Norwegians in Seattle and King County

  • By Marianne Forssblad
  • Posted 8/15/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3476
By the 1880s, Norwegians were arriving in the Pacific Northwest in noticeable numbers. By 1910, more than 7,000 Norwegians lived and worked in the region. They lived all over King County but especially in Ballard, and worked as loggers, farmers, engineers, entrepreneurs, boat builders, and fishermen. Seattle's many well known Norwegians include world-class ski-jumper Olav Ulland, Senator Warren G. Magnuson, and Washington Governor Arthur Langlie.

The Influx

By the 1880s when the railroads reached the Pacific Northwest, the influx of Norwegians began to be noticeable. By 1910, Scandinavians were the largest ethnic group in Washington, constituting more than 20 percent of the foreign-born population. In Seattle they amounted to 31.3 percent, with Norwegians numbering 7,191 (about 1,500 fewer than Swedes). By 1920, every 20th inhabitant of Seattle was Norwegian-born or born in America of Norwegian parents. By 1960, twice as many Norwegians as Swedes lived in Seattle, a trend that has continued into the twenty first century.

A Place Like Home

In the Puget Sound region, Norwegians found an environment that reminded them of their old country. With its plentitude of water and forest, it was a place where they could use their skills as farmers, fishermen, seamen, and loggers and they spread out all over King County. In Kent and Bothell, Norwegian pioneers farmed. Others began their new lives in Seattle as unskilled laborers and construction workers. With the growth of the city between 1890 and 1910, opportunities arose for them to become entrepreneurs, professionals, engineers, contractors, and artisans.

Railroads and bridges in King County serve as memorials in stone, iron, and concrete to many of these Norwegians. Andreas Wendelbo Munster came to Seattle in 1906 and opened office as a consulting engineer. He was a consultant for the Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad during the construction of its western extension to Seattle and he also did work for Great Northern Railway, in addition to serving as consulting engineer for the City of Seattle. Bridge designs by Munster include Fifteenth Avenue West, Fremont, Eastlake, Montlake, and West Spokane Avenue.

Martinus Sixtus worked for the Northern Pacific and designed a switchback at Stampede Pass and the running lines across the Cascade Mountains through Snoqualmie Pass for the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway. He made extensive surveys of Seattle and Ballard Harbors, but his general plan for waterways was not accepted.

Henrik Valle literally began at the bottom in building his own American success story in Seattle construction. He came to Seattle in 1925 where one of his first jobs was to help dig the basement for the first Frederick and Nelson department store. Eleven years later he owned his own construction company. Among his projects were several structures on the University of Washington campus. Valle died in 1979 leaving a gift worth several million dollars to establish an exchange program of students and faculty members between the Pacific Northwest and the Nordic countries.

Peter Hostmark, a product of Norway's Institute of Technology, moved to Seattle in 1927 and through the years distinguished himself in the design of the Seattle Center Coliseum, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, and many other well known-buildings. In 1965, four years before his death, the American Iron and Steel Institute presented him with the Design in Steel Award.

In Ballard, which soon became known as a Scandinavian settlement, Norwegians worked in the fishing and maritime industries, opened stores, built homes, and pursued varied entrepreneurial avenues. One entrepreneur was Ole Bardahl, who came to Seattle in 1922. After building a successful construction business that included housing for Boeing, he bought a chemical company that produced soaps and an oil additive. After adding a large number of motor products, he set up distributorships around the world.

The Maritime Connection

After 1900, Norwegians became increasingly involved in the fishing industry and began to play a dominant role in the rich cod, halibut, and salmon fisheries. They owned and managed packing companies, salmon salteries, and canneries, large fishing vessels and steamers, and held responsible positions in cooperatives and in trade unions. In 1908, the Fisherman's Union (Pacific Coast and Alaska) had a total membership of 6,725 of whom 2,849 were Scandinavians -- an astounding 40 percent of the total membership, the majority being Norwegians.

