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Seattle Neighborhoods: Mount Baker -- Thumbnail History
HistoryLink.org Essay 3433
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Seattle's Mount Baker community lies on Lake Washington southeast of downtown between the Leschi and Lakewood/Seward Park neighborhoods. This gentle hump above the lake, with views of the Cascade Range to the east and north across the lake and of the Rainier Valley and the Olympic Mountains to the west, is named for the North Cascades volcano whose 10,788-foot-high snow-covered dome dominates the distant northeast view. The area was a relative latecomer to the growth of Seattle, beginning as a site for sawmills when logging efforts moved south from older neighborhoods nearer downtown. Mount Baker did not emerge as a residential community until after 1905, when developer J. C. Hunter hired the Olmsted Brothers firm to design a park-like neighborhood of curving boulevards. Hunter set aside land for the Mount Baker Community Club, which has been a social and civic center for more than a century. In addition to its upscale residences, the area was home to Sicks' Stadium and the Seattle Rainiers baseball team for many years, and since the 1950s it has been the scene of annual hydroplane races on the lake. Despite the sometimes-noisy sporting events, Mount Baker has retained its reputation as a verdant upscale neighborhood of beautiful homes and grand views.
Logs Before Homes
By 1905, the previous residents, Duwamish Indians, had long been displaced by the 1855 Point Elliott treaty. Seattle's growth radiated from Yesler's waterfront sawmill, and only moved south toward today's Mount Baker when the trees of Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, Madrona, Madison Park, and other nearby neighborhoods had been logged.
Before family dwellings, Mount Baker's lakeshore was home to several saw and planing mills in the 1890s. At least one mill was located at the foot of Charles Street, another at Judkins. A conveyor moved lumber between the two sites. After a landslide in 1897 -- an old and longstanding problem with Seattle's Lake Washington hillsides -- the last mill was moved to the flats at Rainier Beach.
City pioneers David Denny (1832-1903) and David "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873) staked claims in the 1860s to portions of today's Mount Baker Park and Rainier Valley. City annexations of the area were slow in coming, one in 1869, another in 1883, and the last in 1907.
The Coming of the Trolley
In 1886, the Spring Hill Water Company built the city's first steam-operated pumphouse at the present site of Mount Baker Bathing Beach. Fresh lake water was pumped through hollow log pipes. The company's most extreme emergency occurred when it operated around the clock to provide water to fight Seattle's Great Fire on June 6, 1889. The water supplied was inadequate and the following year Seattle voters approved by 98 percent the City's purchase of the water company.
By the 1890s, the Rainier Avenue Electric Railroad stretched from downtown to Rainier Beach, with stops near McClellan Street, Mount Baker. The trolley was of course the key to land development throughout Rainier Valley. By 1915, an electric trolley served the Mount Baker community directly, running the length of a long grass strip now known as the centerpiece of Hunter Boulevard.
Hunter's Development Plan
Developer J.C. Hunter formed the Hunter Tract Improvement Company in 1905, and purchased 130 acres of David Denny's holdings. Hunter, anticipating the imminent (1909) Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, hired the Olmsted Brothers of Massachusetts to design his holdings. The result was a park-like atmosphere, with curving boulevards and enhanced views. In 1908, Hunter donated the sloping valley portion of his holdings leading to Lake Washington Boulevard to the city. Hunter's building lots were sold under restricted covenants relating to minimum lot size and the value of structures on the lots.
The naming of Mount Baker can be appreciated when looking northeast from the neighborhood. Snow-covered Mount Baker, at 10,778 feet, dominates the distant horizon. Named for Lt. Joseph Baker, one of the English explorer Captain George Vancouver's officers, the mountain's Indian (Nooksack) name was Koma-Kulshan, meaning "white, shining, steep, mountain."
A Historic Community Club
J.C. Hunter intended the new community to be one of Seattle's finest. He therefore set aside land for a community club, which would belong to Mount Baker property owners. That club house, organized in 1909, and today known as the Mount Baker Community Club, is said to be "the oldest continuously active community club in the United States."
The club's mandate was to act as a quasi-independent city hall. It looked after lighting, police protection, and neighborhood beautification, and it sponsored social events. According to early tradition, no discussion of religious or political subjects was permitted. (Politics, however, would consume club agendas beginning in the 1960s.) The handsome club building has undergone several phases of remodeling and continues to be a social and civic center of the community. In earlier years, male members roamed the neighborhood on a "New Year's Calling." A Rose Show was featured, and the Mount Baker tour of homes has been, with an interruption or two, a major annual event.
A City Beautiful Way of Thinking
Community landmarks other than grand homes, parks, and the community clubhouse, include Mount Baker Park's stone lantern sculpture, a gift from Japan (which, interestingly, was not defaced or removed during World War II); John Muir Elementary School; and Franklin High school.
Roger Sale, in his Seattle, Past to Present, describes early 1900s residents of Mount Baker (and the Highlands and Washington Park) as holding "a City Beautiful way of thinking ... away from the streetcar lines, away from daily contact with others economically or socially different from themselves ... Their sin was not fear but complacence." In later years, as Sale notes, someone who grew up on 30th Avenue S, for example, knew and mingled with the "rich kids" from Mount Baker, the "Italians" from "the Valley," and "Japs" from Beacon Hill. Franklin High School, in the center of this diversity, served as a beacon and meeting place for young people who would later shape Seattle's future.
