Kerry, Albert Sperry (1866-1939)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 11/29/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8856

Albert Kerry was a Northwest lumberman who was known for his business acumen in the lumber industry and for his civic involvement, especially in Seattle. Two towns (one in Oregon and one in Washington) where Kerry established lumber mills were named after him, and Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill bears the Kerry name. He served as vice-president of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, and played a leading role in the financing and direction of the construction of the Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle in 1924.  A strikingly well-rounded man, Kerry also played a leading role in a number of other organizations and projects during his life.  

A Lumberman from the Start  

Albert Sperry Kerry was born in Kingston, Ontario, on April 14, 1866, the son of Aaron (1837-1916) and Matilda Kerry. Aaron Kerry was a blacksmith and carriage maker and, like his son after him, “possessed considerable gifts which he turned to account in his business career” (Downs, p. 154). When Albert was a young boy his large family (he had 10 siblings) moved to Port Huron, Michigan; he graduated from public school there and followed that with business college.

In 1886 Kerry, then 20, headed west and settled in Seattle, choosing the nascent city because, as he later said, “that village was as far west as I could go and still be in the United States” (Downs, p. 155). He went to work as a lumberman with the Oregon Improvement Company (sawmill), working as a tallyman recording the size of each piece of cut lumber as it was processed.  After just a year, the mill foreman quit and young Kerry was placed in charge.  It was just the beginning. 

On May 8, 1890, he married Mary Ellen Monroe (d. 1901); the next year their daughter Olive May Kerry (1891-1970) was born. Also in 1890 Kerry went to work as manager of Hart Lumber Company, which was then leasing the Moran Brothers Dry Dock sawmill on the waterfront at Jefferson Street. In 1892 Hart Lumber quit the business, but Kerry obtained financial backing to lease the sawmill himself. He supplied it with logs from a logging camp he owned (operated by his brother James) where the Black River merged with the Duwamish River, just north of today’s (2008) Southcenter Mall in Tukwila.

In October 1896 Albert Kerry, his brother James, and George Bradley incorporated the Kerry Lumber Company in Seattle, but the company mill lasted barely a year before it was destroyed by fire.  But by this time Albert had another problem: He had been -- mistakenly -- diagnosed with tuberculosis.  His doctor recommended the cold dry climate of the Far North as a cure, and by fortuitous coincidence, the Klondike Gold Rush was on at that very moment. Never one to miss an opportunity, Kerry packed up and headed north in February 1898, later joined by his wife and daughter. A month before his departure Kerry, C.J. Smith, and S. H. Piles had incorporated the Kerry Canadian Mill Company, which then established two lumber mills in extreme northern British Columbia and the Yukon (the company later moved both mills farther north into the Yukon).  Kerry also operated a passenger boat, named the Olive May, on lakes in B.C. and the Yukon during his northern adventure. The boat was immortalized a decade later in the famous Robert Service poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (though Service called the boat the “Alice May”).

The Kerrys returned to Seattle late in 1899.  Albert and James Kerry, along with partner C. J. Smith, established the Kerry Lumber Company in November 1899, and built a new mill at the foot of Clay Street in Seattle. The mill was operational by the end of January 1900, but a year later it too was destroyed in a fire, just one day after Kerry’s wife, Mary, died.  In March 1902 Kerry married Katherine Amelia Glen (d. 1938) and they had two children: Albert Sperry Kerry Jr. (1903-1999) and Lucy Glen Kerry (d. 1990), more commonly known as Glen.   

Kerriston, Washington

In April 1900 Kerry, C. M. Nettleton, and C. J. Smith established the Kerry Mill Company, and later that year the company purchased 100 million board feet of standing timber along the Green River & Northern Railway southeast of Tiger Mountain.  Soon after, probably in 1901, the company built a new sawmill located at the end of a spur on the new Green River & Northern Railway (later bought by the Northern Pacific Railroad), at the site of a small village on the Raging River that had existed since 1891. Once the mill was in place a town quickly sprang up around it. It was named, aptly enough, Kerriston.  Kerriston was located about seven miles northeast of Hobart, perhaps a mile southwest of today’s intersection of Rattlesnake Road SE and 364th Avenue SE. 

In 1902 James Kerry applied to the Postmaster General to establish a post office in the new town, which was officially established in November 1904 and operated until 1935.  The post office operated out of a large store that was built to accommodate the mill and its workers, and all of the town’s business was handled out of the store.  The town grew rapidly, with its population reaching 300 by 1907. In 1907 or 1909 (accounts differ) the town and mill were sold to the Northwest Lumber Company, but the town continued to grow, with its population plateauing between 400 and 500 during the 1910s.  As was the case with many early company-owned mill towns, Japanese workers were employed in Kerriston, and they had their own separate housing in the town, referred to as the “Japanese Village.” 

