Wilderness Lost – The 1870s

Chapter Seven:  Wilderness Lost — The 1870s
by Kay F. Reinartz, PhD
copied from Queen Anne:  Community on the Hill,
published 1993 by Queen Anne Historical Society, edited by Kay Reinartz

The 1870s proved to be a watershed in the history of Seattle and its environs, marking the transition from wilderness to urban development.  The troubled years following the Native American uprising had faded and, with the restoration of national peace after the Civil War, more people decided to take a chance on the Puget Sound country.  Thus, toward the end of the decade noticeably more newcomers arrived in Seattle looking for a chance for a new start — and land.  During this period all activities and development were confined to the lower south-sloping hill and the southern end of Lake Union.
Inez Denny provides a picture of the environment of the south slope of the hill in 1871, when her family moved into their house at Republican Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues N.:
The claim reached from Lake Union to Elliott Bay,  about a mile and a half; a portion of it was rich meadow land covered with luxuriant grass and bordered with flowering shrubs, the fringe on the hem of the mighty evergreen forest covering the remainder.
Hundreds of birds of many kinds built their nests here, and daily throughout the summer chanted their hymns of praise.  Robins and wrens, song-sparrows and snow birds, thrushes and larks vied with each other in joyful song.  The western meadow larks wandered into this great valley, adding their rich flute-like voices to the feathered chorus.  Woodpeckers, yellow hammers and sapsuckers beat their brave tattoo on the dead tree trunks, and owls uttered their cries from the thick branches at night.
Riding to church one Sunday morning we beheld seven little owls sitting in a row on a dead limb of a tall fir tree about fourteen feet from the ground.  Winking and blinking they sat, silently staring as we passed by.  {We also saw] rare birds peculiar to the west coast, the rufous-backed hummingbird, like a living coal of fire, and the bush titmouse which builds a curious hanging nest, also visited this natural park.

In the 1860s and 1870s the settlers lived out their years in predictable cycles marked by clearing land, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and preserving food.  Most settlers drew on the abundance of nature and literally “lived off the land” for 30 years.  Homesteads were expanded with barns and outbuildings constructed to shelter growing herds of cattle and farm equipment.  The men were able to obtain more help with the clearing and farming from growing sons and newcomers.
The pioneer women found help with the homestead work by hiring Native American women.  Roberta Frye Watt, the Eden Hill Dennys’ cousin, reports that it was a slow process to train a native woman how to do housekeeping chores “correctly.”  Often they would wash the worn clothing with such vigor that they rubbed holes in the cloth.  If not watched closely they would lay the wet clothes on the ground to dry, often soiling them in the process.  Louisa Boren Denny reports, regarding the natives who she hired, “after they had learned how, [they] could wash the clothes as white as any of the modern steam laundries, and with less wear.”  When it came to floor washing, however, native women confined their efforts to the middle of the floor, and no amount of instruction could get them to wash in the corners.

Among the settlers in the 1870s who found their way to Eden Hill was the Wilcox family, who built their home on the east side of the hill overlooking the Lake Union wilderness.  Wilcox enclosed his house yard with a sturdy fence to keep the children from wandering into the woods and to keep the deer out of the garden.  Courtesy Ruth Wilcox and Willa Fassett

The arrival of Chinese men in the region proved to be a boon for the pioneer household for they relieved both the women and men of many of their more tiresome chores.  Brought to the United States as contract labor to build the railroads, by the 1870s Chinese men in the Puget Sound region formed a substantial source of domestic labor, which would later lead to trouble for them in the 1880s.
The Chinese were quick to learn the techniques of American-style housekeeping and, once trained, rarely deviated.  Moreover, they were generally very dependable and good-natured.  Called “China boys” by the settlers, they were appreciated by many.  They freed the women from the most onerous of the household chores, such as the bimonthly mountains of laundry, washing up from the cooking, and weeding the large garden, while the men were relieved of chopping and carrying wood and building fires.  Frequently a family’s China boy liked to take full charge of the house, including caring for the children.  Often a warm relationship was established between the family and its Chinese help, who would often come back to visit a family after moving on to another job.

