These things are mound houses

I think Seattle mound houses, also known as spite mounds, and what led to their creation, are one of the coolest, most surreal things I’ve ever stumbled upon. Seattle as we know it today was built up by the timber industry and prostitution (the earnings from which went to establish the first public schools here!). A fire in 1989 completely changed – and literally reshaped – the city. Twenty-five city blocks were destroyed in the fire – the entire business district, half of downtown. railroad stations, and wharves.

Seattle, 1889

Seattle is hilly as all hell, and back in the early 1900s, horses pulling buggies and humans walking through town were having absolutely none it. It was annoying to maneuver through the city with those inclines. What does one do when just about everything around them is destroyed? Use that destruction to completely change the city’s landscape forever.

For around 30 years, more than 50 million cubic yards, or about 7,000 Olympic swimming pools, of earth were moved from the city to the waterfront. Self-capsizing scows were used to transport the earth to the sea.

Land being dumped into the sea, Seattle, 1929
Self-capsizing scow, Seattle, 1929

Regrading the city essentially required full demolition of all buildings, including houses. At the time, it was referred to as “the largest and boldest municipal regrade project in history.” And the approach to destroying many of the houses was equally dramatic.

Many of the houses that were to be removed from the hill did not have to be torn down. They were simply undermined by a stream of water, and when they tumbled into the hole they were set on fire.

V. V. Tarbill, 1930

Most folks were jazzed because it meant when they rebuilt, their property values would skyrocket.

Progress on the Seattle regrade, 1907
Seattle regrade progress, 1907
Seattle regrade process, 1907

However, as the story goes, some residents were not so pleased with this plan.


Some folks were understandably not all that keen on having their houses or land destroyed by the city. They refused to vacate, so the regrade literally happened up to the edge of their properties, creating a surreal landscape of enormous singular mounds as the earth around them was removed. Another name for the houses were “spite mounds,” because even in the early 1900s people were cracking hilarious jokes.

Mound houses, Seattle, 1909
Image result for seattle mound houses
Mound houses, Seattle, 1914
Regrade, Seattle, 1914

There are still remnants of these holdouts around the city to this day. (Mostly along Melrose if you’re familiar with Seattle)

Image result for seattle mound houses
Modern day Seattle
Modern day Seattle

Definitely keeping an eye on those guys so I can buy one some day. Seattle history is full of all sorts of oddities.

I hope you’re having a lovely day! Cheers, R


4 thoughts on “These things are mound houses

  1. Fascinating story. LA & Seattle are the only 2 places I’ve been to in the US. I was only in Seattle for a few days and it was such a long time ago now that I don’t remember that much about it and I had never heard about the regrade or mound houses before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s crazy! So, in Pioneer Square they started building back businesses during the regrade, but knew once the regrade was finished, it would mean the first floor of all of the buildings would be buried. So all of those buildings essentially have two entrance facades – one on the ground floor and one on the next floor. Had to look weird back then seeing a fancy but totally inaccessible entrance a floor above the ground, and is weird now because there’s a network of tunnels where you can see the old facades that are now underground!

      Sorry, I’m a total nerd about this because I think it’s just such a surreal and audacious era of our city 🙂


  2. Really can never get enough of these old pictures from the zany regrade! That fourth one from the bottom is remarkable, I’m not sure if I remember seeing that one. if you haven’t already read David Williams’ Too High, Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, I highly recommend. He really gets in to the weeds of the wacky early civil engineering of Seattle.

    Liked by 1 person

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