Duwamish site may be sacred, but it's slated for development

For the Duwamish, the center of the universe is in the heart of Tukwila's industrial zone, a drab little hill that is the setting for one of the oldest stories told by early Puget Sound people.

But the family that now owns the hill wants to dynamite it and build warehouses or office buildings there.

Neighbors don't want to see that happen. They're trying to find a way to buy the property and turn it into a park and interpretative center.

At stake is more than a green oasis in a city with precious little undeveloped space: This mound of rock and dirt represents the northern-most evidence of a tropical climate, telling its story through clam shells and sharks' teeth 40 million years old.

The hill, rising 144 feet above the tide flats of the Duwamish River, is a neighborhood landmark where locals swear they can feel the energy of some spirit or natural power.

Geologists marvel at the mound's existence. It should have been leveled during the last Ice Age, but for reasons unknown the glaciers must have bypassed it.

The hill, on a little over 10 acres near South 115th Street just off East Marginal Way South in the Poverty Hill neighborhood, has been owned by the White family for 30 years.

Behind a chain-link fence, blackberry brambles burgeon among rusted pipes and old wood crates. Glass shards and crumpled beer cans lie in clusters on dirt paths that wind through madronas and Scotch broom. It's a place where people dump garbage, where teenagers ride dirt bikes and party.

Develop it or sell it — those are the choices, said John Spiers, an asset manager with Martin Smith Inc., which oversees property owned by Wallace Enterprises. Wallace Enterprises is a holding company for assets owned by brothers Elmer James White Jr. and Nikolas White.

The owners, who call this place the Tukwila rock pile, are worried about liability and the property's unsightly condition, said Spiers. And it doesn't generate any revenue.

They've been trying to get permits to dynamite the hill but dealing with the city of Tukwila has been frustrating, Spiers said.

"If the Indians want it, we'd love to sell it to them," he said. "We'd be happy to sell the land to a neighborhood group, to a developer, to anyone who would want it. The family has been sitting on it a long time, and now it's time to do something."

Tropical fossils found

Forty million years ago, Western Washington didn't exist. The Pacific touched shore roughly where Interstate 5 now runs. Seattle was part of the ocean floor. There were marshy bayous, river deltas and palm trees; winter temperatures probably didn't dip below 70 degrees.

The fossilized remains of 95 species, ancestors of mussels, clams and snails now found in Mexico, were first buried by silt, then volcanic ash that gradually filled in shallow waters and pushed the shoreline west.

Two million years ago, mile-thick ice covered the region. Glaciers carved out the Duwamish River valley but somehow left this hill and a handful of others. Earthquakes and what geologists call "uplift" brought ancient invertebrates to the surface.

This hill in Tukwila is the farthest north tropical fossils this old can be found, said Elizabeth Nesbitt, the Burke Museum's invertebrate paleontology curator and an adjunct professor at the University of Washington.

"It's the only one so rich, the only one worth working on in the area," Nesbitt said. "You'd have to go down to Centralia to find something similar."

Nesbitt spent two years conducting research on the hill before the property owners withdrew permission.

Up until five years ago, Nesbitt led field trips for schoolchildren there, one of which was filmed for the television show, "Bill Nye, The Science Guy."

The fossils aren't as well-preserved as those found in southeastern Washington, she said, but they are "a valuable and finite resource," especially considering that so many research areas have already been lost to development.

"We won't find anything new that'll change the face of science," Nesbitt said. "But it's... an incredible educational resource within the city."

About the time her research ended, Nesbitt said there was talk of the city and museum forming a partnership to buy the property for a park. Nothing came of it.

Duwamish territory

Centuries before white homesteaders settled in the valley, before the Duwamish River was straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers, before dairy farms and vegetable crops dotted the landscape, Tukwila was Duwamish territory.

The city was never the site of the most important villages, nor has it produced significant archaeological finds. But few other places in Washington have such a high concentration of mythic sites, places where the Ancients — supernatural beings who inhabited the Earth before humans — lived.