David Denny commented in an interview in the 1890s that his family enjoyed splendid health and in 24 years they consulted a physician only four times.  These years included Louisa delivering children seven times, including twin boys.
The settlers in general were very healthy and there were infrequent injuries in the forest and around the homestead.  Some men, like Thomas Mercer, were skilled in home medicine.  Healing the sick was usually considered a part of women’s work, however.  It seemed that whenever the women got together they always spent some time discussing treatments for health problems, since most felt they could never know enough.  For their remedies pioneer women drew on foodstuffs and spices, as well as herbs and plant materials.

Between 1870 and 1890 Lake Union was destined to be transformed from a beautiful wilderness lake to a busy industrial area.   In 1872 the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company started the first commercial activity on the lake.  Coal was barged from the Renton mines up Lake Washington to Union Bay on the Addie.  After portage to Lake Union it was reloaded on the Linna C. Gray, a side-wheeled barge with narrow-gauge rail tracks bolted to the deck.  The Linna C. Gray docked near the intersection of Valley Street and Westlake Avenue, and when the coal cars rolled off the barge a locomotive hauled them over a wooden trestle up Westlake Avenue to Pike Street, and then on to the bunkers at the foot of Pike (Pike Place).  There the coal was loaded by hand into the holds of ships that took it to San Francisco and the East Coast markets.  Seattle Coal and Transportation shut down its Lake Union operation in 1877 when the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad completed its road to Renton.
In the 1870s people moving to the outskirts of Seattle were looking for small farm acreages.  Lake Union attracted many, and by the mid-1870s homes began to dot the shores, with cultivated orchards and orderly gardens replacing the tangle of vine maple, salal, Oregon grape, and ferns.
The winter of 1875 was a hard one and the ice skates were brought out again.  Every evening bonfires blazed on the shores of Lake Union and skaters cut the ice in swoops and curves within the arc of light cast by the fire.  Young lovers found it convenient to drift off for a few minutes into the darkness down by the lake.  The cold soon drove them back to the warmth of the fire where noses, hands, and toes could be warmed up, and a cup of hot coffee was available from the big smoke-blackened pot nestled in the glowing coals.  Occasionally, a skater broke through the ice, but no one drowned.

When it was time for the Denny children to begin school, the family was living in Seattle in the winter and on the homestead in the swale during the growing season.  Louisa, who was a certified teacher in Illinois, taught her children and the younger Mercer daughters at home when they were living on their claims.  During the rest of the year the children attended the Seattle village school.
The Mercers and Dennys attended the Territorial University when in opened in 1860, where the older girls were in the secondary class and Inez and Madge Denny attended the large “infant” classes.  Each pupil had a small slate on which lessons were written, as paper was in short supply on the frontier and expensive.  The girls cleaned their slates with a sponge attached to the slate by a string and water kept in a little bottle in their pockets.  The boys, on the other hand, often did not bother with the sponge and water, but would spit on the slate or lick it off and dry it with a sleeve.  A favorite prank of the boys was to get up on the roof of the university and walk around the edge of the building to “show off.”
In the winter the classroom was a potpourri of odors from the home remedies for colds and coughs.  Red flannel bands saturated with turpentine or kerosene were wrapped around the necks of many pupils.  Others sported neat little bags of “assafidity” or camphor around their necks.  Some had been sent to school with small cotton bags of powdered sulfur in their pockets and instructions to “rub it on their hands anytime they touched anything” to ward off skin infections.  The scent of onions wafted over all.  Onions were a basic ingredient in most cough treatments.
The university also offered secondary schooling and teacher’s training.  In the winter of 1861 Dillis Ward studied for his teacher’s certificate and became one of the first to graduate from Washington Territorial University as a certified teacher.  Tom Mercer’s daughters and the Denny children all completed secondary school at the university.

