Duwamish Gardens, a park in the south King County city of Tukwila, was previously a farmstead and truck farm on the Duwamish River. The land was settled and farmed by the Thomas Ray (1852-1940) family beginning in the 1880s, and later bought by Joseph Carrossino (1891-1956) and other Italian immigrants who for decades ran the truck-farming business called Duwamish Gardens. The Rays had built a farmhouse, barn, and other outbuildings on the property. Carrossino and his partners added greenhouses and additional structures. In 2008 the City of Tukwila bought the property and worked with state and county agencies and local Indian tribes to turn it into a park, which opened in 2017. The farmhouse was one of the Tukwila area's last pre-1900 structures when it was torn down in 2015. The park has interpretive panels describing the land's history, its importance to Native people, and its ecosystem, and includes habitat for juvenile salmon. In an area now zoned for industrial use, bordered by a busy highway and an elevated light-rail line, the park preserves a relatively tranquil stretch of riverbank and a bit of the original farmstead's property.
Coast Salish people have lived along the Duwamish River for thousands of years. An estimated 300 Duwamish people lived in what is now the Tukwila area in the eighteenth century. Their cedar longhouses, typically at least 50 feet wide and 100 feet long, were clustered where the Black and White rivers (now the Green) came together to form the Duwamish. In addition to hunting and fishing, gathering greens and berries, and digging edible roots, the Coast Salish inhabitants took advantage of the river valley's rich soil and raised food in village gardens. Archeological discoveries at the site of the Ray-Carrossino farmstead (on present-day East Marginal Way S across from S 115th Street) indicate that people camped and cleaned and preserved fish there.
The first non-Native settlers arrived in present-day King County in June 1851. A party led by Luther Collins (1813-1860) moved north from Nisqually on southern Puget Sound and laid claim to land on the Duwamish River not far from Elliott Bay. They were experienced farmers who brought fruit-tree seedlings and cuttings with them and quickly planted potatoes. That winter they shared the potato crop with Seattle's founders, the Arthur Denny party, who had arrived at Alki Beach in November. King County was created the following year, while still part of Oregon Territory.
In 1853, Washington Territory was created and the Tukwila area got its first non-Native settler -- Joseph Foster (1828-1911), a pioneer from Ohio who staked a claim on the Duwamish at the confluence of the Black and lower Green rivers, an area the local Indians called Mox la Push. Foster's younger brother Stephen claimed land a bit farther downriver, at Foster Point.
Early pioneers cleared land of trees and grew crops such as cabbages, turnips, beets, and onions. Their land claims were big enough to also grow grains. They bought or brought with them dairy cows and other farm animals. Some of the pioneers, including the Foster brothers, took up logging and milling to meet the needs of the growing non-Native population. By 1880, the Duwamish district had 199 settlers, a number that jumped to 475 by 1885 and 906 by 1889, the year Washington gained statehood.
The Ray Family Homestead
Thomas K. Ray was a native of Iowa who arrived in Washington Territory in 1876. He settled in the Duwamish Valley and married Lucretia Julian (1862-1945) in the early 1880s. Accounts of how much land they claimed or leased vary. Ray started by clearing 10 acres on the north bank of the Duwamish River, where the family planted vegetables and fruit trees. The Rays later gained use of at least 400 adjacent acres, turning the property into a prosperous farmstead. They also operated a ferry across the river.
The Ray farmhouse was built late in the nineteenth century. Several sources including family descendants maintain that it was erected in 1882 and that all but the eldest of the family's six children were born there. However, according to a 1927 "property card" apparently used for tax-assessing purposes, the house was built in 1896, after all but the family's two youngest children were born. Historian Kay Reinartz (1939-2011) described the house's architectural details in her 1991 book Tukwila, Community at the Crossroads:
"It is a one-and-one-half story L-shaped house with an intersecting gable roof. There is a one-story hip roof addition in the rear (west) side. The roof line has a boxed cornice and plain frieze. Plain surrounds trim the window and door openings. Most of the windows are tall, narrow and double-hung, and come in pairs. On the front (east) façade is a 6-by-14-foot hip-roofed porch. Turned posts support the roof. The ornate brackets on the posts have been removed" (Reinartz, 154).
