The Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) is a treasure trove of both Seattle’s history and that of the Puget Sound region. When I was a kid, MOHAI bought this history alive for me: how Coast Salish natives helped the first white settlers survive in 1851… When Seattle boomed during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush… How hill regrading, tide flat filling, canal digging and building of the Ballard Locks drastically altered the landscape. And so much more to the present.
MOHAI continues this mission with its much larger location and expanded exhibits. Originally opened in 1952, MOHAI moved from its out-of-the-way, Montlake site to the transforming South Lake Union area in 2012. This enabled the display of many more artifacts, photos, maps and interactive exhibits documenting the history of Seattle and Puget Sound.
Today, MOHAI is the largest private heritage organization in Washington, maintaining a collection of nearly four million artifacts, photographs, and archival materials. A portion of these are on display in permanent and rotating exhibits, plus the Walker Gallery hosts special exhibits. MOHAI is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian affiliate museum.
As you enter the grand atrium, look up – you’ll see Boeing’s first commercial plane, the 1919 Boeing B-1, suspended overhead. Chuckle at floor-level, local lore: a clam costume from Seattle seafood chain Ivar’s and the bright pink Lincoln’s Toe Truck.
Go inside the tree-like, 65-foot-tall sculpture Wawona by local artist John Grade. It is made of wood salvaged from the 1897 sailing schooner Wawona. Look out through its many “knot holes” for a different perspective of MOHAI’s first floor.
Then go to the second floor to see exhibits ringing the atrium in “True Northwest: The Seattle Journey.” It illustrates Seattle’s colorful, occasionally bumpy path from wilderness settlement to major city.
Start at the “Native Ground” display on the Coast Salish Indians and early encounters with Spanish, American, British and Russian explorers. Learn how Chief Seattle (Si’ahl in Lushootseed) of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes led his people to help the Denny Party survive, establish the first white settlement, and name it for him.
Learn how the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed most of downtown by watching a vivid movie documentation. Then discover how the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush turned Seattle into a boom town as “Gateway to the Gold Fields.”
Follow the city’s development through World Wars, the Great Depression, post-war suburban expansion and recent high tech boom. Learn how the landscape was drastically altered to accommodate growth: for example, 250-foot-high Denny Hill was completely regraded 1902-1911 (that area is now known as Belltown). An interactive exhibit shows the original landscape; press buttons to see the removal or filling in of areas ranging from Denny Hill to Elliott Bay’s tide flats.
Marvel at photos and diagrams showing the 1911-1916 construction of the Ballard (Hiram M. Chittenden) Locks. Learn how the locks work and why the Montlake Cut and Ship Canal were dug to connect Lake Washington to Lake Union to Puget Sound via the locks. This was a true engineering feat, given the approximately 20-foot difference in water levels.
The turning-point stories of the Boeing Company, Seattle’s 1962 World Fair and Microsoft are each illustrated in a “Tower” space. The Peabody Tower lets you listen to personal stories of long-time Puget Sound residents. Explore how innovation shaped the Puget Sound region and changed the world in the Bezos Center for Innovation.
Don’t miss the McCurdy Family Maritime Gallery on the fourth/top floor overlooking Lake Union. The space was originally designed as a replica of a ship’s bridge to train naval recruits during World War II when the building was the Naval Reserve Armory. Check out the working, war-era TANG periscope from a naval submarine – it offers a 360-degree view of Lake Union and downtown Seattle.
MOHAI is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month, when it is also free). Visit its website for admission prices, directions and parking information.
You also may wish to visit free The Center for Wooden Boats, a very short walk next-door. It promotes Northwest maritime heritage through education, interpretation and hands-on experience in building, maintaining and using historic small craft.
Go to the second floor to watch volunteers restoring and building wooden boats in the shop below. Admire vintage rowboats and canoes suspended from the ceiling above the lobby. Perhaps even rent a classic wooden sail or row boat to experience being on the water first-hand.
The Center for Wooden Boats features free programs such as toy boat-building for kids on First Thursdays. It offers youth, adult and family programs and classes to encourage sailing, woodworking and maritime skills. The center is open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; boat rentals start at 1 p.m. with the last boat out at 6:45 p.m.
Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI)
860 Terry Ave N.
Seattle, WA 98109
The Center for Wooden Boats
1010 Valley Street
Seattle, WA 98109
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.