Monumental Seattle: The Stories Behind the City's Statues, Memorials, and Markers by Robert Spalding
Robert Spalding's Monumental Seattle is an eminently readable survey of monuments, memorials, and historical markers in Seattle, Washington, beginning in 1899. Intended and appropriate for a local public audience, Spalding contextualizes and [End Page 134] tells the stories of nearly one-hundred statues and plaques in the city in a straightforward narrative style. The book's contents are likely to be a jumping-off point for many future dives into local history, both casual and professional.
Readers of Monumental Seattle can expect a capably researched and informative tour of the expected moments and sites of note in Seattle history since 1852—and a number of less predictable diversions. Even readers familiar with the local history and landmarks are bound to encounter something new. I, for example, have lived within walking distance of Woodland Park Zoo for several years and never had any inkling that the zoo's grounds once displayed a monument to one of the country's less heralded presidents, Warren Harding.
The book and its chapters are neatly structured for use as either a reference text or a readable monograph. Spalding lays out the chapters in roughly chronological order and identifies common threads that link the monuments and memorials included in each, such as the proliferation of monuments to local figures in the 1910s and the influence of the Great Depression on the scale and production of memorials in the 1930s. Within chapters, subheadings identify each monument, beneath which Spalding recounts the history of the person or event memorialized, the creation and erection of said memorial, and, finally, its status today. Only the Chief-of-All-Women Pole at Pioneer Place receives its own chapter. The appendices at the book's close consist of further reference information. Appendix I names and transcribes the thirty-one maritime plaque inscriptions covered in chapter ten. Appendix II charts the names, locations, and descriptions of monuments and memorials completed in Seattle since the late nineteenth century. Lastly, Appendix III provides a table of historical markers and plaques.
Spalding draws heavily from local newspapers for contemporary accounts of people, events, and commemorations and makes use of an array of secondary sources to establish context. Morgan Murray and Roger Sale's still popular works Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (1951) and Seattle, Past to Present (1976), respectively, make repeat appearances both in the body text and the footnotes. Monumental Seattle's task is not to challenge orthodox histories and chronologies. Instead, the frequent invocation of institutionally buttressed stories and sources reinforces the author's aim to illuminate the power of narratives big and small to configure local memory.
From the start, Spalding demonstrates a strong understanding of the power of stories to shape memory and historical interpretation. Yet he pulls his punches rather than contend with the political stakes of his own narrative framing. Nowhere does settler colonialism—nor even the word "colonialism"—appear in the text of this book, though it is everywhere in the history portrayed. Despite leaning on Coll Thrush's Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (2007), more often than not, the histories of Duwamish and other Indigenous peoples in Monumental Seattle serve as prologues to the settler memories and stories that Spalding is focused on recounting. [End Page 135]
The absence of any critical framework for reckoning with the city's colonial past is especially glaring in the second chapter, entitled "Founders, Firsts, and a Statue of Liberty," which opens with the story of the Birthplace of Seattle monument. Jean O'Brien's influential Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (2011) detailed the narrative process whereby local histories and memorials credit white settler individuals and institutions as "firsts" and ascribe the status of "last" to other figures and places that the authors or memorializers consider insufficiently modern. Monuments that commemorate "first" people, places, and events advocate for their permanence and primacy, devaluing Indigenous ways of life and replacing Native claims to land, names, and memory with their own. There is no greater example of this in the United States than Plymouth Rock, a piece of which, as Spalding notes in passing, was affixed to the Birthplace of Seattle monument in the 1920s. Between "first" settlers, a first post office, first school house, first sawmill, first cabin, and more in this chapter and beyond, Spalding firsts and lasts alongside Seattle's twentieth century mythmakers.
Ultimately, Monumental Seattle should be read as evidence of the ways monuments and memorialization persist as subjects of contestation. In the author's own words, "the meanings of a monument continually change and are therefore always unfinished" (xv).