Mount Baker and Baseball
Also in the early 1900s, the "national pastime" became a local obsession. Daniel Edward Dugdale (1864-1934), known as "Dug," founded the "Seattle Turks" baseball team, which won the Northwestern League pennant in 1909. Between 1909 and 1918, the team, renamed the Seattle Giants, brought home five Northwestern League pennants. In 1913, Dug moved his players to a new location -- Dugdale Ball Park -- at the corner of Rainier Avenue and McClellan Street. In 1924, the Seattle "Indians" won its first Pacific Coast League pennant at Mount Baker's stadium. (Dugdale Park burned down on July 5, 1932.)
In 1938, Seattle brewer Emil Sick (1894-1964) completed his new stadium (Sicks' Stadium) at the old Dugdale Park, and re-named the team "Rainiers." The Rainier ball club reigned supreme for many years at Mount Baker's ball park, only interrupted occasionally by such things as a noisy Elvis Presley performance (September 1, 1957), a concert by Janis Joplin in 1970, and a nationally hyped heavyweight boxing match.
Running Rum: the Olmstead Case
On January 19, 1925, Mount Baker resident and Seattle police lieutenant Roy Olmstead was indicted for conspiring to violate the National Prohibition Act. His beautiful home on Ridgeway Place was raided and his wife Elsie was forced to shut down her children's radio program broadcast from the 21st floor of the Smith Tower. Rumors circulated that Elsie was in fact -- between "Bre'r Rabbit" and "Jackie Dumpling" stories -- sending coded signals to rumrunners in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Eminent defense attorney George F. Vanderveer (1875-1942), no stranger to Olmstead's "illegal" product, defended his client in what became a trial of national interest. Roy Olmstead was sentenced to McNeil Island, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted him a pardon in 1935. The details of this bizarre Mount Baker story are found in Emmett Watson's homespun book, Once Upon a Time in Seattle.
A Bridge and a Hydroplane
The opening of the first Lake Washington Floating Bridge on July 2, 1940, called Lacey V. Murrow after the State Highway Director who guided its construction, seemed to threaten the serenity and relative isolation of Mount Baker. The neighborhood adjusted, however, noting that the bridge served as a by-pass, not an inroad, to pastoral Mount Baker. Efforts to build a second lake bridge in the 1970s received a less complacent greeting by neighborhood residents.
Mount Baker's pristine greenery was also shattered in 1950 by unlimited hydroplane races on Lake Washington. The Mount Baker Beach and adjacent Colman Park became headquarters of the Stan Sayres competition. Sayres's hydroplane Slo-Mo-Shun IV began setting world records on Lake Washington to the delight of most Seattle but not all Mount Baker residents. Some were dismayed that the quiet neighborhood had become a summertime quasi-circus.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Mount Baker transformed itself, with some local rancor, into an open neighborhood. Many residents no longer looked upon the community as a citadel for the wealthy. Community Club edicts and traditional events were tailored to the new times, or they were ignored. For example, the venerable dance club was asked by the club board to open its events to all residents. The dance club declined, upon which the board denied the dance club use of the hall.
The clubhouse became an open forum in which neighborhood and city issues were discussed. Political candidates were welcomed; positions were taken in opposition to the Mount Baker "cut" (a proposal to virtually remove Mount Baker Ridge to accommodate a second Lake Washington bridge access); and in opposition to "red-lining" (banks and realtors redline when they designate residents of specific areas and neighborhoods as ineligible for home loans - it is a form of racial and economic discrimination).
Members of the community found themselves addressing the Seattle City Council. That neighborhood activism encouraged a number of Mount Baker residents to stand for local elective office, including Norm Rice (b. 1943), who became a city council member and, in 1989, Seattle's first African American mayor.
Dick Follis, www.mountbaker.org (Seattle: Internet, 2000); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Tacoma: The Washington State Historical Society, 1985); Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle's Parks (Seattle: Greenwood Publications, 1979); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past to Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); Emmett Watson, Once Upon a Time in Seattle (Seattle: Lesser Seattle Publishing, 1992); Paul Dorpat, Seattle: Now & Then, Vols I, II, III (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1984-1999); Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago-Seattle: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); Leslie Blanchard, The Streetcar Railway Era in Seattle (Forty Fort, PA, Harold Cox Publishing, 1968).
Note: This essay was corrected and revised on October 28, 2011.
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Monument in Mount Baker Park, Gift of Kohiro Matsukato, Kobe, Japan, October 2001
Photo by Priscilla Long
Map of Seattle nieghborhood Mount Baker
Aerial view of Colman Park in Mount Baker neighborhood, Seattle, 1960
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives
Lake Washington Boulevard near Mount Baker Beach, 1910s
Pagoda at Mount Baker Park, Seattle
Roy and Elise Olmstead, ca. 1925
Joseph Kraus House, Mount Baker neighborhood, Seattle, 2001
Photo by David Wilma
William H. Thompson House, Mount Baker neighborhood, Seattle, 2001
Photo by David Wilma
Sicks' stadium, Seattle, 1969
Elvis Presley at Sicks' Seattle Stadium, Seattle, 1957
Flyer for Janis Joplin concert at Sicks' Stadium, July 5, 1970