It was a long way from the Ross farm to Seattle, and in 1878 Mary Ross decided to open a school for the younger children in her home.  A second-floor bedroom was converted into a schoolroom, and John built plank desks and benches from cedar growing on the farm.  Lima Penfield was hired as a teacher for $20 a month, plus room and board with the Rosses.
The neighbors sent their children over to Mary Ross’s home school and soon a larger place was needed.  With the help of neighbors, John built a small two-room schoolhouse on the Ross homestead which served until 1903, when a larger building was erected on the north side of today’s ship canal.
The older Ross children, like other young people on the north side of the hill pursuing a secondary education, made a two-hour journey over water and land to reach the Central School on Marion Street.  Arising around 5 o’clock in the morning, the girls would help their mother in preparing breakfast and school lunches while one of the boys milked the family cow.  Their five-mile route to school was as follows:  a walk to the shore of Lake Union where they would take their canoe and paddle to the south end of the lake; from there they walked up the narrow-gauge railroad track to Pike Street and then over to Marion Street.
The Ross children, like all of the children in the nineteenth century, did a great deal of walking.  For example, a really wonderful outing was to go over to play with the Smith girls at the cove.  From the Outlet the Ross children would follow a trail through the woods to the cove and then walk along the beach when the tide was out to the Smiths’ house — a trip of three to four miles, each way.

The Ross Family
In the spring of 1873, the Ross family moved from Seattle to their homestead on the north side of the hill.  That summer the family members lived in Ira Utter’s old dirt-floored cabin while John was completing their own two-room cabin on the south side of the Outlet, in the vicinity of Third Avenue W. and W. Dravus.  He soon built this five-bedroom house for his large family which eventually numbered 11 children.  Mary Jane McMillan Ross founded the first school  on Queen Anne Hill in this home near the Outlet in 1878, where her 11 children were educated together with the neighbor’s children.  The house was destroyed in 1915 during the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.  John Ross died May 3, 1886 at age 59 and is buried on his donation claim in the historic Odd Fellows Lodge section of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

In May 1877 Dillis and Sarah “Belle” Byles Ward returned to Seattle after seven years at the Skokomish Indian Reservation School.  Their family of five was increased by the birth of Mabel in June.  After a business venture fell through, Dillis began teaching grammar school the fall term at the rate of $65 a month.  For the next ten years, he divided his time between teaching, business ventures, and community service.  In the 1880s he would become a prominent Queen Anne leader and land developer.
Dillis Ward was an excellent teacher.  A Works Progress Administration writer’s project, which during the Depression collected the memoirs of northwest pioneers, recorded the following commentary on Ward by an anonymous former student:
D. B. Ward was accredited with being the best disciplinarian of any grade school teacher in the territory.  While the discipline he maintained was well nigh perfect, yet I never saw him display any temper.  He was always genial, often giving happy exclamations, his facial expression inviting and pleasing — yet his power of control over pupils was something extraordinary, and for years the annual presentation of the banner for highest degree of order and discipline maintained in school was presented to him.

In the 1870s Puget Sound was discovered by those seeking homes in the far west.  In 1867 Seattle had 400 residents; in 1874 there were 1800.  The population doubled or tripled almost yearly from 1870 forward.  Finally, after more than two decades of patient waiting by the early settlers, it happened — with the demand for building lots in the vicinity of Seattle, land value began to increase.
The entire district north of Seattle to Salmon Bay (Ballard) became officially known as North Seattle in this period of development.  Subdividing activity on the hill began slowly with nine plats filed between 1869 and 1881.  Most of the areas platted were on the south slope or top of the hill.
The first plat on record for North Seattle was D. T. Denny’s North Seattle Addition (Mercer St. to Denny Way, Warren Ave. to Elliott Bay), filed by David Denny and his father John on July 13, 1869.  The next year, James Law platted Law’s Second Addition in the first of a number of “wildcat subdivisions,” so-called because they were situated far from current development, “out where the wild cats live!”  Law’s land was situated on the top of the hill (Galer to Howe; 3rd W. to 9th W.).  Law had acquired the land under preemption in the 1860s for $1.25 an acre and sold 32 lots for an average of $10 a lot.
Conservative Thomas Mercer was closely watching the Seattle scene.  In August 1870 Mercer made his move.  He filed his first plat, named Eden Addition (Mercer to Aloha; 6th N. to Lake Union), and offered lots bordering on the southwest end of Lake Union for suburban homes.  In January 1871, Mercer filed Eden Second Addition (Aloha to Highland Drive; 6th N. to Lake Union).  The summer of 1871 witnessed brisk land sales in the immediate Seattle area, and between 20 and 40 real estate transactions were filed each week for lots selling from $50 to $500.