In 1914, the Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association was formed with major Norwegian involvement. A longtime manager of this organization was Harold Lokken. Boat building was another area of strong Norwegian presence with many of the wharfs located in Ballard. Among them were the Ballard Boat Works, later renamed Sagstad Marina. Also begun by Norwegians were Seattle Ship Supply and Nordby Supply Company. To this day the maritime and fishing industries in Seattle have major Norwegian connections.

Social and Cultural Connections

A rich organizational and cultural life with a remarkable variety of ethnic and fraternal clubs and lodges soon blossomed. Some were mutual benefit societies that combined larger social functions for their members such as the Sons of Norway lodges. The Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard is the largest with a building of its own.

Other organizations include Daughters of Norway, the Norwegian Commercial Club, the Norwegian Male Chorus, the Norwegian Ladies Chorus, Bergen Club, the Karmoy Club, and a number of associations called Lag, that is to say, a society composed of people from a particular region in Norway and their descendants. Seattle's Norwegian Chamber of Commerce was established in 1969 and serves more recent immigrants and those who have current business ties with contemporary Norway.

The Norwegian Hospital Association was founded in 1913 and a hospital was established in 1923. Although it operated for only three years, the Association continued and served to benefit the Norse Home, the Norwegian retirement home on Phinney Ridge dedicated in 1957.

Public festivals and events, song festivals, banquets, picnics, athletic performances, and competitions have been popular among the Norwegians. May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, is the most important of these celebrations with origins in Seattle as far back as 1889 and with one of the largest parades in the United States that takes every year in Ballard.

A Norwegian Sport

Norwegians have an intense interest in skiing which continued in the Northwest. Many Seattle Norwegians have excelled in the sport, in particular ski jumping and cross-country. The Seattle Ski club, whose members were all first-generation Norwegians, was organized in 1928 for the purpose of promoting the spirit of skiing. Their first ski-jumping tournament was held at Beaver Lake hill at Snoqualmie Pass in 1929. Olav Ulland, who was inducted into the United States Ski Hall of Fame for his ski-jumping prowess, was for many years the co-owner of Seattle’s largest ski store, Osborn & Ulland.

From the outset the church was an important focus in the life of the early local community. The churches that evolved in Puget Sound were often branches of parent organizations in the Midwest and assumed the theological views of the parent churches. Consequently, religious tensions that developed among Norwegians in the Midwest were repeated in Seattle and two major groups formed, one centering in the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, the other in the Norwegian Conference.

Many Norwegians were also drawn to other denominations such as Methodist and Baptist churches. One of the oldest of the churches is the Immanuel Lutheran Church organized in 1890. Now located at 1215 Thomas Street, the church has been declared a Seattle landmark. Denny Park Lutheran Church was organized in 1888 under the name of Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. Ballard First Lutheran is one of the oldest congregations in Ballard and was formed when Zion Norwegian Congregation, founded in 1894, and Bethlehem Norwegian Congregation, founded in 1906, merged.

Communications Bridges

Newspapers functioned as a bridge between the homeland and America. Established in Seattle in 1889 by Frank Oleson, Washington Posten had several competent editors such as Gunnar Lund who took over in 1905 and Ole Eide who served from 1913 to 1958, when Henning Boe assumed ownership and changed the name to Western Viking. The Western Viking has its home in Ballard and is today the largest Norwegian newspaper in the United States. It is published under the editorship of Kathleen Knudsen who succeeded her father, Alf Knudsen, a few years ago.

A few Norwegians became involved in local political affairs in the outlying areas, but it was not until the post-World War I period that several attained prominence in politics in Seattle. Ole Hanson became Seattle’s mayor in 1918 and Arthur Langlie went from City Councilman to Mayor of Seattle to Governor of the State in the years 1940 to 1957. Two other well-known politicians of Norwegian heritage were Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson.

The Norwegian community has grown with and adjusted to shifting demands and Seattle has become one of the largest “Norwegian cities” in the United States. New immigration is only a trickle but the Norwegian presence is unmistakable. Norwegian businesses and cultural organizations add a vibrant dimension to Seattle and King County.


Sources: Based on archives in the Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, Washington; "Nordic Heritage Museum," HistoryLink Museums Library (www.historylink.org).

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