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)