In 1872, 431 real estate sales were recorded for Seattle and environs.  The long-awaited real estate boom was on.  That year saw phenomenal growth in Seattle, with 74 buildings constructed:  39 houses, one church, one ice-skating rink, and the remainder for business enterprises.  Clarence Bagley observes that “the buildings, with a few exceptions. were better and more substantial than ever before, and the downtown district was being extended and the residence districts began to climb the hill.”
In November 1872, David Denny subdivided 500 acres of unimproved land on the shores of Lake Union, calling the plat Denny’s First Addition.  Denny promoted his subdivision by placing an elaborate advertisement in the newspaper describing the land and its advantages.  Prices ranged from $30 to $100 with the usual terms of the day — about ten percent down and monthly payments of $5.  In June of 1875 he platted Denny’s Second Addition and offered house lots for $50 to $100 each and land at $50 to $100 per acre, in five- or ten-acre parcels.  In July, hoping to stimulate building in his subdivisions, Denny offered a free second lot to all purchasers who would promptly build a house on their first.
Denny would soon regret having subdivided such large tracts at this early date, for he was now taxed at a per lot rate rather than at the farmland or unimproved vacant land rate.  As the land sold very slowly until the late 1880s, these taxes were a heavy burden and helped contribute to Denny’s financial collapse in the 1890s.
From 1876 to 1877, Belltown was the fastest-growing area of Seattle as well as its most favored residential neighborhood.  Named for William and Sarah Bell’s donation claim, it soon had the feel of a village with shops and its own school, which had been built for $2,700.  Directly north of Belltown, only small areas of Denny and Eden hills had been logged, and they remained covered with forest.
The great windstorm of 1875 marked a turning point for the north district.  In March of 1875 a hurricane ripped through Puget Sound.  The Post-Intelligencer reports that “it blew down thousands of trees, a number of houses, barns and small sheds were lashed to foam.”  Clarence Bagley comments that “when the storm was over, the whole country had undergone a change.  The timber was cleared so we could see the territorial university from the landing at Lake Union.  Fifty-six trees blew across the railroad track, from the lake to Fourth Avenue, nearly three quarters of a mile.  It took 14 men working steadily from daybreak to 2 p.m. to clear the track.”
During the winter of 1878-79 a large number of  houses were built along the rail line of the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company to Lake Union.  This was considered a superior building site.

George Kinnear, 42, working as county clerk of Woodford County, Illinois, had been following the development of the Northwest for several years.  In 1874 he visited Puget Sound and after looking around he purchased property on the south side of Eden Hill.  In 1878 he and his wife Angie Simmons, 34, sold all of their Illinois land and moved to Seattle with their sons Charles, nine, and George, six.
A few days after they landed, Kinnear and Charlie set off on foot to look at their land.  A short distance from where the Kinnear Mansion was to be built (Queen Anne Avenue between Roy and Aloha), the pair met Dr. Henry Smith driving his wagon into town.  Smith cordially introduced himself and regaled them with his favorite story about the day in 1853 he spent walking in a circle trying to find Seattle.  Smith later described Kinnear as “honest, energetic, kindhearted, clearheaded and generous.”
Kinnear lost no time in establishing himself as the hub of land development activity in the Seattle area.  He was a long, lean man who could walk through the woods all day without tiring.  With a keen eye he noticed where the slopes were and calculated which would be the most favorable districts for residential suburbs for the growing town.  In 1884 he subdivided his land as Kinnear’s Addition, built a road and launched a new era which would transform the wilderness of North Seattle forever into a residential district of Seattle.

The Denny Cabin

SW corner Queen Anne Ave and Republican St, ca. 1889. Log cabin of Denny’s son-in-law.

