Paul Dorpat, Archivist of Seattle

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Picture it: Duvall, WA. April 28, 1968.

There’s a 500 pound piano, suspended by helicopter, over a woodpile surrounded by lit votives. Why? Why not?

After my meeting with Paul Dorpat at Ivar’s Salmon House and scratching a few microns into his reign as the historian of the Puget Sound Region, I imagine scenarios like “The Piano Drop”, the event that spawned the Sky River Rock Festival four months later, are liberally sprinkled throughout his life.

Dorpat has authored and contributed to more than a dozen books on Seattle history, co-founded and edited Helix, is the principal historian of History Link, and for more than 30 years, he’s written Seattle Now and Then, a visual diary of the city’s evolutionary ambitions, for the Seattle Times. Despite this, when I approach him for a meeting he assures me that I probably know more than he does. I suppose that’s how one acquires a granular knowledge of a place and its people, via constant vigilance for an unfamiliar perspective. I can reassure you Reader that I am in no danger of eclipsing Dorpat’s knowledge of Seattle anytime soon. In fact, the Cryptid Coterie series was inspired by his research.

That being said, don’t blame Dorpat for the fanciful liberties I’ve taken with history, the Yesler family tree, the personalities, motives, and habits of the Denny Party (the founding families of Seattle). ‘Tis fiction. “Minnie Gagle Yesler was involved in the death of Henry Yesler? But how?” he asked. Because Magic Paul. I explained that my novels also include cryptids and mythology so no, I have no proof the heirs to the Yesler legacy have lately met with mermaids aboard the defunct MV Kalakala. I also don’t have definitive proof they haven’t. Shrug.

Still, speculative fiction is not Dorpat’s wheelhouse so we focus on the various creative avenues his appetite for history have taken him down. In addition to being a living treasury of the past, he’s also created a photo series called Wallingford Walks, and he’s working on a novel about Ivar Haglund, famed restaurateur. We bond over the endless allure of just one more click on Wikipedia, the necessary neuroses of the writing process, and the things you want to change after you’ve released a book into the wild of the world. When I ask him about the differences in his approach to writing versus photography, he’s puzzled by my insistence that there’s a connection. I maintain that the storytelling in image composition shares DNA with writing, but because I’m not a photographer, perhaps not. Dorpat explained that anyone with a camera is a photographer. “I’m a Promiscuous Photographer, I can just drive down the street taking pictures of everything and anything.”

I rather like the idea of Promiscuous Creativity, and Dorpat seems an archetype of Promiscuous Curiosity, also a good thing. He’s a pioneer in the Seattle tradition of D-I-Y and committing to the life of the mind. His first volume of Seattle Now and Then, was self-published when he had no money, solely on the credit of his assurances to the publisher that it would sell well, and it did. According to him it was luck; there were no other amateur historians focusing on regional history to the exclusion of everything else, but his legacy is inspiring because you can’t be lucky if you’re not prepared to act on a benefactor’s leap of faith.

About “The Piano Drop” spectacle: Dorpat maintains that it wasn’t his idea, he was just the ringleader and promoter. His friends did all of the organizing. They merely wanted to hear what it would sound like when it landed. The helicopter pilot was fearful about the physics involved in hoisting and releasing the piano, but up they went. Dorpat wasn’t near the woodpile, he was further away, trying to keep people out of the drop zone. His unease grew the higher the piano went, and when it was released, “something in my gut or my heart just came up”, Dorpat gestured around his impressive snowy beard. The piano came down into the soft mud near the woodpile, with scarcely a sound. Because shrapnel is a thing, this was likely for the best, but considering the absurdity of the plan, the outcome of the event becomes outright hilarious.

My meeting with Dorpat was cut short by the growing noise of a busy lakeside restaurant on a beautiful day, and my powerful fear of evening Seattle traffic, but stay tuned for our rematch. Paul has promised to answer more questions than he asks next time. I don’t believe him, but I’m still looking forward to it.

For more from Paul Dorpat visit pauldorpat.com and check out his latest book, Tradition and Change on Seattle’s First Hill: Propriety, Profanity, Pills, and Preservation

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