past are missing the juiciest fruit on the history tree. There are exploration, adventure, ingenuity, endurance, courage, pride, sublime design and top-rate craftsmanship in our maritime heritage.

We are a city that knew native cedar canoes, lumber schooners, the Alaska gold rush steam ships, the building of the battleship Nebraska, Pocock shells, Slo-mo-shun IV, the Mosquito Fleet, yachts, trollers, gill-netters, halibut schooners, tugboats, fireboats, boat liveries and fishing derbies. Seattle's first politicians hired native canoes to paddle them to Olympia.

It is time to bring the "Sea" back to Seattle at South Lake Union Park. This park was planned through a long public process as part of a South Lake Union neighborhood plan. The neighborhood recommended several features of the park, including a maritime-heritage center and water access to all shorelines of the park. The City Council and the mayor endorsed the neighborhood plan.

South Lake Union was always a place of watercraft, from the time before history that native canoes gathered there for trading and ceremonies. It was a landing for coal from Newcastle and a landing for Seattle's first public transportation, the steamer City of Latona. It's been the site of 60 years' worth of naval vessels and 29 Wooden Boat Festivals.

The history of the park site is a microcosm of the history of Seattle and America. We are a maritime nation, city and neighborhood.

The success of every park is not the quality of its landscaping, furniture or artwork. Its measure of success is the number of visitors and the quality of their experience. What will bring people to this park is access to Lake Union and a multitude of changing programs and activities, year-round, for people of all ages and abilities.

The wharfs, built for historic ships, can have revolving displays that will give visitors the experience of treading the decks, hauling the halyards to a chantey and climbing the rigging; they also could be the launching point for a round-the-lake cruise. Events on shore can reawaken cultural memories of boats and water with heritage-skills demonstrations, sea music, maritime arts and crafts, films, talks, exhibits of artifacts and ongoing rendezvous' of classic boats.

The more exciting, and adventurous, their learning experiences, the more visitors will return, bring their neighbors and friends, and support the park through financial in-kind contributions.

This park can become one of Seattle's biggest, most popular and most educational parks. South Lake Union Park is 12 acres, but wherever heritage tall ships or small ships carry their visitors on the 700 acres of water between the Fremont and University bridges, that is the park.

Seattle has long needed a maritime-heritage center, one that has the sparkle to keep people coming back. There could be no better way to make South Lake Union Park a destination for its neighborhood, the city, the region and the nation.

Who could resist a park where you learn history by playing with the exhibits? We should do no less at this waterfront site and on this lake than create a place where our seafaring history comes alive.

Dick Wagner is founding director of the Center for Wooden Boats on South Lake Union.

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