David T. Denny began dealing in real estate in the 1870s.  In 1889 his son-in-law Edward Lindsley, Abbie Denny’s husband, built David Denny a real estate office at Temperance Avenue (Queen Anne Ave.) and Republican Street.  The log cabin remained on its original site for 77 years, during which time it saw use as a church, school, tavern, and home.
In 1988, the old cabin occupied a lot whose owner announced his intention of demolishing the building and converting the land to parking.  The Queen Anne Historical Society was unsuccessful in its attempts to acquire and preserve the building.  The building was eventually bought by commercial interests in Federal Way which planned to use it as the centerpiece of an “Old West” theme shopping mall.  The plan was abandoned, however, and the cabin sat deteriorating for ten more years.  In 1992 the Federal Way Historical Society gained ownership of the cabin, relocated it, and began restoration work.  The cabin remains in Federal Way at the time of this writing.

A Washington Territory Civil War Hero Moves to the Hill
In 1873 David and Susie Mercer Graham moved back to Queen Anne Hill and built a home on Thomas Mercer’s donation claim at 320 Ward Street.  Capt. Joseph Dickerson, who had been living with them on their farm, also made the move.  A bachelor, Dickerson was an integral part of Susie and David’s family for 40 years.
Capt. Dickerson, as he was known, was honored in Washington Territory as a hero.  He served in the Civil War as the color bearer for the Washington and Alaska Division of the Grand Army of the Republic, the northern forces.  He was one of two soldiers from the Northwest honored with a gold medal for bravery in the field of battle.  President Abraham Lincoln presented Dickerson with the medal and raised him to the rank of captain for refusing to surrender the Union flag, although surrounded and under heavy fire, at the Battle of Antietam.  Dickerson died at 320 Ward Street in 1916.

A Pioneer Woman’s Garden
Keeping a garden was very important in maintaining a healthy diet for the pioneers.  Vegetable gardens nurtured their bodies and flower gardens nurtured their souls by providing beauty and memories of old homes left behind.

Above:  Louisa Boren Denny, 1828-1916
Louisa Boren led the way in developing beautiful flower gardens in the settlement on Elliott Bay.  Many of the cabin door gardens in Seattle and on Queen Anne Hill in the 1860s and 1870s were propagated from seeds and cuttings from Louisa’s garden.
Louisa built her flower garden from native plants she gathered in the wild as well as in the time-honored gardener’s way of exchanging seeds and plants with friends.  In addition to Sweetbrier roses there were pink Mission roses, brought to Fort Steilacoom by the mission fathers in the 1840s, which her brother Carson brought to her from Olympia.  From the woods came blue and yellow violets, and the fragrant lady’s slipper, the favorite flower of the pioneer children.  The arching stalks of the native false Solomon’s seal with its white star flowers leaned over delicate lavender Oregon iris, red columbine, and bleeding hearts.
In the spring the garden was a burst of color, with the fragrant purple lilacs and white spirea in the background, fronted by white trillium, erythroniums, and purple lupine.  The intense scarlet of the red currant exploded here and there in the garden, while the soft pink of the native rhododendron marked the corners of the cottage.  The native trumpet honeysuckle covered the garden gate.
White stones from the beach were carefully placed to form neat borders around the colorful beds.  With the help of an old Native American woman, Louisa carried from a distance rich soil black with humus.  Lime was obtained by crushing the oyster shells that lay on the beach in profusion.
When the Denny family moved to their farm on Lake Union around 1870, Louisa cultivated an even larger flower garden where “old and new garden favorites ran riot.”  This garden was resplendent with Japanese and ascension lilies and velvety pansies, and fragrant with roses of all varieties.  Louisa obtained from mail order catalogues fancy tulips, English violets, and other exotic plants.  Her scientific interest in plants was well developed and she often experimented with her plants, cross-breeding them and grafting freely.  Inez reports that wherever her mother cultivated a garden it elicited much enthusiastic praise.
When the Civic Auditorium, which was built on the site of the Dennys’ house in the swale, was dedicated, an elderly Clarence Bagley placed in the cornerstone a little sprig of Sweetbrier roses in memory of the gardener, Louise Boren Denny.