The house had five rooms downstairs and three more upstairs. With enough room on the main floor to host parties with live music and dancing, the house became a social magnet for the neighbors, especially as the older Ray girls reached their late teens.
"[T]he brightly lit house, with a collection of teams and wagons outside, resounded into the wee hours of morning with the strains of fiddle music, singing and merriment as parties, dances, weddings, and christenings were celebrated. Neighbors up and down the river put on their 'Sunday best' and paddled, walked or rode for an hour or more to join the fun" (Reinartz, 154).
One of the Rays' great-granddaughters, Carol Neal Bruce, repeated that description in a newspaper article she wrote in 2017, when the property became the Duwamish Gardens park. She added: "The Rays had a welcoming home atmosphere for all townsfolk and provided a community gathering place and much needed social levity in a period when life could be difficult" (Bruce).
Italian Immigrants and Truck Farming
By the 1880s, Seattle and Tacoma were growing rapidly, creating a demand for fruits and vegetables that made farming increasingly profitable in south King County. That demand was boosted by the Klondike Gold Rush that began in 1897, when Seattle was the primary outfitting and departure point for prospectors heading to Alaska and the Yukon, and got a further boost as the United States prepared for World War I. Coinciding with the surge in demand for farm products was a wave of immigrants, including Italians. Census figures show that the number of Italians in King County grew from 342 in 1890 to 797 in 1900 and 5,003 in 1910. They were needed in the fields. Original homesteads in the Tukwila area were too large for the owners to farm by themselves, so they often sold or leased land to immigrants, or hired immigrants to help cultivate and harvest crops and get produce to market. By the early twentieth century, Italians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos owned or tended nearly half the farms in King County.
Italians are of particular interest in this case because it was Italians who eventually worked on and acquired property from the Rays. In 1910 the United States Immigration Commission interviewed 36 male Italian immigrants in King and Pierce counties who were truck farming -- i.e. growing crops on small farms and trucking produce to market. Most were under the age of 30, had arrived in the United States unmarried and with little money, and had worked their way to Washington as railroad section hands. Ten of the 11 who were married at the time had Italian wives.
Truck farmers in general got a break in 1907 with the opening of Pike Place Market, which allowed them to avoid the cost of middlemen and to sell directly to customers. By 1910, an Italian farmer "with even modest acreage could sell about $5,000 worth of produce annually" (Cipalla).
"Truck farming was a tremendous opportunity for the Italian immigrants, and those fortunate few who engaged in it, large landholder and small, tried to maximize their position. Whole families worked sunrise to sunset, season after season. The smallest pieces of land were cultivated: lettuce and onion crowded their doorsteps" (Nicandri, 59).
Duwamish Gardens and the Carrossinos
The Ray family moved to a farm in Auburn in 1912, leaving the Duwamish River property to a group of Italian immigrant workers, presumably tenants at that point. Sometime between 1915 and 1924, Thomas Ray sold the farmstead to a partnership of Italian workers that included Joseph Carrossino. Whenever the property changed hands, it already was thriving as a truck farm -- literally: A 1917 ad in The Seattle Times listed "Duwamish Gardens" among local owners of GMC trucks. The Carrossino partners grew squash, zucchini, cauliflower, lettuces, radishes, peas, and corn on the land they called Duwamish Gardens, and sold their crops to the military and at Pike Place Market.
Joseph Carrossino and his wife Teresa (1895-1985), a native of Genoa, Italy, lived in the farmhouse after the Rays left. The Italian ownership group had seven partners and may have involved as many as 10 families. They ran the truck farming enterprise essentially as a co-op. They also hired other Italians to help with the work and boarded them in a bunkhouse built on the property in 1920. Teresa Carrossino was a key member of the group. She cooked for the partners and up to 15 hired hands three times a day.
Duwamish Gardens became the social heart and soul of the local Italian community. The Carrossinos built a bocce (Italian lawn bowling) court between the house and a cornfield that ran up to the riverbank, and invited co-workers and others to regular Sunday get-togethers that included potluck dinners with wine made on the premises and stored in barrels in the bunkhouse basement. As many as 25 to 30 visitors took part each week. The men played bocce or poker, and the women enjoyed each other's company as they sewed and tended to the meal. It was a welcome break from the demanding work week. "On Sundays we'd only work from 4 a.m. until noon," recalled Rinaldo Carrossino, Teresa and Joseph's son (Reinartz, 220). The afternoon socializing was a natural extension of the traditional patrone system, whereby more established immigrants helped newer arrivals acclimate while also helping all feel connected with their old-country roots.
