Paperback / softback
March 1, 2017
56 illus., 10 maps
9.00 Inches (US)
6.00 Inches (US)
.75 Pounds (US)
$18.95 USD, £14.99 GBP
v2.1 Reference

Too High and Too Steep

Reshaping Seattle's Topography

Residents and visitors in today's Seattle would barely recognize the landscape that its founding settlers first encountered. As the city grew, its leaders and inhabitants dramatically altered its topography to accommodate their changing visions. In Too High and Too Steep, David B. Williams uses his deep knowledge of Seattle, scientific background, and extensive research and interviews to illuminate the physical challenges and sometimes startling hubris of these large-scale transformations, from the filling in of the Duwamish tideflats to the massive regrading project that pared down Denny Hill.

In the course of telling this fascinating story, Williams helps readers find visible traces of the city's former landscape and better understand Seattle as a place that has been radically reshaped.

Watch the trailer:

Too High and Too Steep was made possible in part by a grant from 4Culture's Heritage Program.

About the Author

David B. Williams is the author of several books, including Cairns: Messengers in Stone and The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from the City. He lives in Seattle.


"Williams does a marvelous job of evoking the cityscape that used to be. He clues us in to the spirit of civic ambition that drove Seattle's geographical transformations. He methodically chronicles the stages by which its regrade, canal and landfill projects were accomplished. And he's meticulous about placing his readers on present-day street corners where they can, with some sleight of mind, glimpse the hills, lake shores and tide flats that vanished."—Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

"[An] absorbing and accessible book. . . . [A] fascinating guided tour that residents and visitors can utilize to envision a changing place. I plan to carry it the next time I visit Seattle, and I hope that both its library sales and holiday gift sales will be brisk."—Carl Abbott, Western Historical Quarterly

"A great story about the beginnings of Seattle. The focus is the topography of our city, but Williams fills in all the details on politics, the economy, our original neighbors, and much more. A very good read."—Tim Burgess, former Mayor of Seattle

"Run, don't walk to buy it."—James Crossley, Mercer Island Books

"Williams is a brilliant writer who combines an intense and scholarly curiosity with in-the-field research, and has a gift for explaining—[he] offers a detailed yet sweeping overview of the way Seattle's landscape has literally been reshaped."—Knute Berger, Crosscut

"This engaging and informative history will surprise many readers, providing them with a glimpse of how Seattle looked not too long ago. ... Williams's book is a comprehensive study of the early settlers' relationship with Seattle's unique landscape and of how that early relationship continues to influence the city."—Pacific Northwest Quarterly

"[M]asterful...history of Seattle topography."—Seattle Times / Pacific NW Magazine


"No matter how well you think you know Seattle, David B. Williams knows it better. On every block, hill, stream, mudflat, or bit of shoreline, Williams has drilled down to the bedrock of revelation. Too High and Too Steep showcases Williams's unique talent for exploring the strange combination of natural history and human passion that continues to shape our fair city. He writes with zest and brio, he sees with acuity, he synthesizes with dazzling leaps through time and space. Williams's awe (in all senses of the word) at what our species has done to this city's geography and topography during its scant history is infectious. Read this book and you will see Seattle in a brilliant new light."—David Laskin, author of The Children's Blizzard and The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century

"Too High and Too Steep shows the dramatic, visionary sculpting of the Seattle cityscape from founding to the present day—and into the future. Williams explores the irony that the Emerald City, surrounded by blue water and forested mountains, may be the most engineered metropolis on earth, and he shows us how to discover the original topography, man-made cityscape, and ongoing evidence of glaciers, faults, and tides. Seattle, he convinces us, will continue to shape its landscape, and that landscape in turn will continue to shape Seattle."—Lorraine McConaghy, author of New Land, North of the Columbia and Warship under Sail

"Seattle, it might be said, is a strange place to build a city, and David Williams's book captures that strangeness beautifully. Through excavations in the archives, musings on the nature of nature, and his own wanderings around the urban landscape, Williams offers us a way to decode—and perhaps come to terms with—the radical transformations that have made the city what it is. Those changes came with a cost, too, a fact that Williams doesn't let us forget."—Coll Thrush, author of Native Seattle

"In Too High and Too Steep, geologist David B. Williams serves as an erudite and witty guide to the ever-changing topography of our city. The story is fast-paced and alive, from native middens, to the Denny regrade, to the modern dismantling of the viaduct. After reading this book, I look out over Seattle, and I can almost feel the earth moving beneath my feet."—Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild

"Too High and Too Steep is a wonderful, fascinating, and surprisingly poignant rendering of the birth of Seattle, my favorite city. Scrubbed for millions of years by glaciers, inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans, sculpted for decades by men with volcanic egos, the spirit of Seattle remains true to itself, and yet is informed by the many tremendous forces drawn out in Williams's engrossing, captivating tale. I loved this fabulous book, and consider it required reading for anyone interested in the Northwest and the history of American cities."—Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and A Sudden Light

9780295999401 : too-high-and-too-steep-williams
Paperback / softback
264 Pages
$18.95 USD

Other Titles by David B. Williams


David B. Williams
Apr 2021 - University of Washington Press
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Stories in Stone

David B. Williams
Aug 2019 - University of Washington Press
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David B. Williams, Jennifer Ott, Staff of HistoryLink
Jul 2017 - History Ink
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Other Titles in HISTORY / United States / State & Local / Pacific Northwest (OR, WA)


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Anakú Iwachá, second edition

edited by Virginia R. Beavert, Michelle M. Jacob, Joana W. Jansen
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Hiking Washington's History, second edition

Judith M. Bentley, Judy Bentley, Craig Romano
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