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Connecting curious minds with uncommon, undeniably Northwest reads

Shaper of Seattle

Reginald Heber Thomson’s Pacific Northwest

William H. Wilson


During his tenure, city engineer Reginald Heber Thomson delivered a clean, reliable water supply, a workable sewage system, regraded streets, and more. Shaper of Seattle recounts the life and work of this extraordinary man and his devotion to the Emerald City.

“Wilson’s book, generously illustrated with archival photos, brings the man and his legacy to life. To understand Seattle history there is no getting around R. H. Thomson.”—Capitol Hill Times

“A long overdue look at [Thomson’s] life and career.” —Seattle Times


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Young, ambitious, and college-educated, Reginald Heber Thomson was eager to make a big impression. Seattle was brimming with opportunity, but when his steamer docked at Yesler’s Wharf in 1881, the view was dismal. Nondescript wood-framed buildings and plank sidewalks sprawled along muddy streets. Thomson may have smelled the Puget Sound metropolis before he saw it. Utilities were crude to nonexistent. Pipes dumped the untreated contents of chamber pots and tin bathtubs straight into Elliott Bay, and a multitude of rats scurried around the piers. Recalling that earlier time, he wrote, “Looking at local surrounds, I felt that Seattle was in a pit, that to get anywhere we would be compelled to climb out of it if we could.”

Soon, Thomson was surveying for his cousin’s firm. He quickly rose to partner and mingled with Seattle’s elite. In 1884 he was appointed city surveyor, and in 1892, city engineer. By then the booming population was in dire need of a workable sewage system and a clean, reliable water supply. Thomson delivered both and more, aided by his keen ability to select capable subordinates. He installed drain pipes and sewers where others had failed, and his gravity-powered Cedar River project replaced water pumped from turbid Lake Washington. To improve the ability of horses and carts to transport goods, he leveled several steep hills and filled the worst hollows. His municipal power plant lit homes, businesses, and streets. In addition to sewers, water, and regraded streets, the progressive, legendary engineer also straightened and dredged waterways, reclaimed tideflats, and installed countless miles of tunnels, bridges, and pavement.

Later, he became a civic leader and was involved with the Port of Seattle and the Chittenden locks. For decades, Thomson labored diligently on behalf of urban dwellers, and is responsible for much of the Emerald City’s existing infrastructure.

Thomson succeeded despite a tenure filled with intense financial pressure, meticulous audits, and political and public controversy, such as the Boxley Creek flood that washed away a small lumbering community. Both a workaholic and a devoted family man, he possessed extraordinary intelligence, energy, integrity, and perseverance. He also was driven by his religious and political convictions. In Shaper of Seattle, author William H. Wilson has produced a comprehensive, critical examination, exploring key events and forces that shaped Reginald Heber Thomson throughout his youth, career, personal life, and waning years.

Photographs / maps / notes / bibliography / index / 240 pages (2009)


“An impressively researched, forcefully argued, and richly documented biography that places Thomson in his late nineteenth, early twentieth century context.”—Richard S. Kirkendall, The Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor Emeritus, University of Washington, Seattle

“Builder of ports, wrangler of rivers, mover of mountains and men—no one shaped the Northwest’s largest city as much as R.H. Thomson.  William Wilson’s exhaustive biography is a sympathetic yet reasoned portrait of the man who made and remade Seattle.”—Matthew Klingle, author of Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle

“A long overdue look at [Thomson’s] life and career. Wilson’s sharp character sketches evoke the power players involved.” —Seattle Times

“Wilson’s book, generously illustrated with archival photos, brings the man and his legacy to life. To understand Seattle history there is no getting around R. H. Thomson.”—Capitol Hill Times

Wilson’s restraint, balance, use of sources, and detailed citations are evidence of his meticulous research…Every city needs a biography like William H. Wilson’s to understand the ways engineers reshaped the urban landscape…Wilson’s biography will appeal to both Seattle natives and newcomers, adding to their knowledge of the city.”—Columbia Magazine of Western History

“Wilson creates a richly researched and highly detailed, even technical, account of physical obstacles and sizable egos that Thomson single-mindedly navigated to realize his vision…To read Wilson’s new book is to be transported to an earlier time, when such decisions were surely contested, but when engineers also had unmatched power to determine the physical shape of American cities… A must read for urban scholars interested in planning and infrastructure.”—Pacific Historical Review

Additional information

Weight 1.97 oz
Dimensions 11 x 8.5 in