History teaches us through stories | Ann Oxrieder


Why learn more about history, especially local history? I’ve been hounding Jane Morton, education coordinator for the Eastside Heritage Center, for an answer to this question for the last few weeks. And now I think I have one.

Let’s start with a brief summary of a story she shared with me about a massive public works project from the past, which, when completed, left a trail of winners and losers.

Mr. Anderson ended up with more room for his boatyard, but Mr. Burrows lost his fishing camp because the Black River dried up. Mr. Eitel speculated that in the future land values would rise, so he bought a huge tract of lakeside property as soon as he learned about the project; his investment paid off. Mr. Hewitt lost his lumber mill and sued. The King County Superior Court saw that the county paid him $125,000 for his losses.

The account is about the lowering of Lake Washington due to the construction of the Ship Canal – which opened in 1916 – and some of the consequences faced by residents from Renton to Juanita Bay. I read about it in primary source documents – news reports, maps and photographs – pulled together by the archivist at the Eastside Heritage Center (EHC).

Does this historical tidbit remind you of anything? It’s a contemporary story. If you disagree, I’d say you hadn’t driven on highway 520 lately where, nearly a hundred years after the earlier events surrounding Lake Washington, lives of nearby residents are being disrupted, much like those of the people described in EHC archives, by another public works project.

We learn history and we learn from history when we see connections between the past and the present, between ourselves and the people who lived then. It comes to us most effectively as story.

I’ve been reading Wired for Story, a new book by Lisa Cron, who says, "Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain devotes ... time and space to allowing us to get lost in a story is that ... stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without having to live through them." She argues that “we think in story,” which is the most effective way the brain has devised to share wisdom from the past and help us remember and apply what we learn from it.

And stories are what the diaries, artifacts, and photos preserved by the Eastside Heritage Center are telling us. All we have to do is listen.


Ann Oxrieder has lived in Bellevue for 35 years. She retired after 25 years as an administrator in the Bellevue School District and now blogs about retirement at http://stillalife.wordpress.com/.

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