In its early years, Duwamish Gardens grew and harvested its crops using horses and hand tillers. The partners later bought some Caterpillar brand tractors. And over the decades they added several structures to the property -- greenhouses heated by a boiler in a separate shed, plus assorted other storage and maintenance buildings. In 1946 the original siding on the house was covered with a composite material made to look like bricks, and a second house was built for Carrossino family members. About 20 years later the original farm got an enclosed porch and remodeled kitchen.
Times of Transition
Joseph Carosino died at age 62 in 1956. (Years earlier the family had changed the original spelling of the name.) Teresa and the remaining partners continued to run the operation and improve the property. They added a fuel station and truck-maintenance shop in 1975 and a boat-building shed in 1980, giving Duwamish Gardens about a dozen buildings plus a small dock.
One by one the original partners died, until only Teresa Carosino was left. She ran the farm's two remaining greenhouses by herself and became something of a community celebrity. She grew tomatoes, green beans, corn, and zucchini. Teresa was known as "the tomato plant lady," and her daughter-in-law Lorraine Carosino told a reporter that that her customers "never left without a glass of vino or a cup of coffee and a little cheese or sweets to go with it'' ("Teresa Carosino ...").
In its final two decades, Duwamish Gardens was a shrinking agricultural parcel in an area increasingly devoted to other land uses. Zoning and tax-code changes contributed to the closing of many farms and encouraged industrial and residential development. By the time of Teresa Carosino's death at age 89 in 1985 the old farmstead had shrunk from 29 acres to five. The encroachment reached a dramatic climax in 2002 as plans were finalized for construction of the Sound Transit light-rail line from Sea-Tac Airport through Tukwila to downtown Seattle. From the airport to Rainier Beach in South Seattle, the line was to be elevated, and the large concrete structure supporting the rails would run parallel to East Marginal Way South, looming over the remaining Carosino property, which still had the two houses -- both occupied by Carosino family members -- plus a handful of dilapidated outbuildings. A worn bocce scoreboard, a relic of livelier times, hung from a tree.
By August 2004 the former farmstead was down to about two acres, and the elevated light-rail line was under construction above its eastern edge, a stone's throw from the farmhouse's front door. The City of Tukwila was interested in saving that portion of the river bank and altering it to create enhanced salmon habitat. The city council authorized a search for funding, and on December 24, 2008, Tukwila bought the property from the Carosino family with help from several agencies and organizations involved in conservation and salmon recovery.
Since the farmhouse had historical significance as one of the lower Green-Duwamish Valley's last remaining nineteenth century structures, the city offered to pay any interested contractor to move it, but got no takers. On July 13, 2015, the Ray-Carrossino farmhouse was demolished. Wood from the massive barn was salvaged and given away.
Creating a Park
Tukwila marked completion of the Duwamish Gardens Project on May 13, 2017, with the official opening of a 2.18-acre park where the heart of the old farmstead had been. Interpretive panels were installed explaining the site's cultural significance, including its connections with Native people, the pioneering Ray family, and the Italian American truck farming community personified by the Carosinos. A key part of the park was an area carved out of the riverbank for the benefit of young salmon. A local newspaper quoted a news release from Mike Perfetti, the city's habitat project manager, explaining the importance of habitat restoration:
"Duwamish Gardens provides nearly an acre of shallow water habitat for salmon where they can feed on insects and invertebrates that live among the vegetation, and in the mud and beneath stones. ... The park gives Tukwila residents and visitors throughout the region a place to access and appreciate the hidden beauty and potential of this important urban river. People can launch a kayak, raft or canoe or walk the shoreline trail with outstanding views of the river and beautiful surrounding hills" ("Tukwila Celebrates ...").
At the time Duwamish Gardens opened, planning was underway for additional salmon-habitat restoration in a bigger, adjacent park to be built immediately to the west. Meanwhile, the Duwamish Gardens site offered a place of remembrance and a small stretch of calm under the light-rail line and just off the busy highway.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.