Logging continued in Kerriston through the most of the 1920s. The town’s population slowly dropped during the decade as the available supply of lumber dwindled. This decrease accelerated later in the 1920s, and by 1929 milling and logging activities in Kerriston were over and the railroad had also stopped coming, assuring the death of the little town. About this time Kerriston was sold to Charlie Simon’s Kerriston Shingle Company (Simon’s mill was located about a mile and a half south of the town), but the town just faded away.  By the time Simon shut down his company in 1943 only a few buildings remained, and by the 1960s even these were gone. 

Kerry, Oregon 

Kerry didn’t just turn his sights east early in the twentieth century. He looked south too. In 1906 Kerry and Frank Van Tuyl incorporated the Washington and Oregon Timber Company. The men purchased timberland in Northwest Oregon that contained a billion board feet of timber, and later doubled their holdings. In December 1912 the company reorganized and became the Kerry Timber Company, and serious logging operations commenced. Kerry set up shop in a little village on the Oregon side of the Columbia River about 30 miles east of Astoria. The village eventually grew into a small town named Kerry (Columbia County). At its zenith in the 1920s the town had a population of about 200, with a railroad depot, post office, store, boarding house, and, of course, piers and booming grounds. 

But Kerry had a problem. His timberlands were in the Nehalem River Valley, more than 25 miles south of town, and there was no way to haul the timber to the town.  Always one to confront a challenge head on, Kerry simply built a railroad into the valley. In February 1913 the Kerry Timber Company incorporated the Columbia & Nehalem River Railroad Company and began construction of a railroad into the valley, which immediately became known as the Kerry Line.  

Building the line was a difficult task as the terrain was particularly rugged, with steep hills and gorges that required numerous bridges. Kerry and his family relocated to Oregon in order to ensure operations proceeded smoothly. (For a time the family lived in houses built from tents.) The first 25-mile section of the line took more than two years to build, but in June 1915 the railroad hauled its first load of logs on the new line to the Columbia River.  By the late 1920s the Kerry Line was 53 miles long (with 35 bridges) and was at the time the longest log-hauling railroad line in the Northwest. At its peak in the 1920s the line hauled more than 12 percent of the annual lumber production of the Columbia River-Portland mills, and played a vital role in the Northwest’s lumber industry. Kerry and Van Tuyl sold the companies in 1925 to the K-P Timber Company, but the line hauled lumber for another 13 years. By the time the Kerry Line closed in 1938, over three billion feet of lumber had been transported on it. 

A. S. Kerry, Civic Leader 

By the early 1920s Kerry had returned to Seattle and to his home at 421 W Highland Drive, which he had owned since 1903 or 1904.  He had been involved in Seattle’s civic affairs since well before his departure to Oregon, taking part in the construction of the Rainier Club building in 1904, and later serving as president of the club. In 1909 he served as vice-president of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, and also served on the fair’s executive committee.

In the 1920s, his civic involvement increased. Kerry was known as a man who got things done and got them done right.  In 1923 he served as president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and later that year was elected president of the Community Hotel Corporation for the purpose of overseeing construction of the Olympic Hotel (now named the Fairmont Olympic Hotel), which opened in downtown Seattle in December 1924.  Although Kerry was involved in any number of projects to improve Seattle during the early decades of the twentieth century, his involvement in financing and overseeing the Olympic Hotel’s construction was probably one of his crowning achievements.  His contribution left such an impression that in September 1939 -- a few months after his death -- a bronze bas relief of Kerry was placed between the main doors of the entrance to the grand hotel as a tribute to his memory.

Although Kerry played a leading role in Seattle civic affairs for several decades in the early twentieth century, he harbored no political ambitions of his own. He declined efforts from friends and supporters to coax him into running for the United States Senate in 1926, explaining that “[I] know my neighbors [in Seattle] and like them. If I can be of any service to them, it can best be rendered here” (Downs, p. 156).  And he rendered that service in a remarkable number of different ways.  He helped establish the King County Anti-Tuberculosis League and the Firland (tuberculosis) Sanatorium.  He served as president of the Medical Arts Building Company. He also served as president of the Seattle Park Board, but resigned in order to successfully campaign to stop the City from purchasing Matthews Beach in 1929 for a public bathing beach, because it was then considered worthless land.  (More than two decades later, though, the City purchased acreage on the beach.)   

