Somehow, a Rotary meeting does not seem like the place for brutally honest reflection. So it must have come as something of a shock when, in January, 1957, Fred Haley, of the Brown and Haley Company, declared to the Seattle Rotary Club that the Northwest was "America's Most Important Colony."
His point was that the post-War manufacturing boom had largely passed Northwest by, and the region was still overwhelmingly dependent on natural resources. "Like other colonial economies," he said, "we export our natural products in raw or semi-fabricated form, and import the finished consumer and capital goods."
Now, Seattle had, from its beginning, sought to be more than a mill town, and had succeeded in becoming the primary commercial center for Western Washington. It had some processing operations, but the economy within the Seattle city limits was more dependent on merchants, service businesses and shipping. Those commercial activities were, however, heavily tied to forest products, fishing and agriculture, so although most resource industries were located elsewhere, Seattle could not have existed without them.
While other large cities in the country were developing conventional industrial bases, Seattle remained a place where raw and processed materials got shipped out, consumer and capital goods arrived, and transactions took place. Much of the heavy industry that did exist in the city, such as shipyards and foundries, was similarly tied to resource and shipping operations.
Nowhere was the region's colonial profile better illustrated than on the statistical pages of Seattle First National Bank's annual survey of Pacific Northwest industries. The two pages of detailed tables show production of a dozen crops as well as output in lumber, paper, flour and canned vegetables and fish, while showing just a few columns of figures for other manufacturing, trade and services.
In his 1957 speech, Haley did note the existence of the Boeing Airplane Company, but he seems not to have anticipated what was just around the corner. By the end of that year, the 707 had taken its maiden flight, launching a product that would not only change Boeing, but would begin the tranformation of Seattle out of its role as a colonial capital.
Century 21 City: Seattle's Fifty Year Journey from World's Fair to World Stage uses 1962 as the pivot point for the regional economy, and in terms of the community's perception of itself, that year serves its purpose. But in 1957, bracketed by Haley's speech and the 707 launch, we start to see the shift from the resource-based economy that had shaped the region for its first 100 years toward the technology-based economy that would come to dominate the next 50 years.
Haley understood an important truth: the story of Seattle's economy, and the peculiar makeup of its industrial base, arises in important ways from the region's position in the upper-left-hand corner of the map. Geography matters, and its influence on the region will be the subject of a future posting in this space.