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Hidden Stream of Columbia City

In the spring of 2005, a group of fourth and fifth graders at Orca @ Columbia School researched the history of the stream that used to run through Columbia City, and shared their findings with the community.

The project began with rumors of a creek that used to run through Columbia City. Students in Ms. Katherine Law's class at Orca School were curious: Where was the stream, exactly? What did it look like? Where did it go? With the help of RVHS Director Mikala Woodward, they set out to find some answers.

First they analyzed historic maps of Columbia City from the RVHS Collection and the Washington State University Library’s digital collection. The maps were incomplete and confusing: the street names had changed; the shoreline of Lake Washington had moved; Rainier Avenue had been realigned. Only one map even showed the historic stream. But the class worked out a way to transfer information from the old maps to the current map, using the few landmarks that had not changed. Eventually they were able to locate the path of the original stream, learning about cartographic concepts such as orientation and scale along the way.

The class then took a walk through the neighborhood looking for physical evidence of the stream, following its path from Hitt’s Hill, across the schoolyard, through Columbia Park, and on toward Lake Washington. They identified some low-lying, swampy areas, some areas that had clearly been filled in, and several storm drains that seemed to follow the path of the stream.

Ms. Woodward then brought in letters and documents from the Seattle City Archives relating to the fate of the stream in Columbia Park. These documents were difficult to make sense of – difficult to even read, at times, with their spidery handwriting – but the students pulled out important pieces of information from each document. They put all the facts they had gleaned on a big timeline, and a story began to emerge about the history of Columbia Park and the stream.

Finally, the students made their work public. They invited Kim Baldwin, a landscape architect from the Seattle Parks Department, to come to their class to discuss ways to commemorate the stream in Columbia Park. They created a temporary installation of blue irrigation flags in the grass through Columbia Park, and a display and illustrated handout to explain the flags. The installation was up on a Wednesday, during the Columbia City Farmers Market, which is adjacent to the park. Hundreds of people saw it up close, and thousands more saw it from Rainier Avenue as they drove by.

Due in part to the efforts of this class, the Seattle Parks Department incorporated the path of the historic stream into a Pro Parks improvement project for Columbia Park.  A “sinuous concrete path” now meanders through the park, with a plaque at each end explaining that the path follows the course of the historic stream. Softly glowing solar-powered blue tiles are embedded in the path, making the stream visible at night too.

This project taught the students a lot about their hidden stream. But more importantly, they learned that history is, in part, a creative art. History isn’t just a series of objective facts out there, waiting to be uncovered. Historians have to put together coherent stories based on incomplete and conflicting information, using imagination and guesswork. The students also learned that sharing those stories with the rest of the community is an important part of the process. Their work will have a lasting impact on the neighborhood. The commemoration of the stream in Columbia Park will educate Columbia City neighbors for years to come, giving them a glimpse of the landscape of the past.

The "Hidden Stream of Columbia City" won the 2006 Heritage Education Award from the Association of King County Heritage Organizations.


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