An avid golfer, Kerry was twice president of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, and brought the Western Amateur Tournament to Seattle in 1927 and the U.S. Public Links Championship to Portland several years later.  He represented the Northwest on the executive committee of the U.S. Golf Association, was an organizer and charter member of the Senior Northwest Golf Association, and was a member of a number of golf clubs up and down the West Coast. 

Kerry Park 

Say the name “Kerry Park” to a Seattleite, and he may or may not know what you’re talking about. Show a picture of the view from the park to a Seattleite -- or for that matter to anyone who has even a vague knowledge of Seattle -- and they will instantly recognize where and what it is.  Kerry Park, located in the 200 block of West Highland Drive in Seattle, is a roughly one and a half acre plot of land that Albert and Katherine Kerry donated to the City in 1927 so that all who stopped there could enjoy the view -- and what a view!  The park faces south from the southern slope of Queen Anne Hill, and has an unparalleled view of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, Elliott Bay, and (if it’s clear) Mt. Rainier approximately 70 miles to the southeast.   

The park has long been an attraction for sightseers and either live shots or pictures of the view from the park are often used by national newscasters (and occasionally local) to provide a backdrop to their Seattle news stories. Weddings are also performed in the park. In 1971 a 15-foot tall steel sculpture, Changing Form, was added at the viewpoint. The sculpture was commissioned by Kerry's three children and created by Seattle artist Doris Totten Chase (1923-2008). There is a small children’s playground just below the viewpoint. 

Later Years 

In the mid-1930s Kerry’s health began to decline, forcing him to scale back both his civic activities and his golf game.  A serious case of pneumonia in April 1938 nearly killed him; two months later his wife Katherine -- herself a leader in many of Seattle’s cultural and social activities -- passed away.  But it was a heart ailment that caused Kerry’s demise.  By strange coincidence, on two occasions Kerry suffered minor heart attacks while traveling through southern Oregon. On April 27, 1939, Kerry was once again traveling through Oregon, returning by train to Seattle from a trip to California with his daughter, Glen. As the train approached Portland, he suffered a third, and far more serious, heart attack.  In Portland he was transferred to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where died a few hours later. 

James Wood, associate editor of The Seattle Times, penned a poignant passage in The Seattle Sunday Times three days after Kerry’s death. It reads, in part: 

"An accepted leader almost from the first day of his arrival here, [Kerry’s]  qualities of leadership ripened as he grew older. He loved Seattle; his solicitude for the progress of the city and the well-being of all its people was boundless; his zeal in every cause for the common good was unflagging. To the last he felt that no apparent wrong could be beyond remedy by that civic loyalty and united action which marked every chapter of Seattle’s earlier history, and are so sorely needed today [1939]. He was ever an outstanding protagonist of that true Seattle Spirit which wrought wonders in the past ... [and] those who knew him well will remember him especially for a friendliness warm and sincere, reaching to all walks of life; and for a fine intelligence, quick in grasp of essentials and eager for right action.”                  


Sources: Winfield Scott Downs, Encyclopedia of Northwest Biography (New York: The American Historical Company, 1941), 154-158; Eric Ericson, A. S. Kerry Sr., Northwest Lumberman (Anacortes:  Eric Ericson, 2006), 1, 3, 4, 10, 14, 16-18, 21, 25-29, 40-44,  49, 131;  Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: King County 1850-1960 (Olympia: Washington State Library, 1966), 685-687; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Olympic Hotel:  Seattle Landmark Since 1924” (by Walt Crowley and Alan Stein),  http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 22, 2008);  Polk’s Oregon and Washington Gazetter, 1907-1908 (Seattle:  R. L. Polk & Co., 1907), 853; Polk’s Oregon and Washington Gazetter, 1911-1912 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1911), 770;  Polk’s Oregon and Washington Gazetter, 1925-1926 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1925), 625;  Polk’s Oregon and Washington Gazetter, 1931-1932 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1931), 845; “Kerry’s Death Blow To City’s Business Life,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 1939, p. 7;  “A. S. Kerry Dies In Portland Hospital On Way To Seattle,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 28, 1939, p. 2;  James Wood, “Speaking For The Times,” The Seattle Sunday Times, April 30, 1939, p. 6; “Matthews Beach Park,” Seattle Parks and Recreation website accessed November 24, 2008 (http://www.seattle.gov/parks/park_detail.asp?ID=347); “Seattle Viewpoints -- Kerry Park,” Go Northwest!, website accessed November 22, 2008 (http://www.gonorthwest.com/). 

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