This hill is where Grandmother lived in the story of the War of the Winds. It's a complex story, but in its most basic terms goes like this:

North Wind, selfish and mean, sent ravens to taunt Grandmother after he killed her son and the rest of the South Wind people. He had the ravens defecate on Grandmother's face, and she sobbed and sobbed, her tears turning to ice.

When Storm Wind, born after his mother escaped North Wind's massacre, grew into a man, he came to find his Grandmother. Together, they broke the ice trap North Wind built to keep salmon from traveling upriver. The men fought; the younger proved stronger and drove North Wind out of this land.

Farther downriver from the hill, behind two Boeing buildings, there's a rock shelf — the remnants of the ice trap North Wind built across the Duwamish to block salmon, starving upstream people.

"The people who lived here thousands of years ago knew it was important and created a story so people would remember this landmark," said Vi Hilbert, an elder of the Skagit Tribe who recently visited the Tukwila hill. "The story reflects that, for thousands of years, it was buried under water and then buried under ice."

Six versions of the story told by tribal elders were recorded by Arthur Ballard in his book, "Mythology of Southern Puget Sound," first published in 1929.

Ethnography pioneer Thomas Talbot Waterman, who collected thousands of Puget Sound place names from elders in the 1910s and '20s, also refers to the hill in his unpublished manuscript that's now housed in the UW archives.

"This is as ancient as you can get, and Grandmother's house is the cosmic center for the Duwamish people," said Jay Miller, a Seattle-based anthropologist who has studied numerous North American cultures.

Not only does the story accurately reflect the geology of the land, it's embedded with teachings, he said. For instance, the ice trap created by North Wind stretched across the river.

"It was selfish and mean-spirited and starved people who lived further upstream," said Miller, noting native fishing weirs — sophisticated, fence-like traps — never went all the way across a river so fish could swim around them.

Though the Duwamish and Muckleshoot tribes support preservation efforts — for this hill and other sacred sites clustered in Tukwila — neither has the money to buy the property.

Property not developed

Part of the hill was blasted in the early 1960s when a previous owner had dreams of making millions selling rock for Interstate 5's construction, said Tony Carosino, a third-generation resident of the area. But the rock was little more than hardened sandy loam that easily crumbled.

The property, annexed from King County by Tukwila in 1989, hasn't been developed because it's impossible to build without leveling the mound. A dozen years ago, the current owners applied for grading permits but gave up after a year.

When signs went up 10 months ago notifying residents of the new proposal, Georgina Kerr, who lives across the river from the site, worked with neighbors to notify local tribes, contact city officials and solicit signatures for a petition. She also got the Cascade Land Conservancy involved. The conservancy is a nonprofit organization that's preserved 7,500 acres of green space in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Cascade officials verified they've held informal talks with the owners but declined comment on the substance of their discussions. "It's a project that has merit and one we're looking at," said conservancy president Gene Duvernoy.

Coming up with the cash to buy the property along with a smaller, adjacent parcel — listed last year for $90,000 — could be the greatest challenge. The hill is valued at $836,200, according to the King County Assessor's Office.

Bellevue-based Opus Northwest, the regional arm of one of the country's largest real-estate developers, was willing to pay $1.6 million until backing out of the deal a few weeks ago "because they thought the hurdles to development were beyond what they wanted to take on," said Spiers, the White family's assets manager.

Before permits can be issued, city officials need to assess the effects of noise, dust and truck traffic as well as historical and cultural implications, said Steve Lancaster, Tukwila's director of community development.

But according to City Councilwoman Pamela Linder, the city doesn't have money in its parks budget to buy the property.

Still, Kerr and her neighbors are convinced preservation is in the neighborhood's best interest.

"I think there's a feeling that permeates from this hill that just makes you feel calm inside," said Kerr, following a well-worn path up the hill's east side.

Helen Dingle, 86, moved to the area with her late husband in the early 1940s. She used to make jam from the hill's blackberries, and her daughters played there, searching for arrowheads and fossils.

"I sure don't want 'em coming here and dynamiting our hill," she said. "This whole hill is full of Indians, and you can feel it when you go up. They're all good spirits."

Sara Jean Green can be reached at 206-515-5654 or at sgreen@seattletimes.com.